On December 8th 1794, the second of two great fires in New Orleans history occurred, starting on Royal Street in the French Quarter. This fire was not as damaging as the first great fire which took place in 1788, and burned down 80% of the city, but was still a major setback in rebuilding the city. In 3 short hours, 212 buildings were destroyed, leaving many people homeless.
The Spanish government offered the homeless citizens loans to rebuild, but there was a catch – in order to receive these loans, new construction had to follow certain guidelines required by the government which included newly developed fire codes. New building procedures included the use of nonflammable materials for any building over one story tall (as stone was not available, this led to widespread use of bricks and plaster, capped with tile roofs), and the buildings had to be attached to each other and bumped up against the sidewalk to create a firewall. It was at this point that wooden cottages surrounded by gardens were instead turned into much of what is seen in the French Quarter today.
There are a few buildings in town that were built before the fire codes were enacted. The oldest building in town (and the Mississippi River Delta for that matter) is the Ursuline Convent, built in 1752. This building is the second Ursuline Convent as the first one was constructed with wood and rapidly deteriorated due to the damp Louisiana climate. The current convent was built using bricks covered with stucco and was designed in the Louis XV style, a French variation of the more elaborate Italian Baroque. The simple façade contains many arched windows and the front door is surrounded by an arched portico. The building’s beauty lies in its simplicity, which reflects the nuns who lived and worked here.
The second oldest building is Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, located at 941 Bourbon Street. Main characteristics of this building include briquete-entre-poteaux construction (which means bricks were laid between upright and diagonal posts which can be seen peeking through holes in the stucco), and a steep pitched slate roof pierced with dormers. The bar’s website claims that the building was built between 1722-1732, but research done by Samuel Wilson Jr. for the Library of Congress HABS (Historic American Buildings Survey) project claims that perhaps the building was built by Pierre Revil in 1761.
The Gabriel Peyroux House is located at 901 Burgundy Street. This building had originally been built on Bayou Road before it was purchased in 1777 by Gabriel Peyroux. In 1780 Maurice Milon was commissioned by Peyroux to take the home apart and rebuild it in the city. This building has all the features of French Colonial architecture: brick between post construction, a hipped roof that overhangs to create shelter from rain or sun (also referred to as an abat vent), and many French doors.
Madame John’s Legacy is located at 632 Dumaine Street, and while sources conflict about the amount of damage the building sustained in the first fire, all agree that the second fire did not damage this structure so it does not adhere to the new fire code. The most glaring evidence of this is the use of exposed wood on the upper level, and the fact that it is detached from the adjacent houses. This house has a masonry raised basement which contains a stair well and supports the main living space that is made up of brick between posts covered with wooden clapboards. The roof is called a hipped double pitched roof because all four sides of the roof slope toward the ground – like a pyramid. There are no gables. It is double pitched because it has two levels of steepness to accommodate the gallery that protrudes from the front façade. The gallery is held up by cypress colonnettes and decorated with a plain wooden balustrade. All openings are arch shaped and the vertical board shutters have strap hinges. Curiously, the doors and windows on the main level are not symmetrical.
While the first fire in 1788 burned down many more buildings, it is the second fire that promoted the most substantial change in the French Quarter. In his book Fabulous New Orleans, Lyle Saxon described the new city that emerged after the fires:
The city that fell before the flames was a congested French community of wooden houses, badly arranged and irregular. A stately Spanish city rose in its stead […]. The City which rose from its ashes was of brick and plaster, with arches of heavy masonry and roofs of tile. There were barred windows and long, dark corridors. Large fan-shaped windows looked down into courtyards which held banana trees, oleanders, and parterres of flowers. Houses were built flush with the sidewalks; and balconies railed with delicate wrought iron, overhung the streets.