If these walls could talk… I don’t usually walk around personifying historic buildings and wishing they could talk to me. But every now and then I think how cool it would be if buildings could speak about the events they have witnessed. Crazy, no? Certainly a good historian knows how to bring out the clues from a historic building and essentially get it to speak. But it takes hard work.
I had a history geek moment on a recent visit to New Orleans. I was standing in the long elegant corridor on the second floor of the Cabildo, the sun streaming in through the wall of windows. Overhead hung a line of flags representing nine or ten political entities (depending how you count them) that have governed the land I was standing on. I looked out onto Jackson Square, the heart of the French Quarter. Two hundred years ago in 1815 crowds would have been rejoicing over Andrew Jackson’s defeat of the British army at the Battle of New Orleans nearby. Two hundred twelve years ago, in 1803, the crowds most likely had mixed emotions as the American flag was raised for the first time with the transfer of the French-owned, Spanish-administered territory in the historic land deal called the Louisiana Purchase.
One can argue that the Cabildo (town hall in Spanish colonial America) is one of the most historic buildings in the United States. Built between 1795 and 1799 to replace an earlier structure, the Cabildo now houses part of the Louisiana State Museum. Over time various notables including General Andrew Jackson no doubt, the Marquis de Lafayette and five American presidents have passed through the building. After the Civil War the main hall, the Sala Capitular (meeting room) housed the Louisiana Supreme Court and became the site of several landmark court cases, including “separate but equal” Plessy vs. Ferguson.
Extensively damaged by fire in 1988, the building was restored and reopened six years later. Then along came Hurricane Katrina. The sturdy building withstood the storm and served as one of the headquarters for police efforts in the city in the aftermath.
Today street performers camp outside its doors, entertaining crowds with all styles of jazz, the rhythmic melodies just audible through the Cabildo’s thick walls. The exhibitions inside tell the stories of many cultures that have combined to create the rich gumbo that is New Orleans today. There is really no other city in the United States quite like it.