Touring Jackson Square New OrleansJune 9, 2011 No Comments
Jackson Square is the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter in Louisiana. Overlooking the Mississippi River, Jackson Square has been a free speech zone and hub of activity since the city’s earliest days. Today the Square is filled nearly 24 hours a day with a mix of tarot readers, visual artists, mimes, musicians, tourists and homeless young adults, all mingling and interacting in ways that are nearly unheard of in other cities.
While it would be easy to simply get caught up in the rhythms of life in the Square, try not to miss the Louisiana State Museums that ring the Square, as well as the St. Louis Cathedral. All are well worth a visit by tourists and locals alike.
Getting Your Bearings
An imposing building that faces the Chartres Street pedestrian plaza in Jackson Square, St. Louis Cathedral is hard to miss. The cathedral is flanked by two buildings that are only slightly less impressive–the Cabildo and the Presbytere. On the right as you face the cathedral, the Cabildo was the seat of Spanish government in New Orleans. The current structure was built after the Great Fire of 1788 destroyed the original. To the left of the cathedral, the Presbytere was built as a clergy residence, though it was never used for that purpose. It was built in 1791 to match the Cabildo, and the second floor completed in 1813. Both buildings were used for governmental purposes before becoming part of the Louisiana State Museum in 1911.
The massive red brick buildings along the St. Peter and St. Ann sides of Jackson Square are the Pontalba Buildings. Built as townhomes by Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba in the 1840s, the apartments upstairs are still in use today. The first floor is rented to a variety of restaurants and shops. One townhome on the St. Ann side is maintained as it would have been in 1850 and serves as the Louisiana State Museum’s 1850 House.
Combination tickets for the three Louisiana State Museum buildings are available at any of the three properties. As of 2011, combo tickets are $12 for adults and $9.60 for students, seniors and military members. Children under age 12 are free.
You might want to begin your Jackson Square tour at the Presbytere. “Living With Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” is a fantastic, though heartbreaking, look at life before, during and after the historic destruction of Hurricane Katrina. The exhibit uses a variety of artifacts and techniques to make the story accessible for people of all ages and interests. A timeline spells out the exact sequence of events, while authentic news footage from New Orleans covers the evacuation, the warnings and the subsequent landfall.
Sit in a small room with wind blowing as you watch actual rare footage of the storm’s fury. View Fats Domino’s piano, discovered in the remains of his 9th Ward home, and the axes used by residents to chop their way onto rooftops. Pick up a telephone to hear individual citizens tell their stories, or learn exactly what the markings left on homes by emergency workers actually meant. A film at the end wraps up the entire story but ends with a message of hope and inspiration.
St. Louis Cathedral
St. Louis Cathedral is open to the public during the day whenever there are no services, weddings or special events taking place. Built in 1850, the current cathedral is the third church building on the site. The first, a wooden structure finished in 1727, burned in the Great Fire of 1788. A new building was begun in 1789 and completed in 1794. It was to be enlarged for the growing community in 1849, but structural damage forced the demolition of virtually the entire building. Nonetheless, St. Louis Cathedral is distinguished as the oldest continuously operating Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States.
Pope Paul VI designated St. Louis Cathedral a minor basilica in 1964, and Pope John Paul II visited in 1987. The cathedral’s soaring ceilings and elegant stained glass make it a favorite for religious pilgrims and photographers alike. Donations are accepted but are not required.
Take a quick stroll down Pere Antoine Alley to the back of the cathedral, which faces Royal Street. The statue of Jesus was once flanked by two massive live oak trees. Hurricane Katrina took down the trees, snapping off the forefinger of one hand and the thumb of the other in the process. Although both pieces were discovered during subsequent cleanup, the archdiocese decided not to repair the statue yet. It is said that the Church will repair the statue once the city is made whole, i.e. fully recovered from the storm.
A prominent player in New Orleans politics from the late 1700s through the beginning of the 20th century, today the Cabildo houses an extensive collection of historic artifacts. Informational signs tell the story of the various peoples that have called New Orleans home, and explain some of the city’s more colorful traditions.
The exhibits are much lower-tech and less interactive than those in the Presbytere, relying mostly on written information. If your kids are small, you may want to scan the signage and sum things up for them, rather than expecting the museum to keep them engaged. There is a great deal to learn that can enhance your visit, so plan to spend at least an hour or so. If there is a history buff in your family, it is easy to get wrapped up for half a day.
Stop by the 1850 House, roughly midway down the Pontalba Building on the St. Ann side of Jackson Square. The self-guided tour takes less than an hour to complete, and provides an eye-opening look at the luxuries associated with “middle class” life in one of the most prosperous antebellum cities. Be sure to visit the slave quarters out back for a reminder that not everyone enjoyed that level of luxury. Both kids and adults seem to enjoy the artifacts, decorations and other details. Note that there is no elevator and the stairs are fairly steep.