Gallier Hall, y’all: The history of the New Orleans landmark
It sounded simple enough: When construction began in 1845 on the Greek Revival-style Municipal Hall on St. Charles Avenue that would later bear the name of esteemed local architect James Gallier, who designed it, the building was to serve as the seat of government. The problem was that the city at the time was in the midst of a bitter conflict between American and Creole factions, which saw it divided into three municipalities, each with their own police, schools and other amenities, stretching already precious resources even thinner. Leaders of the second municipality, run by the Americans, designed and began construction on the Municipal Hall, but money ran out after only the basement was constructed. A roof was put over the basement and the Police Department was housed there while leaders focused on raising the money to complete construction. By 1852, New Orleans was reunited as a single municipality. The next year, construction was finally completed, and the building was dedicated on May 10, 1853.
After a century in the old Municipal Hall, the city moved into a new City Hall at Duncan Plaza in the 1950s. At that time, the old building was renamed Gallier Hall. Today, it is under construction once again, with a major interior and exterior renovation scheduled for completion in May 2018, just in time for the city’s tricentennial celebration. Work on the building’s façade was completed in time for Mardi Gras 2016, and the interior work to be completed includes painting the walls, restoring the floors, rewiring the electrical system, as well as renovating the furnishings, paintings and theater.
- Gallier Hall’s location in the American-dominated Second Municipality may have been meant as an intentional contrast to the Cabildo, where the Creole government’s offices were housed. When the city was re-united in 1852, the city government was centralized in the newer building.
- Gallier Hall is three stories high, 90 feet wide and 215 feet deep.
- It was built with Tuckahoe marble, the same marble used for the Washington Monument.
- James Gallier Sr. designed and oversaw construction of the hall that would one day bear his name — but that name wasn’t always Gallier. Originally from Ireland, James Gallagher immigrated to the United States in 1832 and worked in New York City for two years. When he arrived in New Orleans, he changed his name to Gallier to fit in with the French in New Orleans.
- Although Gallier Hall is arguably his most well-known building in New Orleans, Gallier is credited with designing and building a number of other notable local structures, including the St. Charles Exchange Hotel and the Pontalba Apartment Buildings on Jackson Square. He is also credited with finishing St. Patrick’s Church.
- Gallier’s son, James Gallier Jr., also became an architect. Many of the younger Gallier’s works no longer stand, such as the French Opera House once on the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse streets. But among his remaining structures include his family home, now the Gallier House museum; the Leeds-Iron Foundry, now the Preservation Resource Center; and the Luling Mansion/New Orleans Jockey Club in Esplanade Ridge.
- Gallier Hall joins many other iconic New Orleans buildings on both the National Register of Historic Places and the list of National Historic Landmarks, making it not only a local treasure, but also one of national significance and importance.
- In 2014, a large piece of the building’s façade came crashing to the ground. No one was injured, though it fell right onto the spot traditionally designated for the mayor and other dignitaries to view Mardi Gras parades. For the 2015 Mardi Gras season, the viewing stands were moved across the street to Lafayette Square while the construction on the building’s exterior began.
- It is a tradition for important local figures to lie in state in Gallier Hall upon their deaths. Once upon a time, the remains of Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard were on display in the building. More recently, local jazz musician Danny Barker and local R&B legend Ernie K-Doe were given the honor. Doe was laid to rest in a white costume with a silver crown and scepter; more than 5,000 people came to pay their respects.
- In recent years, Gallier Hall was featured in the New Orleans Arts Council’s annual LUNA Fête event. The free event showcases illuminated installations, digital sculptures and other technology-driven art. In 2014 and 2016, the event included a colorful animated video projection across the façade of the building.
It is no longer the seat of city government, but Gallier Hall still holds a special place in the hearts of New Orleanians, and — despite its rocky start — it continues to host important city events as well as remaining a focal point of Mardi Gras parades. The renovation of Gallier Hall is one of the city’s main projects for its tricentennial, and as such represents the spirit of the celebration. It encompasses both the beauty of the city and the significance of history and tradition, while the city still moves forward, renovating and improving with the times.