The French Quarter of New Orleans is known far and wide as a party place. But even in the loudest places, you sometimes find a little oasis of beauty and art. That’s how it was on my recent trip to the Big Easy. Strolling along Bourbon Street one evening, past the music bars and restaurants and souvenir shops, I looked up to see a beautiful light box, beaming out from a prominent corner.
With its arched windows, Spanish-style balconies and fancy lattice work, the building looks like the former home of some fabulously rich trader. But in reality, it’s a major hotel — Four Points by Sheraton, to be exact. Still, lit up on a February evening, with people looking over the railings onto the scene below, it was a vision of old New Orleans. And the spot on which it stands does in fact hold a significant place in the city’s history.
This corner, where Bourbon Street meets Toulouse, was the site of the French Opera House, the very centre of New Orleans culture and society back in the 1800s. And like most places in this city, it has a colourful past.
Opened in 1859, the opera house was a sensation in the growing city. That is, until 1862, when the occupying Union Army closed it down until the end of the Civil War. The house didn’t stay completely dark, though: in 1864, the wife of Union General Nathaniel P. Banks held a ball in the theatre to celebrate the birthday of George Washington (the event is depicted in the drawing below).
The opera house reopened after the war, and resumed its role as the city’s social hub. The first opera of the year was the opening of New Orleans’ social season, and the city’s oldest and most prominent families were expected to own seats in the private boxes, called “loges grilles“.
Sadly, the old opera house was destroyed by fire in 1919. But if you look at the detail above right, you’ll see that a subtle hint of the old theatre still remains. And few would argue with the building that replaced it — especially on a night when it becomes a living light box, full of history and that old New Orleans charm.
Photo taken with the Fujifilm X-A3 mirrorless camera
Illustration by C. E. H. Bonwill [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons