The History of the French Market
The Historic French Market
For over 200 years, the historic French Market has been an enduring symbol of pride and progress for the people of New Orleans. While the Market has existed on the same site since 1791, each new decade and governing flag has brought dramatic changes to the Market and helped to secure its special place in the hearts of the people of New Orleans.
What began as a Native American trading post on the banks of the mighty, muddy Mississippi River on the site chosen for the City by the French, has become a cultural, commercial and entertainment treasure which the Crescent City proudly shares with the world.
Today, America’s oldest public market has assumed a leading role in the local economy as well, providing consistently increasing revenues for city government while putting millions of dollars back into the local economy.
View pdf of 1991 French Market Bicentennial article by John Magill, curator of the Historic New Orleans Collection : French Market-PIP 1991 article-John Magill
Article reprinted by permission of Preservation in Print, the magazine of the Preservation Resource Center
This article on public markets, published in 2007 by local historian Sally Reeves in the LOUISIANA ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES publication LOUISIANA CULTURAL VISTAS, gives an excellent overview of New Orleans’ public markets, and puts the French Market in context.
Time marches on, but the French Market is Eternal
While change has always come to the Market, it hasn’t always come easily. Hurricanes, fires, foreign wars and domestic political struggles have played their own special role in making the city’s best known landmark the commercial and cultural gumbo it is today.
Following decades of revolving Spanish and French dominance, the City of New Orleans became the crown jewel of Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, opening the city and the Market to ships and traders from the world over.
“As for the confusion of tongues in the market, it was simply delicious. French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and “Gumbo” contended with each other for supremacy”2 …” There are Gascon butchers, and the Italian and Spanish fruit vendors, and the German vegetable women; there are Moors, with their strings of beads and crosses, fresh from the Holy Land . . . Chinese and Hindu, Jew and Teuton, French and Creole, Malay, Irish, and English, all uniting in an ceaseless babble of tongues that is simply bewildering.”3
Others who frequented the early market included African-Americans selling coffee, pralines and calas, the rice fritter popular in 19th century New Orleans, and the Choctaw from north of Lake Pontchartrain who brought varieties of herbs, spices and handmade crafts.
Then and now
Coffee drinking played a central role in the life of the Market. According to one account written in 1859 “about midnight the market begins to show signs of life; the coffee tables are decorated with their array of cups of steaming Mocha” . . . 4 A British visitor to the city in the 1880′s wrote of the market: “They gave me deliciously aromatic coffee, dark . . . beautifully crystallized sugar, plenty of hot milk, the purest bread, the freshest of butter.”5
With the technological advancements of the late 1800′s, the grand old Market changed too. In 1870, a structure known as the Bazaar Market was built. Most significant for its time, this unusually well lit and functional building was designed by Joseph Abeilard, one of America’s first African-American architects.
Chief features of the Market at this time included the Halle des Boucheries or Butcher’s Market, a fruit and vegetable market, a fish market, and grocery goods sold in the Market’s Red Stores.
Also in abundance were multitudes of flowers and fauna from throughout south Louisiana. It was around this time that Italians – more specifically, those from Sicily – came to dominance in the Market, selling mostly fruits and vegetables. Even today, over a century later, merchants and farmers of Italian heritage continue to play a leading role in the life of the Market.
Modern management leads a modern market
Prior to the late 1800′s, the City of New Orleans sold franchises in the Market to collect rents, maintain order and enforce sanitation. As time passed, the Market came under control of various city agencies and departments. Finally, with Robert Maestri as Mayor in 1932, the City Council consolidated management of the Market by authorizing organization of the French Market Corporation under the leadership of the French Market Business Men’s Association.
The immediate task facing the Corporation was the rehabilitation and modernization of the Market, a task which significantly altered the face of the ancient Market as well as the composition of the Market community. Colonnades and cupolas were added along ever changing Decatur Street, the antiquated electrical system was rewired, state-of-the-art refrigeration was added, open-air buildings enclosed, and some older buildings were demolished to accommodate today’s Farmers’ Market and growing parking demands. Also added was a wholesale fish shed, which helped meet the demand for many varieties of fresh gulf and lake fish.
The Butchers’ Market, or Halle des Boucheries, was designed in 1813 by city surveyor Jacques Tanesse to replace earlier buildings destroyed by hurricane and fire. The home of coffee stands since the 1860s, as well as the Butchers’ Market, it houses the French Market’s oldest tenant, Café du Monde.
The Cuisine Market was build as part of the 1970s renovation on the site of the wholesale Seafood Market (build in the 1930s) to house major restaurant operations. Today it also includes the National Park Service and French Market Visitor Centers.
The Bazaar Market was built in 1870 by Wells and Company, who leased the site from the city for then years at their won expense. The architect, Joseph Abeilard, who was described as an exceptionally talented architect and builder, was African-American. The Bazaar as it wa originally constructed contained 164 stalls. It was destroyed by hurricane in 1915.
Today’s Bazaar Market was built during the 1930 PWA (Public Works Administration) renovation, and was originally designed for the retail sale of produce. It was converted to retail shops and boutiques during the 1970′s renovation.
The Vegetable Market, or Halle des Légumes, was constructed in 1882 and stands on a triangular plot of land bounded by Ursulines Street, Levee Street (Decatur Street today) St. Philip Street and the Public Road (North Peters Street today). Designed by Joseph Pilié, it was said in 1926 that ” . . . for fruits and vegetables, (the Vegetable Market) appears to be unrivalled.” The building houses restaurants and retail space today.
These modern day buildings are replicas of the original Red Stores, a row of three identical buildings built in 1833 by Manuel Simar Cucullu and Christoval G. de Armas. They were erected not as a part of the French Market, but as a private commercial establishment. One of the buildings was rebuilt in a different style after it was destroyed by fire in 1840. The Red Stores were demolished in the 1930′s to make way for today’s Bazaar Market, and were rebuilt again slightly downriver as part of the 1970′s renovation.
Farmers’ Market Sheds
The first effort to build a modern farmers’ market was made in 1924 by the Public Belt Commission, which issued a study outlining the need for a “produce terminal” at the French Market, which was to have included a farmers’ market. The Farmers’ Market was eventually constructed during the rehabilitation of the French Market in 1937-1938.
Today, farmers from all over the state frequent the first shed of the Farmers” Market to sell directly to consumers, produce retailers and wholesalers. The second shed houses the daily Flea Market.
New era rings in for market
In 1971, under the direction of Mayor Moon Landrieu, the French Market Corporation was granted a new 40 year operating agreement. A twelve member board was appointed by the Mayor to supervise Market policy and operations.
In 1975, the French Market Corporation boldly administered the first major renovation and construction efforts since the Public Works Administration (PWA) projects of the 1930′s, adding a faithful reconstruction of the historic Red Stores and a new Halle des Cuisines, and transforming the Market’s open stalls into modern stores.
At this point in the Market’s storied history, entertainment and tourism became primary aspects of market life. Construction and investment focused on restaurants and shops frequented by thousands of tourists and local residents alike.
These renovation projects were the first step in the rebirth of the Riverfront as a major attraction. While long ago in the 18th and early 19th centuries the levee, with its markets and teeming commerce, had been a place to stroll and shop and see the sights of a growing city, the railroads and changing port technology cut the city off from the river that gave birth to it. The French Market renovations and renaissance of the 1970′s marked New Orleans’ return to the river.
World famous Dutch Alley
Mayor Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial began putting his own special stamp on the Market in 1978 by making several dramatic physical improvements, including the erection of the Performance Tent near St. Philip Street; floodwall gates at Dumaine and St. Philip Streets; and historic displays and statuary, all of which bringing the Market closer to the river and providing a variety of new attractions for visitors. Mayor Morial will perhaps be best remembered for initiating the active promotion of commerce and entertainment in “Dutch Alley,” a lovely, but previously under utilized pedestrian plaza.
This period also saw the growth of the popular Flea market, which became a seven-days-a-week venue and a major shopping attraction.
In early 1986, under the leadership of Mayor Sidney Barthelemy and the direction of a progressive and business-minded French Market Board of Directors, the historic old Market entered an era in which new development went hand in hand with sound business and management principles. This resulted in unprecedented financial viability and international recognition for the Market. In fact, in 1991, the “grandfather” of all American Markets was selected by peer markets worldwide to host the International Public Market Conference, providing an opportunity to showcase the “eclectic offerings of this fascinating and historic market.”
Physical improvements took many forms: colorful renovations of existing buildings, addition of City property on Esplanade Avenue to the Market’s holdings as a parking facility, and a new floodwall gate at Ursulines Street to provide increased access between the Market and the Mississippi River.
Additionally, the French Market played a major role in enhancing the City’s public transportation system by helping to make possible the development of a riverfront streetcar.
Perhaps the most important physical change in the Market under the Barthelemy administration was the 1993 addition of the French Market Visitor Center located near Decatur and Dumaine streets. This facility features news on current and upcoming Market events, shopping, dining and tourist information, and colorful histories of America’s most colorful Market.
Under the Barthelemy administration, the French Market experienced a philosophical renaissance as well, with management focusing on stabilizing the rapidly growing Flea Market, cleaning up area streets and improving safety in the Market, and making the Market attractive to locals and visitors alike.
This period also saw the birth of countless festivals and community events to celebrate the host of international foods and cultures which have contributed to New Orleans and to the Market throughout its two hundred year history. The most popular of these, the Tomato Festival, the Latin American Food Festival, the Lighting of the Christmas Tree, and Pumpkin Art have become institutionalized City events, drawing thousands of people each year.
Weekend concerts were also added to the Market’s busy calendar and, of great significance to a city in love with food, fresh seafood and prepared foods were introduced in the Farmers’ Market and a renewed emphasis was placed on bringing farmers from south Louisiana back to the Market’s renovated stalls.
The French Market’s revived focus on Louisiana’s growers extended beyond its successful efforts to draw area farmers back to the Market, with the publication of the French Market’s annual Growers Guide Directory, a comprehensive guide to Louisiana growers and farm products that has resulted in increased appreciation and patronage by area restaurants and other businesses of the bounty of farm fresh produce that Louisiana has to offer.
One important result
One important result of this new overall attitude toward this ancient institution is that the French Market Corporation has evolved into a financially viable organization that hosts, educates and entertains millions of locals and visitors to New Orleans each year, in addition to returning hundreds of thousands of dollars to the City.
America’s oldest and best loved public market writes it’s own history every day. With each new sunrise on Decatur Street, history repeats itself as it has for over 200 years: always the same, yet impossible to predict.
Making Groceries at the Old French Market by Sally Reeves
A great read about this history of the French Market!