French Quarter Flattery Revisited
Posted on May 16, 2014
Two years ago I posted “Sincerest Flattery in Tourist Lands,” highlighting a few notable examples of places outside New Orleans that mimic the famed French Quarter. Since that time I have discovered so many more such examples of the “sincerest form of flattery” that it’s worth revisiting the subject. Ranging from careful replication of what is sometimes called the “French Quarter Revival” style in resorts and theme parks to hackneyed adornments on otherwise ordinary apartment complexes, French Quarter-style architecture dots the American landscape. Of course what we call French Quarter-style architecture is in fact far from unique to the French Quarter. Many New Orleans structures outside the Vieux Carré also have original ironwork, and many more have added it. Many cities in the South (Mobile, Alabama, Galveston, Texas, and Savannah, Georgia, among them) and the Americas, including Tampico, Mexico, also have ironwork designs that owe to a shared Latin past. As geographer Richard Campanella has argued in Geographies of New Orleans, the “aesthetic appeal of the swirling patterns of iron lace” is easily exported far and wide.
The stereotypical iron-lace galleries that grace many buildings in the New Orleans French Quarter include both “genuine” 19th-century examples and many later imitators. As I explored in New Orleans on Parade: Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City, by the middle third of the 20th century, preservationist appreciation of the tout ensemble, or the assembled whole, of the Quarter was enshrined in local law. The Vieux Carré Commission–formed in 1925, chartered in 1936, and strengthened incrementally through court rulings thereafter–paid careful attention to the facades of buildings in the historic district. Although it protected against the demolition or careless alteration of many structures, it also privileged a certain look and was at times willing to approve new construction with evocative ironwork to replace actual “historic” buildings, especially for hotels.
Even the presumedly inauthentic can and often does become “historic.”
The first hotel to adopt what gradually came to be called French Quarter Revival styling was the Royal Orleans on St. Louis Street between Royal and Chartres streets. Originally the site of the historic St. Louis Hotel, which was so badly damaged by a 1915 hurricane that the owners opted to demolish it, faced no serious opposition because it seemed an improvement over the abandoned lumber yard along St. Louis. Constructed in 1959-60, it reflected the investment of the New Orleans philanthropists Edgar and Edith Rosenwald Stern and leg work of budding hotel developer Lester Kabacoff. Although it attracted no hostility, the wave of additional hotels its success unleashed made the Royal Orleans a point of departure for preservationists.
Soon they had to contend with plans in 1963 for the Bourbon Orleans Hotel that was to replace the St. Mary’s Convent, with its historic Orleans Ballroom, the site of controversial “quadroon balls” a century before. In 1965 a building constructed on the “uptown-riverside” corner of Chartres and Barracks in the early 20th century as a macaroni factory in what was sometimes called “Little Palermo” was remodeled as Le Richelieu Hotel in the French Quarter Revival style. That same year, the Downtowner Hotel opened at 517-541 Bourbon Street where the old French Opera House had burned down in 1919. In 1968-69, yet another major new hotel, the Royal Sonesta, replaced the old American Brewing Company plant on half of one city square along Bourbon Street between Bienville and Conti streets. Although no one appeared eager to rescue a shuttered brewery that increasingly seemed anomalous in a fantasy of frilly 19th-century townhouses, by the late 1960s preservationists locked in battle with developers over what kind of French Quarter residents and tourists would have to visit in the future. They succeeded in getting the city to adopt a moratorium on new hotel construction in the French Quarter in 1969, but conversions of existing buildings into guest quarters would become the next problem–one that was far more difficult to curb. The last hotel projects grandfathered in at the time of the moratorium opened in the early 1970s. Chateau Le Moyne Hotel opened at 301-311 Dauphine Street in 1971, and the Maison Dupuy Hotel at 613-615 Burgundy Street opened in 1972. Of course, the ban did not apply outside the district. What is now called the French Quarter Suites Hotel opened in 1970 across North Rampart Street in Faubourg Tremé.
Just as French Quarter Revival hotels embellished a neighborhood that was morphing into a caricature of itself, French Quarter replicas outside New Orleans became a hook for enticing tourists. In 1948 the Illinois Central Railroad, which operated passenger service between Chicago and New Orleans, created a small French Quarter replica exhibit at the Chicago Rail Fair. The exhibit touted the southern terminus for the railroad’s Panama Limited trains to its largest market for passengers. Twenty years later, the German-American Volksfest, sponsored by the U.S. Army in West Berlin, featured a French Quarter model along with a Mississippi riverboat and jazz music performed by the Olympia Brass Band to entertain American servicemen.
Beyond luring tourists to the place itself, Vieux Carré models also became draws calculated to bring visitors to entirely different attractions. Long an admirer of New Orleans, Walt Disney opened New Orleans Square, a scaled-down sampling of a French Quarter streetscape, in Disneyland in 1966. One New Orleans journalist, fearing the prettification of the Quarter to attract more tourists, lamented that apparently some New Orleans leaders had visited Disney’s French Quarter and concluded they liked it better than the real thing. Ironically, almost a half-century later, Disney’s own attempts to alter the Court des Anges in New Orleans Square have elicited at least some pushback, demonstrating the fuzziness of any boundary between the authentic and inauthentic. Even the presumedly inauthentic can and often does become “historic.”
In later years, the Walt Disney Company renewed its longtime affinity for French Quarter theming, extending the concept to its central Florida park. In 1991 it opened Disney’s Port Orleans Resort, including a French Quarter “region” replete with more life-sized Vieux Carré-style buildings and even replicas of the Quarter’s traditional street lamps like those that had been added in the 1920s as embellishments in the real French Quarter.
Disney held no monopoly on making New Orleans part of a theme park environment. At the Opryland Hotel, a French Quarter under glass emerged alongside other themed attractions beneath its giant atrium. Nor did the French Quarter mimicry confine itself to tourist destinations. Unsurprisingly, as New Orleans’s French Quarter grew in popularity after World War II, it became the model for countless more modest imitations. Dozens of apartment complexes in the 1960s and 1970s adopted a loose approximation of French Quarter architectural motifs, including examples in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Miami, Florida, among many others. In the upscale Buckhead neighborhood in Atlanta, the French Quarter Apartments included an imitation of the Quarter’s lampposts and street signs. In Houston, Texas, a city that New Orleanians either envied or scorned, one could also find glimpses of New Orleans. Brennan’s, which emerged after World War II as a leading French Quarter restaurant, opened its second location in downtown Houston in the early 1980s amid a small cluster of Vieux Carré-influence office buildings. More recently, a larger mixed-use development nearby, called Calais, has appeared. The Fairhope French Quarter, a similarly ambitious re-creation, opened in Fairhope, Alabama, a small town on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, in 1994. Although nearby Mobile shares with New Orleans a French and Spanish past that left it with longstanding examples of buildings that might seem right at home in the French Quarter, it seems likely that New Orleans was the bigger inspiration for the Fairhope imitation. Perhaps the most bizarre reincarnation of New Orleans’s famed attraction is the perennial French Quarter pop-up village that has been constructed and occupied in the ephemeral “Black Rock City” in northern Nevada for 17 days each August since 2011.
Just one year after Hurricane Katrina, when the city’s fate remained unclear, River Ranch, a 300-acre, master-planned, mixed-use development in Lafayette, drew the attention of the New York Times, which reported that some displaced New Orleanians were sinking new roots in the ersatz development and that in New Orleans the development spurred debate over whether ersatz architecture should have a place in the Crescent City’s post-Katrina recovery. The reach of French Quarter Revival architecture shows no sign of fading in popularity some fifty years after it became a noted cultural export.
For Further Reading
Historic New Orleans Collection, The Collins C. Diboll Vieux Carré Digital Survey, http://www.hnoc.org/vcs/.
Susan Saulny, “Replica of New Orleans: A Study in Urban Cloning,” New York Times, July 16, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/16/us/16replica.html.
____, “The Disneyfication of New Orleans: The French Quarter as Facade in a Divided City,” Journal of American History, 94 (December 2007), http://www.journalofamericanhistory.org/projects/katrina/Souther.html.