In the near future, people walking down a New Orleans street may be able to take out a smartphone, open an app and see what a specific house looked like before the Civil War.
The planned website and app are part of an ongoing project by two LSU researchers who are tapping into surveys, archival materials, antique maps, aerial photographs and other tools to weave an architectural history of the New Marigny, Esplanade, Mid-City and Holy Cross historical districts. Parts of the Broadmoor and Carrollton neighborhoods are also being studied. The project will cover from 1800 until 1940.
“New Orleans has the greatest resources for the study of architectural history of any city in the world,” said Jay Edwards, professor emeritus in LSU’s Department of Geography and Anthropology. “We have more historic structures in New Orleans than anyplace else in the United States.”
Edwards, an expert in architecture of the South and the Caribbean, began working on cataloging the city’s old neighborhoods in 2009, after receiving a grant from the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation. But how to gather all that information into something regular people or even historians could use remained an open question.
“We started like amateurs,” Edwards said. “We didn’t have the technical background.”
At the time, Edwards had no idea if the data would be distilled into a usable format.
“It turns out to be quite complicated,” he said. But he was able to use grant funds to hire student workers familiar with mapping technologies. One of those is his current research associate, Gabriele Richardson, who joined the project in 2011.
“When they came along, we began to see how this thing might open up,” Edwards said.
First, Edwards and his fellow workers surveyed the districts.
“We would drive every street, taking pictures of a very high proportion of the houses,” he said. “We would put together any previous surveys.”
Then, they combined that work with research into other historical documents, such as Federal Emergency Management Agency surveys, aerial photographs and Sanborn maps, which were used in the late 19th century to assess fire liability in New Orleans.
Researchers also consulted the Notarial Archives, a part of the Orleans Parish Civil District Court’s clerk office, for home sale records.
Many times, Edwards said, they had to pore over handwritten scribbles in French or Spanish.
“There’s a huge amount of information in those notarial acts,” Edwards said. “They point backwards in time to the previous sale or inheritor.”
The records also can show if there were multiple owners of a house or whether it had a mortgage, he said.
Due to a quirk in the French law that governed 19th century Louisiana, many records include artist renderings of the houses as they looked when they were sold.
The drawings were often posted in coffee shops or other public venues with notice that the property was to be sold. After a certain amount of time, the posters were taken down and stored in notaries’ office records, which were later gathered together in the Notarial Archives. The drawings often contain details that seem irrelevant to selling a house, but can tell researchers key details about the period, such as who the owner’s relatives were and what architect designed the house.
The project is not without its difficulties, however.
Tracking the names of streets to get accurate locations has been a chore, Richardson said.
“Some streets changed names eight times in 50 years,” she said.
For instance, Terpsichore Street has been called Basin, Corse des Prytanes, Fountain, Josephine, Promenade des Prytanes, Prytaneum Walk and Roffignac at different points in history, Richardson said.
“And sometimes, only part of the street changes names,” she said.
The project is also complicated by the sheer amount of data to sift through.
Richardson’s database, in which she has gathered street maps in addition to recording up to 250 attributes for many houses, is nearly 10 terabytes of data, she said.
The research has already overturned some long-held truths about New Orleans architecture.
“Architectural history has argued that the shotgun house got its start in 1840,” Edwards said. “Any book will tell you that.”
But Edwards has documented shotgun houses — defined as a house with a series of rooms, roughly equal in size, which run straight back from the front of the house — as early as 1803.
“They were a lot smaller” than the ones we think of today, he said. “And they were scattered around the fringes of New Orleans.”
The proliferation of the shotgun house in the first decade of the 19th century might be related to an influx of Haitian immigrants, which doubled the population of the city to almost 20,000, Edwards said.
“They were using them just to get started,” he said of the Haitians. “As soon as they got a little money, they would move,” often to larger houses known as Creole cottages.
In subsequent decades, the shotgun houses were often occupied by free people of color, who rented out the rear rooms as a way to help make ends meet, Edwards said.
“In 1830, there were almost no hotels in New Orleans,” Edwards said.
“People coming to the city needed a place to stay.”
After the Civil War, families often added a second story to the rear of shotgun houses, giving rise to the “camelback.”
Edwards and Richardson hope to roll out the first part of the project online later this year. It will be available to researchers and members of the general public.
“It’s a completely new way of looking at our heritage, our architecture and our landscapes,” he said.
“And it’s fun.”