The Lower Pontalba Apartments is the subject of this issue’s limited edition print of a sketch by Ladd P. Ehlinger. This building and its twin flank Jackson Square in the heart of the Vieux Carre (French Quarter) in New Orleans. The Pontalba Buildings are named Upper and Lower with respect to the flow of the Mississippi that they frame along with the square. These buildings have an ambiance very similar to that of Place des Vosges in Paris (See E&A Newsletter 3rd Qtr. 2001), and the Palais Royale, and the apartment of the main square in Madrid. The Pontalba Buildings frame the Cathedral and Jackson Square.
They were originally row houses over shops below with a common facade of red brick with light colored stone accents, and occupy the entire block from the St. Louis Cathedral, Cabildo & Presbytere to the river. They have porticos of cast iron, the delicately designed details of which were done by the Baroness de Pontalba herself. These galleries began the vogue of cast iron galleries in New Orleans. The style is an agglomeration of Greek Revival, Renaissance, and Micaela’s taste.
The design of the Pontalba Buildings is credited to James Gallier, Sr., whose preliminary drawings were actually attached to the build- ing con- tract with Builder Samuel Stewart. But the Ba- roness de Pontalba fired him, and then hired Henry Howard, who execu- ted the final plans and took credit for the de- sign in his autobiographical sketch, yet he too was fired by the Baroness, who seems to have modified what Gallier and Howard did to her own preferences and aesthetics. She was a very strong willed woman who put on men’s pantaloons to climb the ladders and scaffolds of the construction during the period 1849-1851.
Micaela Leonarda Antonia Almonester, Baroness de Pontalba, was born November 6, 1795 in New Orleans and died April 20, 1874 in Paris. She was the only surviving child of her Spanish father, Andres Almonester y Rojas, and when he died in 1798, inherited a considerable fortune as the sole heir. Andres Almonester was a city Councilman and very astute businessman who acquired the properties flanking the Place d’Arms main square in front of the cathedral, later renamed by the Baroness as Jackson Square. Micaela was only 2-1/2 years old when he died, so her mother controlled the estate until she was married to her French cousin, Xavier Célestin Delfau de Pontalba, at age 15. Micaela was then whisked off to France.
Micaela’s husband was a weak, effeminate man, yet she bore him five children, three of whom survived into adulthood. Her father-in-law, the Baron de Pontalba continuously schemed to divest Micaela of her fortune because he felt the agreed upon dowry was too small. She resisted his avariciousness strenuously over many years. She made numerous attempts to obtain a legal separation (a type of divorce) to no avail, as French law had a “Master and Head of Household” status for the husbands at the time, to the detriment of the wives as the husbands made all decisions with no wifely input, even on the wife’s separate property..
Life became so acrimonious for Micaela, especially with her father-in-law, the Baron, that in a fit of rage over her refusal to turn over her fortune to him on October 19, 1834, using a pair of dueling pistols he shot her four times in the chest at point blank range, with one of the shots also passing through her upraised hand. Her hand was permanently damaged and scarred. Later that day, the Baron turned his pistols on himself and succeeded in committing suicide. Micaela survived this attack with a mutilated left breast and two fingers of her left hand. She subsequently obtained her legal separation, and the title Baroness.
She then commissioned the noted French architect, Louis Visconti, to design her a mansion on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris which she used to entertain lavishly, hosting many parties and balls. This mansion is known today as the Hôtel de Pontalba and serves as the official residence of the U.S. Ambassador to France.
In 1848, Micaela and two of her sons departed Paris for New Orleans because of the outbreak of the revolution. She immersed herself in her native city that she hadn’t seen in years, and observed that many of her properties had deteriorated to the point of disrepair, especially those fronting on Place d’Arms. She demolished them, and began the row house project. She negotiated with the city and obtained a twenty year tax break, permission to build the galleries over the sidewalks, and converted Place d’Arms from a military parade ground to a beautiful garden, enclosed by a cast iron fence. She supervised the construction from horseback. The rest is history. Shortly after their completion, she entertained singer Jenny Lind in her row house there, and in 1851, left for Paris with her two sons, never to return.
The Pontalba heirs in Paris let the property deteriorate, and sold the buildings to the state and the city in the 1930s. The row houses were then converted into apartments, the entire buildings renovated, and rented to the public.
Micaela is the subject of Thea Musgraves opera, Pontalba, a Louisiana Legacy which is based upon Dr. Christina Vella’s biography, Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of the Baroness Pontalba. There have been many novels written about this extraordinary woman who persevered and endured when others would have failed.
Ladd P Ehlinger AIA