Criminal Courts and Jail. Loyola Avenue. 1919. Courtesy of the Charles L. Franck Studio Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection

Did New Orleans have its own Bastille? No, but some newspaper reporters joked about it in the early 20th century. In 1892, only months after the trial of 10 Italians accused of murdering New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy and the lynching of almost a dozen Italian prisoners at the old parish prison in Tremé, the city council decided to build, as seen here in 1919, a new criminal court building and parish prison. It was located in a large square bounded by today’s Gravier Street and Tulane Avenue and by Loyola Avenue and Liberty Street, where the New Orleans Public Library and City Hall complex now stand. It was then a notorious neighborhood with its bawdy saloons and nearby Chinatown. 

On April 4, 1892, a special committee created by the council accepted the design and $350,000 bid submitted by Dallas architect M.A. Orlopp Jr., a U.S. Naval Academy graduate born in Brooklyn, N.Y. His firm had just completed a similar Romanesque Revival courthouse in Dallas that still stands today. 

Orlopp’s Romanesque-Gothic design, with its red brick and stone trimmed castle-like multi-storied, four-building complex, looked more like a medieval fortress, complete with clock tower, turrets, circular towers and walls. The campus included a courthouse, prison, police headquarters, police patrol station, morgue, infirmary, chapel, execution yard, and sleeping quarters for jurors and prison staff. It was to be fireproof with all the then modern conveniences, including elevators.

During his presentation to the committee, Orlopp promised to use as much as possible only local materials, an announcement that left some public officials salivating. Orlopp also agreed to let committee members choose the bricks for the building (a lucrative contract for local brick-makers).

 By mid-January 1894, the courts and police had moved into their new digs while other parts of the complex were getting final touches. On Jan. 14, the Daily Picayune (later Times-Picayune) described the new courthouse and jail: “The exterior presents an imposing and handsome appearance. It is faced with pressed brick and trimmed with stone and terra-cotta molded into such form and style as to entirely avoid monotony. It is, in fact, the only modern public building, which New Orleans possesses. The interior is finished in Louisiana cypress, Georgian marble and mahogany.”

Criminals, police and judges were not the only inhabitants of the complex. Vagrants made themselves at home in the deep recesses of the basement. As the late New Orleans preservationist Leonard Huber noted in his 1991 book “New Orleans: A Pictorial History” – “Enterprising newspaper reporters at the time discovered that tramps had set up housekeeping under the ground floor. They had even tapped the electric current for lighting and were snugly ensconced in what the reporters nicknamed the ‘Hotel de Bastille,’ just a few feet from their traditional enemies, the police.”

That was only a minor issue. According to Tulane University School of Architecture geographer Richard Campanella, problems plagued the new courthouse and prison from the start. “Appearances aside,” he wrote in 2020, “Orlopp’s courthouse had serious structural flaws, and coupled with revelations of corruption in the bidding, the whole pile of bricks gained a bad rap. Worse, the facility swiftly became obsolete, as new technologies in calefaction and illumination came to architecture, and automobiles and radio communications came to policing. Architectural tastes changed in the 1910s and 1920s, after which the complex came across as flat-out medieval-looking.”

By the late 1920s, city officials felt the location was better suited for commercial development than a dark, brooding prison complex. In 1931, the city built a new courthouse, prison and police headquarters that stands to this day at Tulane and Broad. In the late 1940s, the city demolished the “medieval-looking” old courthouse on Loyola.