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French Quarter Fountains
This past weekend during a visit down to New Orleans for Jazzfest, we celebrated the restoration of the fountain in the courtyard of our Creole 1830’s townhouse in the French Quarter. It has not run in recent memory, certainly not since Katrina.
I am president of our building association and during the past three years, the shareholders have undertaken substantial capital improvements to the building, including the repair of the slate roof, the waterproofing of the soft brick walls, and restoration of the original paint colors. Because of these costly projects, we delayed the restoration of the courtyard fountain.
We were all looking forward to it one day being restored, mindful of the transformative effect of fountains in a place were the depths of flood waters linger in memory. Then our neighbor Xenia Roff took up the cause to renovate it as a gift to the building.
Courtyards with fountains are an inherent part of the romantic ethos of New Orleans, well established since the late 19th century when these interior spaces turned from places of utility to oasis.
Lafcadio Hearn, the historian and romantic, in 1879 wrote this vivid description:
“Like many of the Creole houses…the great green doors of the arched entrance were closed; and the green shutters of the balconied windows were half shut, like sleepy eyes lazily gazing upon the busy street below…but beyond the gates lay a little Paradise. The great court, deep and broad, was framed in tropical green; vines embraced the white pillars of the piazza, and creeping plants climbed up the tinted walls to peer into the upper windows with their flower-eyes of flaming scarlet…A fountain murmured faintly near the entrance…Without, cotton-floats might rumble and streetcars vulgarly jingle their bells; but these were mere echoes of the harsh outer world which disturbed not the delicious quiet within.”
Even when Hearn wrote, courtyards were still, at least in part, used for such basic activities as drying laundry and raising livestock. In larger houses, stables and fruit trees, figs and pomegranate were popularly found there. They were also frequently used for cooking and had cisterns to store water.
The late 19th century appearance of these courtyards is documented in Malcolm Heard’s brilliant study, "French Quarter Manual," an authoritative resource on the district’s buildings. In the book, Heard extensively documents the shift from function to beauty with early photographs of the quarter’s courtyards.
Our fountain looks to be from the 1960’s, but does not have a swell mid-century sensibility. The decorator in me would replace it with something more rustic, perhaps suggesting an old trough or basin. The historian and cost-conscious president of the board, views this fountain as part of the historic fabric of the building. To see its flashing water again reminds of our history and also marks our progress. We thank our friend and neighbor Xenia for her great contribution.
From top: The view of the courtyard in 2005 before restoration; post renovation views of the courtyard; a shot of a classic New Orleans courtyard; late 19th-century courtyards with livestock, cisterns, and hanging laundry from Malcolm Heard’s “French Quarter Manual”; Thomas Jayne’s French Quarter courtyard today