French Quarter (the Vieux Carre’)

I was discussing Historic Preservation with a friend and was reminded of my trip to the French Quarter last year. This is the oldest surviving neighborhood in the USA that is still intact. The character and city planning is mostly what it was 300 years ago. Buildings have been upgraded for sure. The scale and courtyard theme is the same. Details have advanced with the construction standards and materials but thought and the determination for historic preservation has been incorporated into each design issue.

The area is located just to the east of the Mississippi river as the river was diverted for shipping. When I walked up and down the streets taking in the feel, details, colors, people, and the activity I noticed there are many zones for each activity. Music, food (local and tourist), art, living units for high end and low end incomes, hotels, specialty shops, professional services, and support services each have their own distinct district within the French Quarter. Courtyard living in a hot and wet climate has always been a general rule here and they are now used for living, dinning, gardens, parking, entertainment, and any other use you can think of. All the spaces are tight and the scale of the buildings are generally much smaller than most urban areas.

Music and entertainment can be found in the streets, which can be a bit hazardous at times. The Roads within the French Quarter are all one way and are the only means of vehicular circulation. So when you’re out listening to the great jazz ensembles, keep one ear on the band, and one on the street! Each building has its own character, color, balconies, railings, landscaping, and roof lines. Nothing seems new or totally out of place. There is a great movement to keep the basic scale and design the way it was in the past. What date that means is open to interpretation. There are historical groups that want to use different definitions. This is where the activists and their groups have the most say. As usual, there is only a small part of the population that is interested in planning the urban fabric of this community. It is an active place. Everyone lives in very close proximity to each other. Narrow side yards, no front yards, and shared courtyard experiences are the norm.

If you were on the board to set the rules for historic preservation, what rules would you want to live by? The discussions on this topic are in all directions. If a building was modified 200 years ago is that what the rest should look like? What about 100 years ago? At what point do details, color, and building lines need to match the past? I like the rule of thumb that the scale is the most important aspect of this discussion. Material, construction means, and methods change with time. This is good and the standard of care relating to current population use needs to keep adjusting. The courtyard should not go away. Streetscape balconies, railings, and roof lines should be maintained. Paint colors change with time, so the exact color is not that important but the hue and design colors should be maintained. And speaking of historical preservation, accessibility issues are hard to address because of raised narrow sidewalks, raised buildings, and very tight spaces. When it rains the narrow sidewalks become very slippery surfaces. Then the discussion of no slip squares being added to sidewalks comes up. Yes? No? Do those take away from the character of the French Quarter? No doubt this will be an ongoing issue. Keeping the old street and sidewalks give the feeling of age and character.

I was impressed with how much of the old slave quarters were changed in use but not in scale. These are not the buildings to tear down and replace with a bigger one. One cannot demolish a few buildings and put up one bigger building. This is important! Protect history but do not stop change. Just slow it down so it does not register within current generations. But always keep the scale and individuality!