Cabildo means “Town Council” in Spanish. This building is where the municipal council met, and served as the seat of the Spanish colonial government during that period in New Orleans. The original Cabildo burned in the great fire of 1788, and this building was built to replace that one in 1795-99. The architect was Gilberto Guillemard, who designed the building in Spanish Colonial style. Spanish Colonial buildings in San Juan, Havana, and Mexico were all built in this same style.
The Cabildo fronts on Jackson Square, originally the Place d’Arms or Plaza de Armas, which was renamed after the War of 1812 in honor of Andrew Jackson. It is situated to the left of the St. Louis Cathedral, and its twin, the Presbytere, sits to the right of the cathedral.
The documents for the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 were signed here in the Sala Capitular, the main meeting room of this building when America purchased 820,00 square miles from Napoleon Bonaparte of France for $15 million. France had reacquired Louisiana three years previously in the secret treaty of San Ildefonso from the Spanish because of Napoleon’s control of Spain, and he promptly sold it to Thomas Jeff- erson of Amer- ica to raise money for more wars.
The building continued to be used by the New Orleans mun- icipal govern- ment. In 1848, the Man- sard roof was added for more space with apparently no concern about mixing a French style with a Spanish style. In 1853, the council moved to the just constructed Gallier Hall, fronting on Lafayette Square, upriver and on the other side of Canal Street. The Cabildo then housed the State Supreme Court from 1868 to 1910, and since 1911 has been the home of the Louisiana State Museum, along with the Presbytere. Originally called the Casa Curial (Ecclesiastical House), the building derives its name from the fact that it was built on the site of the residence, or presbytere, of the Capuchin monks. As with the Cabildo and the Cathedral, construction was financed by Spanish philanthropist and nobleman Don Andres Almonester y Roxas.
The Cabildo displays and exhibits artifacts and the history of Louisiana from inception up through Reconstruction. There is an emphasis on commerce, agriculture, and all of the ethnic groups that participated in the settlement and growth of Louisiana.
The exhibits trace the history of the state fron the Native Americans during the French settlement of the 1700s up until after the Civil War. It covers the founding of New Orleans, and chronicles the Colonial rule of both France and Spain, leading into American rule.
The building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960. The building was extensively damaged by fire on May 11, 1988, when a careless sheet metal worker was soldering a gutter. The entire Cupola and third floor were destroyed. The restoration was completed in 1994 and the building was reopened to the public.