French Opera House
The heart of the old French Quarter
The French Opera House on the morning of December 4, 1919, with water still being sprayed onto the fire. The day after the fire, Lyle Saxon in The Times-Picyaune addressed the emotional heartache the city collectively suffered. Devastated people came to see the French Opera House smoldering, to mourn a place that for decades the primary site of their social lives and favorite memories. As he wrote: “There is a pall over the city; eyes are filled with tears and hearts are heavy. The heart of the old French Quarter has stopped beating.”
Opera first came to New Orleans in the 1790s, but it wasn’t until 1859 that the French Opera House, designed by James Gallier Jr., was built on the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse streets. Construction was completed in seven months, thanks to around-the-clock work lit at night by street bonfires. The first performance, Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, was held on December 1, 1859. The Opera House quickly became the center of entertainment for the high society set, hosting not just opera performances, but also Mardi Gras balls, debuts and other social events.
At 2 a.m. on December 4, 1919, a fire of undetermined origin (but suspected to be a restaurant on the first floor) destroyed the Opera House. While no person was hurt, almost all of the costumes, props and instruments were lost to the fire. A dozen scores, one or two costumes and a handful of instruments – a violin, a flute and a harp – were saved, but nothing more.
Within days of the fire, talk began of rebuilding the Opera House just as it was, using the original Gallier plans. Donations came in from many sources, and two years after the fire, on December 5, 1921, a parade was held to raise even more. Starting at Elk Place and led by the police band and the Shriners, girls with sheets collected coins thrown by the crowd. They were followed by Boy and Girl Scouts, the Shalimar Grotto Band and more, marching down to the Opera House site where an aria from Gallo was sung, followed by a duet from Madame Butterfly.
Despite the public passion, the Opera House was never rebuilt. In 1947, the still-empty space became a parking lot until talk began of erecting a hotel on the site. On December 4, 1965, exactly 46 years after the French Opera House burned down, the Downtowner Motor Inn opened. After a few changes in ownership, the site is now Four Points by Sheraton.