May 11, 1988: The day the Cabildo burned
In a city replete with historic sites, this was a disaster beyond imagining: a fire on May 11, 1988, at the Cabildo, one of New Orleans’ iconic structures. One of two identical buildings flanking St. Louis Cathedral and overlooking Jackson Square, the Cabildo had been a seat of government and the site of the ceremony where the Louisiana Territory was officially transferred from France to the United States in 1803. The fire, apparently started by a welder’s torch during repairs to roof gutters, destroyed the building’s cupola and the entire third floor, causing about $4 million in damage. Although Napoleon’s death mask and many other holdings were saved, hundreds of artifacts, including furniture and some rare maps and paintings, were damaged or destroyed.
The Cabildo, which is part of the Louisiana State Museum, was repaired and reopened on Feb. 27, 1994. While the fire was a disaster, restoring the museum — a task that included rebuilding the third floor — gave officials an opportunity to transform what had been a hodgepodge of artifacts into a coherent, easily understandable presentation of Louisiana’s history that highlights the contributions of an array of ethnic groups.
- The Times-Picayune’s extensive coverage of the fire included the newspaper’s first use of color on a deadline basis, featuring front-page photographs of the burning museum, shot from a helicopter, and the explosion of the Cabildo’s cupola. Until then, the presses had been used to print color only in feature sections, which can be prepared days in advance.
- The Cabildo takes its name from the “Illustrious Cabildo” (the equivalent of the City Council), which met there during the era of Spanish rule.
- Slightly more than 200 years before the May 1988 conflagration, the original Cabildo was one of 856 French Quarter structures destroyed on March 21, 1788 – Good Friday – in what became known as the Great Fire of 1788.
- The existing Cabildo was erected between 1795 and 1799.
- The third floor that was ruined in the 1988 fire didn’t exist in the original plans for the Cabildo and Presbytere, the matching structure on the other side of the cathedral. The mansard-style roof and cupola were added to the buildings in the middle of the 19th century at the urging of the Baroness Pontalba, who wanted them to match a row of apartments she built with those roofs on either side of what became known as Jackson Square.
- The Cabildo’s restoration won the National Preservation Honor Award for 1994 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The award, made to the state, also was given for the restoration of the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge.
- Signs and posters in the Cabildo make a point of citing the work of black artisans and laborers, both enslaved and free, who made many of the objects on view, including the Cabildo itself.
- After 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which the Cabildo survived, the State Police temporarily used the building’s business offices to set up what was called Troop N. The Cabildo was a base of operations from which troopers patrolled the city’s streets, along with police officers from New Mexico and New York.
The shock of seeing the Cabildo in flames — and the knowledge of what previous fires have done to the French Quarter — put a lump in the throat of countless New Orleanians. While spectators massed in Jackson Square to watch firefighters battle the blaze, museum employees were joined by volunteers who rushed into the building to rescue the most valuable paintings and artifacts. Restoring the building, which hordes of New Orleanians had gotten to know through school trips, became a matter of civic pride.