Today, New Orlean’s French Quarter is best known as a celebration city with prevalent jazz, great southern cuisine, and legendary nightlife. The distinct architecture, as well, ads to the city’s festive ambiance. A blend of Spanish and French influences, the tall buildings lining the busy streets are a gorgeous reminder of the New Orlean’s rich history.
Many of the buildings you see today, however, are not of the original architecture. Hundreds of years ago, New Orleans was saved by implementing slate tile.
The Great Fires
The capital of French Louisiana began humbly. In February of 1719, Jean Baptisie Le Moyne, Sier De Bienville, commissioned 50 men to begin clearing land for a new settlement to be named “New Orleans”. By 1722, the new city had a population of less than 500, and was steadily growing.
On the morning of Good Friday in 1788, disaster struck the city. A devastating fire began in the home of Spanish treasurer Don Nunez and blew across the city, destroying most of the French Quarter. In only a few hours eight hundred homes and public buildings, including the church and town hall, were destroyed.
Just as rebuilding efforts had begun to take root, more catastrophes consumed the city. In 1794 another fire and two hurricanes demolished or badly damaged nearly all public buildings and homes. The fire alone had destroyed 212 buildings; while less than than the preceding blaze, these buildings were of higher value.
Governor Fancois Louis Hector, Baron De Carondelet, determined the cause of these rogue fires to be from chimney cinders. At this time, homes in New Orleans were roofed with wooden shingles. The close proximity of the French Quarter buildings ensured that the fires spread quickly and were nearly impossible to contain.
Slate Tile to the Rescue
Governor Hector’s solution to this issue was simple— begin building with non-flammable materials. He began to import slate tile from Cuba and other areas to use as a durable and naturally element-resistant building material.
Hand crafted, as slate production remains today, slate tile and cobblestones were used as ballast to stabilize import ships. Once arrived, the cobblestones were used to pave the streets, while slate tile was used as roofing. Considering its naturally fireproof, water resistant and long-wearing qualities, slate tile was a successful investment that saw an end to the plague of fires.
To this day, many buildings in the French Quarter still have these original slate tile roofs, ranging between 100 and 200 years old. Sleek, elegant and unobtrusive, they can be credited in helping save one of the country’s most spirited cities.
To learn more about the Great Fires of New Orleans, click here.