I know you have been around the block and probably have strutted around Jackson Square. On the railings of the two Pontalba buildings are the letters "A" and "P" made into the ironwork. Could you shed some light on this? How old are those buildings? Who built them?
Are you suggesting I'm old? Well, you are right; I have been around the block and I, too, have frequently admired the remarkable structures built by a remarkable woman: Micaela Almonester, Baroness de Pontalba.
Set in heart-shaped cartouches in the cast-iron railings of these elegant buildings is a monogram repeated many times along the galleries. The monogram is an entwined "AP," the initials of the two people who figured significantly in the buildings on Jackson Square. The "A" is for Don Andres Almonester y Roxas, builder of the original St. Louis Cathedral, Cabildo and Presbytere. The "P" is for his daughter, Micaela, wife of Joseph Xavier Celestin Delfau de Pontalba, who built the Pontalba structures.
The buildings were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1974. Their complete story is far too detailed to include in my small column, but I can give you the highlights.
Almonester, a native of Spain, began acquiring property facing the square in 1777 and became incredibly wealthy. At age 60 he remarried, and at age 70 fathered two daughters. Micaela was born in 1795 and was educated by the Ursulines at the convent in New Orleans
Micaela was married at 15 to her rich and distinguished cousin, who came from France for the wedding. It was an arranged marriage for an heir and heiress of great fortunes. The couple didn't live happily ever after, however; Micaela's father-in-law, intent on seizing the Almonester fortune, tried to murder her by shooting her in the chest. Thinking he had killed her, he shot himself in the heart and died. Micaela recovered and became the Baroness de Pontalba.
Plans for the apartments actually began in 1836, and the baroness worked with her agents in New Orleans to make arrangements with the Council of the First Municipality.
Although she had lived in France since her marriage, Micaela returned to New Orleans in 1848. She had inherited much property from her father, and she had a plan for the property on the Place d'Armes (its name was changed to Jackson Square in 1851). The year after she returned to Louisiana, she began construction of the two buildings in grand European style, making room for shops on the street level and apartments above. She ordered the decorative cast ironwork from New York and had it shipped down the Mississippi River.
The baroness first consulted architect James Gallier about her buildings, but after a disagreement with him, she turned to architect Henry Howard and contractor Samuel Stewart. To make certain everything went according to her plans, the baroness personally supervised construction of the buildings. She also was largely responsible for the design of the "AP" monogram.
Construction of the Upper Pontalba building on St. Peter Street was completed in the fall of 1850, and she and her two sons moved in. The buildings on the opposite side of the square on St. Ann Street were completed in 1851. That same year, the city acted on the baroness' plan to fix up the Place d'Armes, including a new cast-iron fence and, in 1852, sidewalks around the square.