The Super Bowl and Mardi Gras are upon us here in south Louisiana. All the typical events are being held (balls, parades, crawfish boils, etc.) and thousands of out-of-town visitors have begun their annual descent upon the Big Easy. And if you are one of those visitors, it is almost a given that you will at some point make your way to Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter. But what makes the rare open plot of land in the Vieux Carre so special? Because it has been the heart of New Orleans and Louisiana since the city was first founded in 1719.
Originally named Place d’Armes, Jackson Square was laid out by Adrien de Pauger as a military parade ground. It was situated at the central point of the Vieux Carre. In order to protect France’s territorial claims and citizens, it was necessary have an open area for the local militia to assemble and train (in fact, almost all European colonial outposts in the New World had a place d’armes. The Spanish equivalent is the Plaza de Armas).
So how did the military parade ground transform into the landscaped park that we see today? Over time, several buildings were added to enclose the open space (the Cabildo, Presbytere, St. Louis Cathedral, etc). However, for most of its early existence, the plaza was uncultivated. There were no sidewalks or a manicured lawn, no live oaks or delicate iron work. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Jackson Square began to resemble that which we know today. The Baroness Micaela Pontalba is credited with the transformation of the park from military grounds to one of the country’s most lovely public spaces (more info on the Baroness here). Part of the Baroness’ construction plans was the commission of a beautification project. This was work was undertaken concurrently during the erection of the first of her two Pontalba Apartments (completed in 1852). Fences and gardens were added. The grounds were landscaped in a sun pattern. The square became a meeting ground for up-and coming Creoles. Pontalba’s buildings housed shops and offices on the first floor while the upper stories served as living quarters, a very European concept.
Pontalba’s buildings are now famous landmarks, with iron balconies and other flourishes that help to encircle the square with beauty and grace. But why do we call it Jackson Square today? If you happen to wander through the square, the answer shouldn’t be to hard to figure out. All one has to do is glance at the massive statue of Andrew Jackson. One of four identical statues sculpted by Clark Mills, the statue depicts “Old Hickory” astride his warhorse. The plaza was renamed Jackson Square in 1856 to honor him, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 and later U.S. President.
Today, Jackson Square is used mainly as a gathering place of painters, tarot card readers, musicians, various street performers, and of course tourists. Occasionally, formal concerts are held here, as well as other large events like the one you’ll see there this weekend (CBS has staked out the square for Super Bowl weekend).
Thus, just as it has served as the focal point for New Orleans in military, political, and civil matters over the course of the last 300 years, this weekend Jackson Square will serve as the epicenter of the Super Bowl until kickoff in the Super Dome. So if you’re visiting NOLA this weekend for the big game, or coming early for Mardi Gras, make sure you stop and take time to appreciate the significance of Jackson Square. It isn’t just a stage for media and performers. Jackson Square is much more than that – it has and will continue to be the nerve center of New Orleans.