Touring the French Quarter’s historic homes

French Quarter courtyard

French Quarter courtyard

There are lots of reasons one might want to visit the French Quarter in New Orleans. For one thing, it’s full of music. I didn’t have to go inside a single bar or club to hear music – in New Orleans, it’s right there on the streets. Everything from a small brass band in front of the St. Louis Cathedral to a solo pianist in the middle of Royal Street. Food is a big draw, whether you’re searching for Cajun and Creole food or a little fried dough with your chicory coffee.

The French Quarter is also full of colour and character, from the building facades to the old writer and artists haunts. Throw in a little Mardi Gras, and there’s always a festive, almost carnival atmosphere. And a lot of bars. And drunks, frankly. If you want lively, it’s the place to be.

French Quarter

French Quarter

But the thing I personally love most about the French Quarter is the history. The feel of it. You can see it in the buildings and practically smell it in the air. But so many people simply wander past the colourfully painted and shuttered buildings, never realizing the hidden treasures within. French Quarter buildings are usually quite narrow, so you only see a small portion of them from the street. They stretch far back into hidden courtyards and often have secondary outbuildings. You walk through one of those large doorways, down a gas-lit alley like this one (left), and you’ll enter into a beautiful courtyard like the one shown above.

Regardless of whether you have an interest in architecture or not, my advice is to do yourself a favour: visit one or two of the restored historic homes of the Vieux Carre and get a sense of how they’re constructed. Even seemingly modest facades often hide rather large and grand interiors.

On this trip, I visited three of the French Quarter homes open to the public: 1850 House, Beauregard-Keyes House and Gallier House. Sadly, I missed out on touring the Hermann-Grima House, though I did peek into the outer courtyard – but that just means I’ll have interesting stuff to visit on my next trip to New Orleans.

1850 House

This is one of the large apartments in the Pontalba buildings, which line the two sides of Jackson Square. They have commercial spaces on the bottom, and residential housing up top. This one’s been restored to its original configuration, and furnished as per the time period.

Gallier House

Gallier was an architect and built his family’s home in the late 1850s, and it reflects the height in architectural advancements. It boasts indoor pluming and hot and cold running water – and you can see how the boiler and cistern operated. There’s a skylight in Gallier’s office space, with a kind of airflow ventilation that would have acted a bit like air conditioning in 1860. I liked touring the wing at the back, too – which would have been the slave, and later servant, quarters. It’s an impressive house.

Understandably, one isn’t allowed to take pictures inside this historic home, so all I’ve got are outdoor ones. Suffice it to say, it’s pretty spectacular.

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Beauregard-Keyes House

The original owners and inhabitants of the house in the 1820s are not so memorable, but since General Beauregard called the house home for a time after the Civil War, its crumbling shell was saved from demolition in the 1920s. In the 20th century, prolific author Frances Parkinson Keyes purchased it and set about restoring it.

The house is quite interesting, the tour guide knowledgable and friendly. The front stairway is very grand and I particularly liked the wander around the back courtyard and outbuildings. The formal gardens are truly lovely, surrounded by a red brick fence, which you get to explore on your own. And with its location across the street from the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley – the Old Ursuline Convent – the setting is sufficiently historical.

Hermann-Grima House

I only saw the courtyard of this one since I arrived too late on my final day. But I did take a couple of pics that hopefully will whet your appetite. I certainly plan to visit on my next trip to NOLA.

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So if you find yourself in New Orleans, in the French Quarter, check out one of these historic homes to learn a little something about life behind the shuttered windows.

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