The day New Orleans burned. Again.
In the six years after the Great Fire of 1788, New Orleans had begun to rebuild. As part of that process, it invested in better fire-fighting systems, with the Spanish government installing water pumps and buckets throughout the city. But, on December 8, 1794, a group of children playing near a hay store somehow set the place on fire. The fire caught, and the surrounding buildings, all wooden, burned. In three hours, the fire tore through 212 structures — not as many as the previous fire, but enough to warrant tougher fire prevention codes, with the Spanish government demanding that all new structures be built of brick and stucco.
NOW: After two great fires, local officials became serious about building smarter structures to protect the growing city. The mandate for brick and stucco buildings resulted in the Spanish-influenced French Quarter we know today. The second fire also marks a period of great change in New Orleans history. As the city rebuilt, it also gained new a government under the Louisiana Purchase, which brought new influences to the already multicultural city. Today we can see the different periods of history simply through the variety of architecture styles: French, Creole, Spanish, Greek Revival and more. Not to mention, the strict fire codes worked. The French Quarter has since seen fires, but none of have spread like the fires of 1788 and 1794.
- This second fire was not as large as the Great Fire of 1788, but a couple thousand people were left homeless. The government offered those residents loans to rebuild their homes, as long as they followed the improved building codes.
- Although the city had addressed the immediate threat of fire through the newly installed firefighting equipment, the firefighters were not adequately trained to use the equipment, which rendered them unable to fight the fire. So even though there was an effort at stopping the spread of flames, the men were ultimately unable to completely prevent it.
- The fires very nearly coincided with some of the greatest changes in New Orleans history. Though there were too many factors at play to imply direct causation, the end of the 18th century marked a period of great expansion for New Orleans. The first settlements outside the original city’s boundaries were built after the fires. Soon after, New Orleans joined America as a result of the Louisiana Purchase.
- A number of straw huts had been constructed following the first fire as a means of emergency housing. Six years later, the huts remained, though many had changed hands and no longer housed the original emergency residents. After the second fire, the attorney general demanded these be torn down for safety.
- Among the structures to survive both fires in the French Quarter is Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar. The building was built earlier in the 18th century, and its slate roof helped protect it from catching flame.
- Construction of the St. Louis Cathedral, which was destroyed in the 1788 fire, ended in 1794. The iconic church opened for service just weeks after the second fire.
N.O. DNA: Although we often think of “Rebuild New Orleans” in the relatively recent context of Katrina, the truth is New Orleans is no stranger to disaster. Consequently, it’s well-practiced in carrying on, not just with tradition but also with reinvention. The disasters come and go, and the people of New Orleans respond, roll up their sleeves, and rebuild their city.