It’s an interesting question: Can you miss something you’ve never actually seen?
The unequivocal answer can be found in New Orleans, where pining over the loss of culturally significant edifices — even ones that have been gone for more than a century — is something of a citywide pastime.
Take, for example, the old French Opera House, the oft-bemoaned structure that stood regally right smack at the epicenter of the city’s Creole social life in the city from just before the Civil War to just after World War I. Most New Orleanians have at least heard of it and its fiery demise, and many today still long for it — even if they’ve never actually stepped foot inside it.
Today, we’ll try to do the next best thing.
With the help of old photos, illustrations, newspaper accounts and — most illuminating of all — a portion of a Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from 1895 showing the building’s floorplan, we’ve put together a virtual tour of the once-grand old building.
Welcome to the French Opera House.
The view from the street
Designed in the Italianate style by James Gallier Jr. and George Eastbrook, the 80-foot-tall structure opened in 1859 at the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse streets. Although we all know it today as the French Opera House, it was simply “the new opera house” or “the New Orleans Opera House” upon its opening.
As one approached it from Bourbon, it would have stood out among its French Quarter neighbors as a particularly imposing, elegant and modern structure, with its gleaming white, multi-planed façade adorned with pilasters, columns and a rooftop balustrade.
On nights of major events, the street out front would have been a scene, teeming with impeccably dressed upper-crusters. The building’s designers planned for such crowds by installing a curb cut on its Bourbon Street side to allow carriages to pull out of traffic as its occupants disembarked.
(That curb cut, incidentally, is the only physical remnant of the opera house still in existence on the site.)
On the morning after it opened on Dec. 1, 1859, with a performance of Rossini’s “William Tell,” The Daily Delta newspaper described “a continuous array of beauty, the pride and boast of the Crescent City. Blonde and brunette, blue eyes and black, and fair forms enriched by the fingers of fashion, greeted the observer on every hand.”
Come inside, come inside
Disembarking from one’s carriage on the Bourbon Street side, a theatergoer would have passed beneath a balcony and through a covered open-air arcade to approach the box office.
Up a set of stairs to the left were restrooms. Upstairs to the right, a club room for opera house stockholders. A small, second-floor foyer along the building’s front connected the two, in addition to leading out to a balcony overlooking Bourbon, which would have afforded a lovely view of the street scene playing out below as others arrived.
As showtime approached, a theatergoer would have stepped into the auditorium — and, if it was their first time there, probably looked up in amazement at the sheer size of the space, to say nothing of its rich appointments.
The multitiered auditorium, which could accommodate 1,800 to 2,000 people depending on the seating configuration, was divided among ground-level seating just behind the orchestra pit, four horseshoe-shaped balconies and, for the well-heeled, four levels of private boxes near the stage.
The balconies separated patrons by race and class. Near the first-level balcony, patrons could access a saloon lit by two gas chandeliers. The third-level gallery, on the other hand, was largely unadorned, reserved for the cheap seats.
The fourth level was reserved for patrons of color; it was accessed by a separate entrance and staircase on the St. Louis Street side of the building.
More classical columns, much like those on the building’s exterior, framed the stage, with an abundance of decorative molding adorning nearly every flat surface. Overhead, on the ceiling, a massive, gilded wheel-and-spoke design accentuated the scale of the room. The stage was rimmed with gas footlights.
“The auditorium is not yet finished,” The Daily Delta wrote in its opening-night dispatch. “Still, its unsurpassed adaptation to sound and sight, its long circular sweep of tiers, with their ornaments of gold upon a white ground, its richly embellished boxes, comfortable seats and abundant lights commanded the admiration of all.”
As large as the opera house was, most patrons saw only about half of it. The rest was dedicated to the business side of show business — that is, the work of the artists and craftspeople required to stage such grand entertainments.
Flanking the auditorium on the building’s Toulouse and St. Louis street sides, but invisible to audience members, were dressing rooms. At street level on the Toulouse street side was a costume shop.
Above the stage, but also out of view of theatergoers, was a fly system — think ropes, pulleys and the like — for raising and lowering painted scenery into place.
Offstage to the audience’s left — or stage right to performers — were props rooms. To the audience’s right — or stage left — was a first-floor armory.
Three water tanks were located on the roof, with hoses attached for firefighting purposes.
Those water tanks and hoses didn’t do much good on the night of Dec. 4, 1919. That’s the night, almost exactly 60 years to the day from the building’s opening, that it burned in a midnight blaze.
As firefighters battled the growing flames, crowds gathered to watch the real-life drama play out. It would effectively be the opera house’s last performance.
The next morning, the structure had been reduced to a smoldering shell. For a decade after, its ruins stood, awaiting fulfillment of promises to rebuild that never came.
Today, the site is occupied by a hotel, the Four Points by Sheraton.
Sources: The Times-Picayune archives; The True Daily Delta; The Historic New Orleans Collection; Library of Congress
Know of a New Orleans building worth profiling in this column, or just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at [email protected]
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