Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The 1850 House Museum part 1 The Baroness de Pontalba

Micaela Leonarda Antonia Almonester, Baroness de Pontalba painted in 1927 from a early 19th century portrait miniature 

This is first of a post on the 1850 house museum located in the Pontalba buildings on Jackson square in the heart of New Orleans French Quarter. The 1850 house museum is deer to my heart. As a child I remember reading about it and seeing photo's of the beautiful  Antebellum interiors in books. In my teen's my family went to New Orleans every few months and for the first time I got a chance to see this magical place in person. Every time I was in New Orleans as a teenager I would stop by the 1850 house museum for a visit not knowing that in my mid 20's I would work in the gift shop under the 1850 house museum. We can't get into the 1850 house museum without first talking about the fascinating woman that was behind building the Pontalba buildings       

Micaela Leonarda Antonia Almonester, Baroness de Pontalba (November 6, 1795- April 20, 1874) was a wealthy New Orleans-born aristocrat, businesswoman and real estate developer, and one of the most dynamic personalities of that city's history.

 The St. Louis Cathedral, the Presbytere and the Cabildo uilt and paied for by Micaela's father 

Her father died on April 26, 1798, when Micaela was two and a half years old. Prior to his death, he had commissioned architect Gilberto Guillemard to design and construct the St. Louis Cathedral, the Presbytere and the Cabildo, all of which line one side of Place d'Armes. The original church and Cabildo had been destroyed in the Great New Orleans fire of 1788. Upon the death of her Spanish father, Andres Almonester y Rojas in 1798, Micaela, as his only surviving child, inherited a considerable fortune; although the estate was controlled by her mother a Creole, Louise Denis de la Ronde a member of one of the most illustrious Creole families in Louisiana. Micaela's mother Louise shortly afterwards the death of her first husband married Jean Baptiste Castillon, the 25-year-old French consul. The huge difference in their ages caused much scorn amongst the people of New Orleans, who showed their displeasure by conducting a riotous charivari that lasted for three days and nights which even featured effigies of her new bridegroom and dead husband in his coffin. The charivari was only called off once Louise had promised to donate the sum of $3,000 to the poor.

The Old Ursuline Convent where Micaela was educated is the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley. Completed in 1752, it is also the oldest surviving example of the French colonial period in the United States. 

Being the sole heiress to a considerable fortune, Micaela was likely the richest girl in the city. Her younger sister Andrea Antonia had died in 1802 at the age of four. Micaela was educated, along with other daughters of the Creole elite, by the nuns at the old Ursuline Convent situated on la Rue Conde, now Chartres Street. She was an artistic child as well as musical; at the age of 13 she owned her own piano. At home she spoke French, although she knew Spanish, and later she learned English.
The St. Louis Cathedral where Micaela was married and built by her father. It is the oldest continuously active Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United States, originally built in 1727 and dedicated to King Louis IX of France, “The Crusading King” who was later canonized by the Church. The original St. Louis Cathedral burned during the great fire of 1794 and was rebuilt. The present structure was completed in the 1850s.

In keeping with Creole tradition, a marriage was arranged for Micaela in 1811 when she was fifteen. Although Micaela was in love with an impoverished man, she had no choice but to accept the husband her mother had picked for her. He was her 20-year-old cousin, Xavier Célestin Delfau de Pontalba, known as Celestin or "Tin Tin", who although born in New Orleans, lived with his family in France.  The de Pontalbas had made the proposition to Micaela's  mother by letter, having regarded a matrimonial tie between the two families as a "business merger that would transfer the Almonester wealth into their hands". The prospective groom duly arrived in Louisiana with his mother, Jeanne Françoise le Breton des Chapelles Delfau de Pontalba, and after an acquaintance of just three weeks he and Micaela were married. The marriage was celebrated on 23 October 1811 at St. Louis Cathedral and attended by the most influential members of Creole society. Indicative of her high social rank amongst the Creole community, Micaela was given away at the wedding ceremony by nobleman and distant cousin Bernard de Marigny, acting as a representative of Marshall Ney, the trusted military commader of Emperor Napoleon I. Father Antonio De Sedella officiated at the ceremony which was conducted in Spanish - a language Micaela's groom did not understand. In contrast to her mother's second marriage, the citizens of New Orleans strongly approved of this match which was considered to have been the most important marriage ever contracted in New Orleans by two illustrious Creole families. Immediately upon her marriage, Micaela became a French citizen.
Château de Mont-L'Eveque - Oise (France). 
Sometime after the wedding, Micaela and Célestin, accompanied by both their mothers, left Louisiana for France. They arrived in July 1812 and the couple took up residence with Célestin's family at Mont-l'Évêque, the moated, medieval de Pontalba chateau outside Senlis which was about 50 miles from Paris. Her mother, Louise Castillon, went to live in a rented house in Paris before she set about astutely buying up property in the city including a home on the Place Vendôme. She had become a widow for the second time in 1809 with the death of Jean Baptiste Castillon.
At first the marriage was successful; Micaela became pregnant shortly after their arrival in France and eventually bore her husband a total of four sons and a daughter. To alleviate the boredom of country life, she converted a large room at the old chateau into a theatre where she put on plays. She put a lot of energy and enthusiasm into her project, ordering costumes for the performers and hiring local people for the minor roles and Parisian artists for the leading roles. She often performed onstage in the amateur theatrical productions which were attended by her friends from Paris. However, the constant interference of her eccentric father-in-law eventually turned the marriage into a disaster which was made worse by the fact that Célestin possessed a weak, spoiled, effeminate character. Her father-in-law, Baron Joseph Delfau de Pontalba, who had served as an officer in the French and Spanish armies, was greedy and unstable, and over the years proceeded to make Micaela's life extremely unhappy and intolerable. The baron was already greatly disappointed with Micaela's dowry, considering it much smaller than he had been led to expect. The $40,000 plus some jewelry Micaela brought to Célestin as her dowry which had been the sum agreed upon when the marriage contract was drawn up, represented only one-quarter of her Almonester inheritance with the remaining three-quarters retained by Louise. The old baron, intent upon seizing the vast Almonester fortune, had forced Micaela into signing a general Power of Attorney giving her husband control over her assets, rents, and capital, both dotal, and as heir of her father. In the early 1820s, to escape the tyranny of her father-in-law, Micaela persuaded Célestin to set up his own household in Paris, and the couple and their children moved into one of his father's homes in the Rue du Houssaie close to her mother's residence.

President Andrew Jackson

The death of her mother in 1825 left Micaela as the sole recipient of her considerable estate which also included numerous properties in Paris. The de Pontalbas furiously demanded that she sign over all her New Orleans property to them in exchange for her being allowed to assume control of her mother's Paris houses. In 1830, without her husband's permission, she went to New Orleans for an extended visit, taking the opportunity to travel around other parts of the United States. She stopped in Washington DC where President Andrew Jackson sent his own carriage and secretary of state Martin Van Buren to bring her to the White House as his guest. The celebrated Battle of New Orleans in which Jackson had defeated the invading British on 8 January 1815 had been fought on the grounds of the Chalmette Plantation belonging to her uncle and aunt. Upon her return to France the baron accused her of deserting Célestin; as a result she became a "virtual prisoner" of the de Pontalbas. In frustration, she took her children and transferred back to Paris where she began a series of lawsuits to obtain a separation from Célestin, but lost them due to the strict French marriage laws.

Château de Mont-L'Eveque - Oise (France). 

Micaela's attempts to protect her fortune and separate from Célestin so enraged Baron de Pontalba that he resorted to violence. On October 19, 1834, during one of her visits to the chateau, he stormed into her bedroom and shot Micaela four times in the chest at point-blank range with a pair of duelling pistols. After the first shot, she allegedly screamed out: "Don't! I'll give you everything". Whereupon he replied: "No, you are going to die" and shot her another three times in the chest, one bullet passing through the hand that she had instinctly put up to cover one of the gun's muzzles. Despite her injuries, Micaela made an attempt to escape her father-in-law and outside the door she fell into the arms of her maid who had rushed up the stairs upon hearing the first gunshot. With the armed baron still in pursuit, Micaela was dragged down the stairs to the drawing room where she fell to the floor, crying out, "Help me". Baron de Pontalba stood over her bleeding, unconscious body, yet he fired no more shots and returned to his study.
She survived the shooting attack, despite having been shot four times in the chest, with one of the bullets having crushed her hand. Her left breast was disfigured and two of her fingers mutilated. That same evening the baron, having never left his study, committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with the same pistols.

A 1835 portrait of the Baroness painted just after she survived an attack on her life by her father-in-law. 

With one billet still in her chest and two missing fingers. You can see the Baroness hiding them in the folds of a dress ribbon 

In 1848 at the outbreak of revolution in France, Micaela, accompanied by two of her sons Alfred and Gaston, departed for New Orleans to visit relatives and check on her property, where she quickly became the leader of fashionable society, her salons drawing the city's most important and influential people. The wealthiest white woman in New Orleans at the time, her contemporaries regarded Micaela as having been shrewd, vivacious, and business-like. Seeing New Orleans for the first time after an absence of many years, Micaela had immediately noticed that the once-stylish French Quarter had become derelict and unsightly. The Place d'Armes, in the heart of the French Quarter, was little better than a slum; its parade ground muddy, and houses squalid and neglected. She owned most of the property in Place d'Armes as it formed part of her vast inheritance. Her assets there valued at $520,000, but despite being owner of the third most valuable property in the French Quarter, she made little profit from it as most of her tenants were slack in paying the rent. Micaela put her imagination to work and made energetic plans to remedy the situation. She ordered the houses to be demolished and hired the skilled building contractor Samuel Stewart to renovate the Place d'Armes. The following year after obtaining an agreement from the city for a 20-year tax exemption, she personally designed and commissioned the construction of the beautiful red-brick town houses forming two sides of Place d'Armes which are today known as the Pontalba Buildings. Their exteriors resembled the edifices in Paris' Place des Vosges.

The construction of the Pontalba Buildings cost more than $300,000, and she was a constant visitor to the construction sites, often supervising the work on horseback. The cast-ironwork decorating the balconies were also her personal design and she had her initials "AP" carved into the center of each section of the iron work designed by her son. Micaela knew so much about the design and construction of buildings that historian Christina Vella described her as a "lay genius in architecture".

The baroness designed her own seal shown here on the railings of one of the Pontalba buildings

At the time the buildings were row houses. Micaela and her sons occupied the house at number 5, St. Peter Street. When Swedish singer Jenny Lind visited New Orleans for a month in 1851, Micaela graciously allowed her the use of her own house along with a chef. Prior to her departure, Lind publicly expressed her gratitude to Micaela for the latter's lavish hospitality. Afterward, Micaela auctioned the furniture Lind had used and made a very nice profit . Micaela was also instrumental in the name change of Place d'Armes to Jackson Square; as well as the decision to convert it from a parade ground to a formal garden. She also helped finance the bronze equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson which features prominently in the square. It was alleged that when she was landscaping the garden, she threatened the mayor with a shotgun after he tried to prevent her from tearing down two rows of trees. Shortly after Jenny Lind's visit, she and her sons left New Orleans for good and went back to Paris where her eldest surviving son, Célestin and his family resided. She spent the remainder of her life at her mansion on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. When her estranged husband suffered a physical and mental breakdown she took him in and cared for him up until her own death.

Xavier Célestin Delfau de Pontalba, known as Celestin or "Tin Tin" painted after the shooting of his wife 

As Célestin had succeeded to his father's barony upon the latter's suicide, Micaela was henceforth styled Baroness de Pontalba. Eventually, after several more lawsuits, a civil law judge ordered the restitution of her property and Micaela was granted a legal separation from her husband; although they were not actually divorced. With some of the money her mother had willed her, she commissioned noted architect Louis Visconti to construct a mansion on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris which she subsequently used to entertain lavishly, hosting an endless succession of balls, soirees, and parties. This mansion is known today as the Hôtel de Pontalba and serves as official residence of the United States Ambassador to France.

The Hôtel de Pontalba, Micaela's Paris mansion built by her and where she died in 1874 is now the residence of the United States Ambassador to France

Micaela Almonester de Pontalba died at the Hôtel de Pontalba in Paris on April 20, 1874 at the age of seventy-eight. By this time she was already a legend in the city of her birth, as one of New Orleans' most dynamic personalities.

Micaela was described as a flamboyant, temperamental redhead. Physically she resembled her father. Her portraits reveal that she had brown hair, blue-grey eyes, and pale skin; Christina Vella described her complexion as having had the "hue of stored muslin". Although she was not classically beautiful - having had a rather long and "horsey" face - she was intelligent, strong-willed and attracted much admiration from the Parisians for her opulent entertainments.

Micaela left three surviving sons: Célestin (1815-1885), Alfred (1818-1877), and Gaston (1821-1875). Her firstborn son Joseph and only daughter Mathilde had died as babies. Célestin and Alfred both married and had children whose descendants in the present day continue to reside in France. Gaston, however died unmarried. Her husband, Célestin died on 18 August 1878. He was buried beside her in the de Pontalba family tomb at Mont l'Évêque.

Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba (1795-1874) Daguerreotype portrait, New Orleans. Date 1840s

As a 19th century woman Micaela accomplishments were great. She was responsible for the design and construction of the famous Pontalba Buildings in Jackson Square, in the heart of the French Quarter. She is the subject of an opera,Pontalba: a Louisiana Legacy, which was composed by Thea Musgrave. A play entitled The Baroness, Undressed, and many novels have been written about her dramatic life.


  1. well i hope i can buy jewlery from the baroness.. these are lovely pieces of art!