Following an eight-month renovation, the 1850 House Museum will celebrate its reopening Tuesday.
Located at 523 St. Ann St. in the middle of the Lower Pontalba Building on Jackson Square, the row house is one of five Louisiana State Museum properties open to the public in the French Quarter. It also is one of a handful of house museums depicting life for the upper middle class in antebellum New Orleans.
“The 1850 House provides us with a unique window into who we were as a people at that time and how that identity continues to shape us today,” Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser said in an announcement of the reopening.
The $30,000 in renovations, paid for by the Friends of the Cabildo organization, were prompted by a malfunction in the three-story house’s air conditioning and ventilation system, according to Katie Burlison, the house museum’s curator.
After a faulty switch allowed outside air to enter the building, mold started to accumulate in the third-floor nursery, one of the old row house’s three bedrooms.
The mold got into the building’s air and was putting more than 400 small artifacts as well as dozens of pieces of antique furniture and more than 50 fragile textiles at risk, Burlison said. “That meant we needed to remediate the whole building,” she said, calling the presence of mold “a small emergency.”
While emptying the building and cleaning its contents, staff members took advantage of the chance to refinish every room on the second and third floors, including installing new carpet and windowpanes. Rooms were repainted and crown molding was refinished to reflect the appearance of the 1850 House in its first years, Burlison said.
Staff also added to the museum’s collection by installing informational panels in the hallways leading into the historic rooms, completed with the help of graduate students in the University of New Orleans’ Public History Program.
Subjects of the panels include urban slaves and the former residents of the 1850 House, as well as Jackson Square and the French Market.
One panel is dedicated to Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba, who financed and partially designed the block-long Lower Pontalba Building and the matching Upper Pontalba Building on the other side of Jackson Square in the late 1840s.
The distinctive row houses were inspired by Parisian architecture that the baroness admired, including the Place de Vosges, according to Burlison. The apartments included then-modern amenities such as closets.
Pontalba’s family had a long and well-known history with the French Quarter, and the family shaped much of the district’s now-familiar appearance. Her father Don Andrés Almonester y Roxas was a Spanish colonial landowner who helped finance the Cabildo, St. Louis Cathedral and the Presbytere.
In 1921, the Pontalba family sold the Lower Pontalba Building to philanthropist William Ratcliffe Irby. He in turn bequeathed it to the Louisiana State Museum in 1927, and the 1850 House opened to the public in 1948. The other row houses in the complex have stores on their first floor and apartments on the upper floors.
The Upper Pontalba Building is owned by the city.
Today, a walk through the 1850 House museum shows antique art and décor true to the era.
A formal sitting room, for example, includes a bookcase from the Roman Classical revival period, a rococo revival-style piece of floral-carved furniture and a Gothic revival clock on the mantel.
“In this period, you’d see a lot of mixing of styles,” Burlison said, adding that the era was the city’s most prosperous — a prosperity that ended with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.
Along with locally made furniture, the house also includes porcelain and silver from France, as well as fine jewelry, antique clothing, handmade dolls, rocking bassinets and baby walkers.
Other relics true to the time period include a portable metal bathtub, which wouldn’t have been hooked up to running water, and artwork made from human hair, carefully woven by women so it resembled flowers or other decorative pieces.
Burlison said she had hoped to renovate and restore the rear kitchen wing, but funding wasn’t available. She cited the state’s budget crisis, which has cut into cultural and historic programming, including at the State Museum.
The budget crisis also means there’s no money for things needed at several of the museum’s other buildings, including a sprinkler system at the 200-year-old Presbytere.
“It’s not just that we want to go out and buy pretty things,” Burlison said about the museum’s mission of historic preservation. “We have to keep these buildings healthy.”
The 1850 House will be open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. It is closed on Mondays and state holidays.