Remembering the night the French Opera House burned
THEN: Near midnight on December 3, 1919, after a rehearsal of “Carmen,” the concert master of the Old French Opera House at the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse streets — for 60 years the center of New Orleans cultural life — went out for a few drinks with a colleague. Hours later, as the two men returned, they noticed smoke emanating from the second story of the grand Greek Revival edifice. Firefighters fought the blaze, which fed on ample props, sets, costumes, and instruments, before an audience of horrified neighbors. The charred ruins that greeted dawn on Dec. 4 would stand for a decade, waiting for a restoration that never materialized.
On the same block where the French Opera House once stood are neon signs for unmemorable bars and presumably more memorable sights (“Big Daddy’s,” “Bottomless Topless,” “Prettiest Girls in the South”). Visitors to New Orleans’ most famous street may notice that Bourbon widens for about a half block as it approaches Toulouse — a relic from the design of the opera house, which allowed for carriages to pull over and drop off passengers. Beyond that, though, nary a trace of the old building can be found. Opera fans can still enjoy an occasional aria on the former site of the French Opera House, however, as the Four Points by Sheraton’s Puccini Bar hosts free semi-monthly concerts featuring Bon Operatit! and New Orleans Opera Association‘s Opera on Tap.
- Operas were its namesake attractions, but the French Opera House hosted any number of local events throughout the year, including Carnival balls debuts and wedding receptions. “If family was the center of (Creole New Orleans’) universe, then the French Opera House was both its moon and sun,” Mel Leavitt wrote in his 1982 book “A Short History of New Orleans.”
- A spectacle from its inception, the Old French Opera House, designed by James Gallier Jr., rose from the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse in just seven months in 1859. Construction between May and December was round-the-clock, with night work illuminated by large bonfires in adjacent streets. The total cost: $118,500.
- The cause of the blaze was declared a mystery, although the first sign of fire was smoke coming from second-floor windows just above a first-floor restaurant. No one was hurt, although the fire, which burned for several hours, completely gutted the structure.
- Opera firemen checked for fire hazards before, during and after each public performance in exchange for free admission. The agreement with “Les Pompiers de L’Opera,” as they were known, set the duties for performances only, which is notable given that the fire that ravaged the structure occurred after a rehearsal.
- A Times-Picayune editorialist called the French Opera House “the one institution of the city above all which gave to New Orleans a note of distinction and lifted it out of the ranks of merely provincial cities.”
- The Times-Picayune headline on the day after the fire was decidedly optimistic, reading: “French Opera House to rise again from ruins.” It was also, as it turns out, incorrect.
In a 2013 feature story for Preservation Resource Center publication Preservation in Print, Richard Campanella wrote, “It is almost impossible to overstate the affection French Creoles held for this building, for the performances held inside and for the Gallic cultural continuity they represented.” The destruction of the French Opera House, just years after the razing of the St. Louis Exchange Hotel, another landmark, at the same time that World War I ravaged Europe, strained New Orleans’ cultural ties to the continent. Campanella points out that these losses, however, “also catalyzed preservationist intervention and helped lead to the legal protection of the French Quarter in 1937.”