This year marks the 225th birthday of one of New Orleans’ most prominent early real estate developers and lay architects, Micaela Almonester, Baroness de Pontalba, whose namesake buildings flank Jackson Square and occupy the most prominent section of the French Quarter.
Born in 1795 in New Orleans, the Baroness inherited a sizable fortune and extensive real estate holdings at age 2½ when her father, Don Andres Almonester y Rojas, died. Her mother, Louise Denys de la Ronde, successfully managed and expanded her daughter’s portfolio of commercial and rental property in New Orleans. When Micaela was 16, she was married to a cousin who was heir to the Baron de Pontalba, a rather impoverished French aristocrat who lived in the family chateau 50 miles outside of Paris. After her marriage, Micaela and her mother took up residence in France.
Over more than 20 years of threats, intimidation, and endless lawsuits, Micaela’s father-in-law fought to gain control and ownership of her lucrative real estate holdings in the United States and France, but ultimately failed. In a final attempt to achieve his goal, the Baron in 1834 shot his daughter-in-law 4 times with dueling pistols, leaving her scarred but very much alive. In utter frustration, the Baron committed suicide, resulting in Micaela’s husband’s ascent to the title, and thereby making her the Baroness de Pontalba.
The Baroness returned to New Orleans for an extended stay in the 1840’s. Dismayed at the derelict condition of the Place d’Armes (now Jackson Square), and inspired by the Place des Vosges in Paris, she decided to develop the property she owned on either side of the square, and hired the well-known building contractor Samuel Stewart to construct two rows of red brick townhouses according to her plans. Although she had no formal training as an architect, she had innate talent for design, and supervised much of the construction work personally.
In addition, she was responsible for designing much of ornamental work on the buildings, including the wrought iron balcony railings. Despite a contentious (and litigious) relationship with Stewart, the project was eventually completed at a cost of $300,000. These buildings, the Pontalba buildings, remain in use today.
The Baroness de Pontalba also bought and developed property in Paris, including the Hotel de Pontalba (now known as the Hotel Rothschild) which she built as her private residence. The building, located on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore’, is used today as the residence for the US ambassador to France. Micaela Almonester, Baroness de Pontalba died in Paris in 1874, but she will always be remembered for her contribution to the architecture of her hometown of New Orleans.
Sources: Intimate Enemies by Christine Vella; Romantic New Orleans by Deirdre Stanford; Wikipedia
A detailed description of the Pontalba Buildings’ architectural style and significance are included in the National Register of Historic Places application, which is here: https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/NHLS/74000934_text