An Inspiring Woman: Micaela Almonester de Pontalba in New Orleans
I was window shopping in New Orleans near the St. Louis Cathedral, inhaling the well-loved aroma of the Café du Monde beignets and chicory coffee. Moving along the promenade beside Jackson Square – a restaurant, a clothing store, a jewelry shop, souvenirs, books in a window display. Wait, books? Naturally, I opened the tall, heavy door and stepped into a fascinating history when I entered The 1850’s House on St. Ann Street.
Strong women always intrigue me. Micaela Almonester de Pontalba was strong, intriguing, entrepreneurial, and a champion who steered the course of the present-day Jackson Square, the soul of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Jackson Square (Place d’Armes) is a three-acre public green area with iron fences, wide walkways, park benches, and manicured shrubbery. This location, with immediate access to the Mississippi River, seems to have always been a public area for military regiment gatherings, worship buildings, and government structures. Today’s picture-perfect beauty is a drastic contrast to unsanitary stagnant water conditions, rodent and mosquito infestations, and pillory (used for public shaming) of the early 1800s.
Micaela’s father, Andres Almonester y Rojas, was a Spanish civil servant assigned to the New Orleans territory. His charitable activities included donations to local church projects, a public school, medical facilities, and a chapel for the Ursuline nuns. Due in part to his influence, the St. Louis Cathedral, the Presbytere, and the Cabildo were placed in a row facing the Mississippi River port and overlooking the public square. Almonester also acquired land to the right and left of the town square, which had shacks, row houses, and barracks instead of the balconied brick apartments that you see today. Micaela Almonester, a New Orleans native, was only two years old when her father died in 1798. She was a wealthy heiress at the age of two.
Thirteen years later, at the age of 15, Micaela married Xavier Celestin Delfau de Pontalba and moved to France. The arranged marriage was tumultuous, and she endured years of drama at the hands of her father-in-law. The financial aspects of the marriage contract were debated for years in brutal court cases. After more than 20 years of such turmoil, Pontalba shot Micaela at point blank range four times in her chest, one bullet crushing her hand as she tried to defend herself. She survived the attack, but with such damage to her lungs that even mild exertion required great effort.
Strong women always intrigue me. Micaela Almonester de Pontalba was strong, intriguing, entrepreneurial, and a champion who steered the course of the present-day Jackson Square, the soul of New Orleans’ French Quarter.
After her recovery, Micaela (by this time the Baroness de Pontalba) returned to her beloved New Orleans in 1848. She surveyed her inherited rental property in the French Quarter, and changed the face of New Orleans. With the Place d’Armes in mucky squalor, the single family rental properties nearby were shabby. Tenants were unreliable about rent payments to their absent landlord. Baroness de Pontalba was a visionary real estate developer and launched a major construction project for three-story brick row houses. She lobbied the local government for incremental beautifications to Jackson Square. Her crusade was guided by the style of Paris’ Place des Vosges, each success adding value to her properties nearby. The muddy public square became a landscaped garden. Formal walkways appeared along with appropriate landscaping and seating areas. The statue of General Andrew Jackson was placed prominently in the park, and a wrought iron fence was constructed.
The 1850s House at 523 St. Ann Street in New Orleans is a fascinating “behind the scenes” look into the upper-class lifestyle of the era. The ground floor gift shop is similar to commercial enterprises of the 1800s. Through a back hallway behind the gift shop, I entered a foyer adjacent to the lush green courtyard and ascended to the second floor. This level is the primary living area. It is easy to imagine a hearty meal with porcelain china at a lavishly decorated dining room, piano waltz music wafting in the background, open windows overlooking Place d’Armes, and scenic views of the Mississippi River.
In a time when renters had low expectations of landlords, these new row houses were revolutionary. The Baroness de Pontalba equipped each home with gas pipelines. Water hydrants in the private courtyards connected to city water pipes and garment closets were built near bedrooms. Tenants were encouraged to choose their preferences for finishing elements – wallpaper design, hanging light fixtures, and bell cords. The servant’s quarters were located in the rear of each home, with the kitchen on the same level as the dining rooms.
Jackson Square’s lush green manicured gardens are still surrounded by the Pontalba Apartment buildings, the prominent St. Louis Cathedral, the Presbytere, and the Cabildo. The 16 row houses are now 50 individual apartments. The ground level is mostly commercial businesses. Artists and street vendors promote their wares in the promenade, and Cafe du Monde is only a few steps away. I entered this museum to browse the books but found a new heroine in Micaela’s story. I bought a biography authored by Christina Vella, called Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of Baroness de Pontalba. The book provides more insight into the history of New Orleans, the lives of the Amonester and Pontalba families, and how they shaped Jackson Square. The 1850s House Museum is a time capsule of the past and a reminder that so much is unchanged.