• Dante Mazza

Jackson Square

Updated: Jul 20, 2021


Jackson Square, New Orleans in August 2014

Look up "New Orleans" on any travel website or in any guidebook and you will likely find a picture just like the one above. The picture-perfect postcard view shown here is of Jackson Square, a grand public space that has served as the social and political center of the Big Easy for centuries. This National Historic Landmark is significant for its role in the westward expansion of the United States.

Over the years, several flags have flown above Jackson Square as New Orleans and Louisiana repeatedly changed hands between colonizing nations.

The French

New Orleans is one of America's most historically and culturally rich cities, founded in 1718 by group of French settlers under the direction of Jean-Baptitse Le Moyne. The first neighborhood to be developed was the Vieux Carre (French for "Old Square") a National Historic Landmark District known today as the French Quarter.

Designed by French planner Adrien de Pauger, the French Quarter sits just to the northeast of the city's Central Business District and is one of the nation's most popular tourist attractions. Jackson Square is the heart of the French Quarter, with the Mississippi River on its south side and three of the city's most important buildings, the Cathedral of Saint Louis, the Cabildo, and the Presbytere, on its north.

Pauger designed Jackson Square as the "Place d'Armes"(French for "Weapons' Square"), a parade ground for troops stationed in the city and an area for weapons storage. As the front yard of both the Cathedral and City Hall (Cabildo), the Place d'Armes was the political center of New Orleans as well. Government decrees were announced in the square and the French Flag flew proudly above it, marking that nation's claim to the territory.

The Spanish

Plaque commemorating Spanish control of New Orleans

As New Orleans continued to develop throughout the 1700s, the world around it changed. Beginning in 1753, Britain, France, and their allies engaged in the Seven Years War, known to American colonists along the eastern seaboard as the French and Indian War. Britain crushed France in the war, forcing it to give up nearly all of its territorial possessions in North America.

New Orleans was one of those territories, and in 1762 it was transferred to Spain as part of a treaty ending the hostilities. The name Place d'Armes was accordingly changed to Plaza de Armas, and the Spanish flag flew over Jackson Square for forty years.

The sudden transfer of Louisiana from one European power to another did not sit well with the French settlers there. The new Spanish Governor did not even arrive until 1766, and when he did he showed little interest in governing the colony, choosing to live in another town further down the river and spending most of his time on Spanish ships. He did, however, take the time to restrict shipping on the Mississippi River and crack down on smuggling in the territory.

The French residents of New Orleans felt disrespected and decided to get rid of the governor. In what is now remembered as the Louisiana Rebellion of 1768, a local group of prominent citizens and wealthy merchants got a militia together, easily outnumbering the tiny group of Spanish soldiers who had arrived with the Governor, and forced him to leave New Orleans.

With the Spanish Governor gone, the rebels hoped to rejoin France, but King Louis XV refused to allow them to. Meanwhile, Spain decided to answer the rebellion with swift and decisive action. The Spanish government sent General Alejandro O'Reilly, originally of Ireland, with a force of 2,000 men and 12 ships to retake Louisiana in the summer of 1769. O'Reilly did so bloodlessly, marching his troops straight through the Plaza. Five of the rebels were later tried and executed while many others were sent to prison.

The Spanish flag once again flew over the Plaza, and Spain held firm control over the territory until 1802.

The French Return

While Spain held Louisiana for the rest of the 1700s, the situation in Europe and the world changed yet again. The American Revolutionary War made the 13 British colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America an independent nation, but the fight for their freedom did not only take place therein. The war spread globally, becoming a power struggle between Great Britain, its hired German mercenaries, and its colonies, and France, Spain, and their colonies. France and Spain, two Catholic nations, were perennial allies in wars against the Protestant British.

Inspired by the American Revolution, the French Revolution of 1789-1799 completely upended the political and social order in that nation, transforming it forever and placing Napoleon in power. Britain and several other European monarchies were quite unhappy with the way the French Revolution had turned out, and waged war on Napoleon to contain his expanding empire and restore the monarchy to France. This group of monarchies was known as the Second Coalition and was missing one key player in the region: Spain.

Spain had chosen to stand by its old ally France, despite the changes wrought by the Revolution, and the two nations signed a series of treaties solidifying their renewed friendship. One provision of one of these treaties specified that Spain would return the Louisiana Territory, and its capital New Orleans, to France.

On October 15, 1802, King Charles IV of Spain announced in Barcelona that Louisiana had been granted back to France. News traveled slowly across the Atlantic in those days, and France was apparently in no hurry to reclaim its practical control over Louisiana, so a French prefect did not arrive in New Orleans until over a year later, in November of 1803.

On November 30, 1803, a crowd gathered in the Plaza de Armas, drenched in the pouring rain, to hear the announcement from the Cabildo balcony that Louisiana was once again French.

Though the French flag was back flying over Jackson Square, its return would prove to be short-lived. While the newly French citizens of New Orleans had been waiting for their government to formally recognize their city as its territory, that government's leader had made a deal with those citizens' neighbor to the east: the United States.

The Louisiana Purchase

Hoisting American Colors, Louisiana Cession, 1803 by Thure de Thulstrup, 1903 commission for the St. Louis World's Fair. This painting is now on display at the Cabildo

Those in the United States had been watching the developments in Louisiana closely. As the major port at the mouth of the Mississippi River, New Orleans occupied a key strategic position. Whoever controlled the city controlled the river, a major water route American farmers were becoming more and more dependent on to ship their crops to markets worldwide.

Recognizing that New Orleans falling into the wrong hands could be disastrous for American interests, President Thomas Jefferson dispatched Robert Livingston and James Monroe to Paris to negotiate the purchase of the city.

Napoleon, however, was focused on fighting the British in Europe, had little interest in developing a North American colony, and badly needed funds to continue his military campaigns. His representatives stunned Livingston and Monroe by offering to sell them the whole of the Louisiana Territory, nearly a million square miles, for just $15 million, a rate of less than 3 cents per acre.

The Americans enthusiastically accepted the offer. President Jefferson was also shocked by the opportunity, and questioned the constitutionality of the purchase at first, before concluding it counted as a treaty, which the Constitution gave him the authority to negotiate with the advice and consent of the Senate. A vote of 24-7 in that chamber on October 20, 1803, made the deal official.

The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States, welcoming into its territory not just the Mississippi and New Orleans, but also a vast stretch of land including all or parts of 15 modern states and some of the Rocky Mountains. The new territory allowed the young nation to expand and control its own destiny without fear of foreign encroachment. The frontier that would become so vital to its national identity had been opened.

On December 20, 1803, the French flag was hauled down the pole in Jackson Square for the final time. The American Stars and Stripes replaced it, and have flown high there ever since. The Place d'Armes became known as the Public Square, and New Orleans became part of the United States of America.

Jackson Square and the Statue

The Equestrian Statue of Andrew Jackson at the center of the square, with the St. Louis Cathedral in the background

The new territory gave the United States a much stronger position on the world stage, but the nations of Europe still had trouble recognizing the young country as one equivalent to their own.

Ten years after Jefferson purchased Louisiana from the French, the Americans were back at war with the British in the War of 1812. Though that conflict did little to change the status quo and did not affect either nation much territoriality, there were many significant battles that inflicted heavy losses on both sides. One of these was the Battle of New Orleans.

The battle was not actually fought in the streets of New Orleans, but in the swamps and on the plantations south of the city. American forces lead by Major General Andrew Jackson decimated a much larger British force in several engagements over the span of about a month, culminating with a major battle on January 8, 1814, which resulted in the death of Major General Sir Edward Pakenham, who was leading the British troops.

Though neither side knew it at the time, the war had been officially ended weeks before by the Treaty of Ghent and the fighting was unnecessary.

Jackon's major victory made him a national celebrity. The battle inspired the fiddle tune "The Eighth of January", which in turn later formed the basis of the 1959 Johnny Horton hit "The Battle of New Orleans", the most popular song of that year and winner of the second-ever Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 1960.

Jackson nearly rode his newfound stardom all the way to the White House in 1824, when he won the popular vote for President but failed to get a majority in the Electoral College. He tried again in 1828 and was successful, serving two full terms as one of the nation's most beloved (during his time in office) Presidents.

After Jackson's death in 1845, several of his most prominent supporters wanted a monument erected to him in Washington, D.C. Among these was President James K Polk, who was also from Jackson's home state of Tennessee and had Jackson's blessing to receive the Democratic nomination for the Presidency in 1844.

The United States at the time was still developing its artistic tradition and had no equestrian statues like the ones which had been gracing major European cities since the days of Ancient Rome. Americans were eager to honor the heroes of their own young nation in a similar manner.

For the Jackson statue, that task fell to Clark Mills, a self-taught sculptor from Charleston, South Carolina who had never even seen Andrew Jackson or an equestrian statue when he began work. Mills set up shop on the Ellipse behind the White House for 5 years, studying the anatomy of horses and borrowing Jackson's military uniform from the US Patent Office for research. He made plaster models of the statue and even practiced his bronze casting skills by making bells. Finally, on January 8, 1853, the statue of Jackson was unveiled in Lafayette Park, just in front of the White House.

City fathers in New Orleans, where Jackson had burst onto the national stage, decided that they too wanted a statue to honor the man who had saved their city. With a combination of funds from wealthy donors, public subscription, and the State Legislature, New Orleans commissioned Mills to create a copy of his work for them.

The statue arrived in 1856 when with great fanfare it was erected in the center of the newly renamed Jackson Square. A large parade to the site included dockworkers, artisans, marching bands, and soldiers, some of whom had served with Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. One man specially honored at the ceremony reportedly had raised the American flag over the square after news of the Louisiana Purchase was announced. The installation of the Jackson statue marked, symbolically, the moment the United States truly took control of New Orleans. The main square which had gone by so many names would now honor one of the nation's biggest heroes, the one who had fought for and successfully defended its new territory.

During the Civil War, in which Louisiana seceded from the Union, New Orleans was occupied by Union troops who, like Jefferson decades before, did not want an enemy power in control of the Mississippi River. While General Benjamin Butler and his troops occupied the city in 1862, he ordered a stonemason to carve one of Jackson's most famous quotes into the base of the statue as a mark of the Union's superiority. The inscription remains today, as shown below:

"THE UNION MUST AND SHALL BE PRESERVED"

There are four copies of the Jackson equestrian statue in the United States. There is one in Jackson Square, the original in Lafayette Square in Washington, one at the Tennessee State Capitol Building in Nashville, the adopted hometown of Jackson, and one in downtown Jacksonville, Florida, which was named for the General in honor of his role in conquering Florida for the United States.

The Jackson Statue in New Orleans

National Historic Landmark

The Jackson Square National Historic Landmark Plaque

The Jackson Square National Historic Landmark Plaque

Jackson Square was one of the very first National Historic Landmarks, designated in a press release by Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton announcing the creation of the new program on October 9, 1960, during the Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The National Historic Landmarks Program began as a supplement to the early historic preservation efforts of the National Parks Service. While several National Historical Parks, Monuments, and Memorials preserve important historic places, the federal government could not practically add every place of historic significance to the National Parks System, so it launched the National Historic Landmarks Program to ensure the important historic sites it could not directly control would be recognized and protected.

To identify these places, the Service embarked on several theme studies. Topics included English, French, and Spanish Exploration and Settlement, Development of the English Colonies, and Advancement of the Frontier. Jackson Square was designated under this final category, and was included in the list of new Landmarks featured in the program's initial announcement. Only 92 of the now more than 2,500 National Historic Landmarks can claim this unique distinction.

You can find the full text of the press release announcing the program and the full list of the first Landmarks beginning on page 14 of the Jackson Square NHL Nomination documentation, which is available for download via the link at the bottom of this page.

From the beginning of the program, it was understood that National Historic Landmarks would be marked with a plaque like the one above. Many of them still are. The date of 1963 on the plaque above reflects the time it took from the initial announcement of the program in October 1960 to cast and distribute plaques to all the new landmarks.

The plaque was installed during a special ceremony celebrating the 160th anniversary of the transfer of Louisiana from France to the United States on December 20th, 1963.

Interstate Highway Project

Despite its early recognition as one of America's most historic places, Jackson Square faced threats from development during the post-WWII boom years, when the nation was rapidly expanding through suburban sprawl and urban renewal projects.

In 1965, the Louisiana State Highway Department announced plans for an elevated riverfront expressway, a large, wide highway that would run in between the Mississippi River and Jackson Square. The Chamber of Commerce of the New Orleans Area endorsed the effort and embarked on a public information campaign to promote the idea, which included sending Chamber staff to give presentations on the highway to interest groups and building and displaying a model of the project at their chamber offices. You can see a photo of the model on page 59 of the nomination documentation linked to at the bottom of the page.

Preservation groups sprung into action to halt the construction of the highway. Among these groups were the Louisiana Landmarks Society and the Vieux Carre Property Owners and Associates. The expressway was seen as a major threat to the historic integrity of Jackson Square and the Cabildo, as such a feature would completely cut the two Landmarks off from the Mississippi River and tarnish their historic environment with the sound of thousands of cars passing by each day.

Samuel Winston Jr. was the spokesman for the coalition of preservation groups and appealed to Elbert Cox, the Southeast Regional Director of the National Parks Service in April of 1965. Cox alerted the Director, who in turn brought the matter to the attention of Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.

Udall met with the preservationists on July 14, 1965. He publicly denounced the highway project and recommended that the entire French Quarter be designated a National Historic Landmark District. The New Orleans City Council disagreed, and the district was not designated until 1970.

The group was not initially successful in getting the project canceled, but after much discussion and debate, an at-grade level highway on the other side of the levy from Jackson Square was approved by Federal Highway Administrator Lowell Bridwell, just days before the end of the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration in January 1969.

When President Richard Nixon took office later that month, he was able to appoint a Secretary to lead the newly formed Department of Transportation. His choice was former two-time Massachusetts Governor and Federal Highway Administrator John Volpe.

In July 1969, Volpe announced that the highway project would be canceled. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation had been charged with investigating and approving the project and had decided that it should be built only if the Secretary of Transportation could be sure that there was "no prudent and feasible alternative to using that land" phrasing taken directly from the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, which had authorized the creation of the Department and established its mandate.

In a press release announcing his decision, Secretary Volpe said:

"A careful review of the highway proposal and the positions of various interests convinced me that the public benefits from the proposed highway would not be enough to warrant damaging the treasured French Quarter

... The Riverfront Expressway would have separated the French Quarter from its Mississippi River levee and waterfront."

One of the earliest efforts to save a National Historic Landmark from development that could damage its historic integrity had been successful. The new program was off to a fine start.

Later Threats

Though Jackson Square survived such a major threat to the historic integrity of its environment, in time even the Square itself was targeted for "improvements" which could have damaged its historic nature.

An October 1966 visit report by a National Parks Service official mentions a proposal to construct a parking garage underneath the Square which, though considered, died out due to the excessive cost and complexity of the operation. A similar project done elsewhere in the French Quarter had resulted in extensive damage to many historic buildings, a result no one was looking to duplicate.

A 1967 memo prepared by Acting Keeper of the National Register Russell V. Keune tells of plans by the City of New Orleans to "rehabilitate" Jackson Square in preparation for the 250th anniversary of the city's founding. Keune had met with a staff member from the consulting firm the city hired to design the project, and his closing thoughts on the meeting provide an exceptional insight into the early state of the National Register and Historic Landmarks Programs:

"I feel certain that this 'rehabilitation" proposal is going to generate opposition from various quarters. We had better keep a close watch on their proposals. Together with the situation of the elevated highway adjoining the Square, we might find ourselves with a real New Orleans test case of just how strong the National Register is going to be."

The National Register proved to be plenty strong, as initial plans to completely transform the layout of the square were paired down vastly to only the repair of existing walkways, installation of an automatic underground sprinkler system, and the replanting of some trees and shrubs after opposition from local preservationists and inquires from the National Parks Service.

Though the Square was not changed in design, the project still drew much criticism from local residents once the City decided to close the Square during the summer, its three most popular months of the year. Despite this poor planning, the historic integrity of Jackson Square was preserved and the updates were well received.

Preservationists faced yet another battle in 1975, when plans were revealed for the installation of a sound and light show in the Square that would inform tourists about the city's history. The project was supported by the Mayor and Vieux Carre Commission, and installation of the sound and light equipment was set to be done at the same time as to be a part of a larger renovation effort of nearby buildings funded in part by an Open Space Grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation had to make sure the the sound and light equipment was not being funded by HUD, because if it was, the project would be subject to historic review by the Council under federal law.

It turned out the City was fully funding the effort, but local preservationists showed up in force once again and took the city to court to stop the project. In the end, the plan for the sound and light show was rejected as too burdensome and difficult to operate, and the square remained as it was.

Today, Jackson Square appears just as it did when designated a National Historic Landmark over five decades ago, in the same elegant form it has retained for over a century and a half.

Significance

Jackson Square represents a unique combination of American history and values. All at once, it expresses the European influences on the nation’s founding, the westward expansion, and settlement that defined the national character for so long, and acts as a special tribute to a man regarded as one of the nation’s first homegrown heroes.

As the heart and soul of one of America’s most vibrant and diverse cities, Jackson Square represents the very best of not only American history, but American culture as well.

This treasured public space has remained a national favorite for 300 years and will continue its role as the internationally recognized face of New Orleans for centuries more to come.

Night Falls on Jackson Square

For Further Information:


Download the Jackson Square National Historic Landmark Nomination (PDF)


This extensive documentation from the National Archives includes a summary of the Square's historic importance, the press release announcing the original 92 National Historic Landmarks, correspondence from federal and local officials regarding the designation and fights over the highway, renovation project, and sound and light show, as well as extensive local newspaper coverage of those fights and the history of the square.



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