The bulletproof woman who built Jackson Square’s Pontalba buildings
In 1851, after two years of construction, the row houses in the Pontalba buildings — 16 on each side of Jackson Square — were finally ready for occupancy. Micaela Leonarda Antonia Almonester y Rojas, known to history as the Baroness Pontalba, built them on land she had inherited from her father, Don Andreas Almonester y Rojas, the wealthy Spanish official whose list of charitable works in the city include the financing of the reconstruction of St. Louis Cathedral after the Great Fire of 1788.
The Pontalba buildings have become public property. The Upper Pontalba, along St. Peter Street, is owned by the city. The state owns the Lower Pontalba on St. Ann Street. Because of their history, their architecture, their location and the sweeping views that their balconies command, the Pontalba buildings are highly desirable living spaces.
- Born in New Orleans, Baroness Pontalba married a cousin in 1811 and moved to France. There, as the story goes, her father-in-law — frustrated at his inability to get his hands on her inheritance — shot her four times at point-blank range in the hand and chest. She survived. He didn’t, killing himself with the same gun he used to shoot her.
- She returned to New Orleans in the 1840s and soon thereafter began construction on the buildings that still bear her name.
- The two buildings cost a total of $300,000 at the time of their construction, the equivalent of around $9 million million today.
- Baroness Pontalba reportedly micromanaged the design and construction of the buildings. The cast-iron balconies are believed to be her design, with the centers of each section containing the letters “A” and “P,” for Almonester and Pontalba, her maiden and married names.
- Upon the completion of the Upper Pontalba buildings, the baroness and her sons reportedly occupied the space at No. 5 Rue St. Peter.
- When Jenny Lind, the wildly popular Swedish opera singer known as “the Swedish nightingale,” came to New Orleans, the Baroness Pontalba let Lind stay in her house. After Lind’s departure, the baroness capitalized on her guest’s fame by auctioning off the furniture she had used.
- In addition to erecting the Pontalba buildings, the baroness was instrumental in changing the name of the Place d’Armes to Jackson Square. She also helped underwrite the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson in the center of the square.
- Although the structures she built are known as the Pontalba apartments, they were row houses until they were converted to apartments during a renovation in the 1930s.
- In 1974, the buildings were named to the National Register of Historic Places and declared, collectively, a National Historic Landmark.
- Baroness Pontalba erected a mansion on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris. It is known today as the Hôtel de Pontalba, the official residence of the United States’ ambassador to France.
- To celebrate the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, the New Orleans Opera commissioned a work based loosely on the life of Baroness Pontalba. Written by Thea Musgrave and titled simply “Pontalba,” it premiered in 2003 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts.
It is impossible to imagine the the French Quarter without the Pontalba buildings. Containing elements of Creole, Parisian and Greek Revival styles, they frame the Cabildo, St. Louis Cathedral and the Presbytère to create what is arguably the definitive picture-postcard view of New Orleans.