Baroness de Pontalba
– Her dad began Jackson Square and her vision finished it.
Micaela Leonarda Antonia Almonester, Baroness de Pontalba was only two years old when her father died- leaving his fortune to split between her and her mother. She was educated at the Ursuline Convent down the street. When she turned fifteen, her mother arranged a marriage with her twenty-year-old cousin Xavier Célestin Delfau de Pontalba who lived in France. This breaks her heart, as she is in love with a boy her age but from a poor family. She accepted her mother’s decision.After they were married at the cathedral Micaela and Célestin, they moved into his home in France with his father- about 50 miles from Paris, in a beautiful moated chateau. The couple was getting along so great that they start having children quickly. They had four sons and a daughter. One issue she had was her father-in-law- he was a dominating man holding power over Célestin.
Baron Joseph Delfau de Pontalba was a greedy man with wild mood swings. Over time it caused a big wedge between the couple, especially because the Baron believed he was cheated on the dowry. He believed he should have received a lot more- $40,000 in cash plus jewelry wasn’t enough! It was a quarter of her worth, and he wanted it all! He forced her to sign a power of attorney over to her husband. To save herself from her crazy father-in-law, she talked her husband into moving to Paris out of his reach.
When her mother died, she inherited her mother’s entire estate, and of course the father-in-law wants that too! During one of their visits to the Baron in 1834, her father-in-law stormed into her bedroom with dueling pistols and shot her! She then said to him, “Don’t! I’ll give you everything.” He replies: “No, you are going to die!” He shoots her three more times, during which she puts her hand over the gun while he fires mangling her fingers. Her damaged fingers were removed, but the other shots disfigured her breast, and she lived the rest of her life with the bullets still in her.
Her father-in-law is so ashamed of what happened that he shoots himself in the head later that night with the same pistols. This makes her the Baroness. She soon files for divorce, and builds herself a grand mansion in Paris- it still stands today as the Hotel de Pontalba.
After the start of the French Revolution in 1848, Micaela comes to New Orleans with two of her sons. The city she found wasn’t the same as her childhood, especially the area of what is now Jackson Square. It was basically a slum. She tore down the tenement buildings that lined the Plaza de Armas and had these town houses you see built at a cost of $300,000 in total.
She was very hands on during the construction, often wearing men’s pants while she climbed ladders and did work. When Andrew Jackson himself would see her, he would get after her for wearing pants and refused to tip his hat to her till she put on a dress.
She made a deal with the city to redesign Plaza de Armas into Jackson Square. She would eventually develop the land, insisting that the city could never build anything along the river, blocking the view from her townhouses.
When the center of Plaza de Armas was completed she helped finance the bronze statue of Andrew Jackson with him tipping his hat. As well, she had it placed where Jackson faced her apartment, tipping his hat to her everyday! It is rumored they had a secret affair and that he was actually the love her life.
New Orleans history is a big part of American history. Want to learn more?
Take our French Quarter History Tour