Déjà vu, mon ami?

Historical fiction by David M. Spicuzza, AIA, 1974, detailing the actual 1850 collapse of the St. Louis Cathedral's tower.

Where Else But in New Orleans?

With the strains of “Saint James Infirmary” giving way to the applause from the growing circle of spectators and everyone else within hearing distance, the New French Market Street Band swings smoothily into yet another favorite, “A Closer Walk With Thee.” Tossed coins jingle and flash in the noonday sun and roll lazily to a stop around an open, battered trombone case. The music carries…floats…curls and winds its way into every nook and cranny. The crowd continues to grow, quietly, almost reverently. People appear in open windows as if answering the call of some familiar piper drawing them all with the same sounds that have slept in these time-soaked walls since the days of Bienville.

“Where else?” I ask myself, “Where else but in New Orleans?”

I close my eyes and turn my face up into the bright warm December sunshine. There is a subtle shift in the breeze blowing in from the river and the sounds below my balcony are not unlike those of carriage wheels and horses' hooves; the rustling of skirts and some music…a piano-banjo duet coming from a tavern just down the way. A carpenter's hammer echoes from the naked brick walls and skeleton scaffolding of a new building across the street. The sounds mix with the smell of the freshly sawn wood.

Such a Building Boom!

Such a building boom! I haven't seen so many wagonloads of lumber and timbers rumbling down Royal Street since the St. Louis Hotel was rebuilt after the fire. It must have been at least ten years ago, so that would make it 1840. What a fire that was! I was only eleven at the time, but I remember hearing folks tell about it later. Some people who lived out by the lake said they could see from their houses the glow of the flames and the smoke. Doctor Ducatel, who lived just down Royal Street on the corner at Toulouse, said he himself treated some of the injured.

I wish I had been there to see it for myself, but no one would take me, and because I was too young to go alone I had to satisfy my curiousity by listening to the stories of others. It wasn't until ten years later that I did witness the immediate aftermath of a somewhat similar catastrophic event — the time the great central tower of the Cathedral collapsed almost before my very eyes.

Like a Battery of Cannons

It was a bright cold Saturday morning in January, the nineteenth to be exact, when shortly after eleven o'clock a thunderous roar shook the earth for blocks around the area of the Cathedral. Michael and Charles, two of my draughtsmen colleagues, and I were on the corner of Chartres and Conti Streets preparing to size up a building designated for renovation when, without warning, the ground trembled and shook beneath our feet and an instant later a rumbling boom clapped our ears like a battery of cannons roaring in the distance. None of us quite knew what had happened. So bad was the shock and ground tremors that we were each slightly covered with powdered brick mortar and paint flakes which had shaken loose from the building walls and balcony near which we were standing.

Running Along Chartres Street

Charles recovered first and began simultaneously stammering and pointing North up Chartres Street to a great cloud of boiling gray smoke near the Cathedral. Without a word and as if of one mind we began running as fast as our legs could carry us to the scene, coattails flapping, one hand on our hats, the other clutching our notebooks and measuring instruments. What a sight we must have made, dodging between other slower would-be spectators! Here we were, three respectable draughtsmen — up-and-coming apprentices to the architects' profession — racing down the street like a bunch of hooligans. Carriage drivers were struggling to restrain their teams among all the shouting and confusion. One runaway careened off the wall of the slave exchange at St. Louis Street, ripping off one of the back wheels, finally wedging the carriage with a splintering crash between a lamppost and some huge wooden packing crates stacked on the banquette. A riderless horse shot across Chartres heading toward the river on Toulouse Street.

By the time we finally reached the Square, which couldn't have been more than a minute, bricks and pieces of debris were still falling. People were running wildly about with a great deal of screaming and shouting. The dust cloud we had mistaken for gray smoke was still swirling about and the smell of powdered mortar hung heavy in the air.

The sight which then confronted us was unbelievable. The large central tower of the Cathedral which was nearing completion had somehow collapsed, sending large chunks of debris as far as the middle of the Square. Part of the roof and portions of the side walls had been carried down when the tower fell. The street was piled high with twisted iron and masonry rubble. Large timbers, smashed and broken like toothpicks, were jutting out from the wreckage. I could see into a part of the nave, the middle body of the church, through a gaping hole framed by a jagged crown of twisted, sagging roof timbers. Pieces of scaffolding and framing lumber were still swinging loosely and hanging from the upper parts of the two side towers, which somehow escaped without much damage. Fortunately, the spires had not yet been erected on any of the towers.

Searching for Survivors

Searching for Survivors

People had already begun to climb frantically through the wreckage searching for survivors, while others attended to some of the injured workmen staggering as if in a daze or lying about. They had apparently been thrown from their scaffolds in the crash or hit by falling debris. We could see the back half of a splintered lumber wagon, one of its wheels still turning slowly, sticking out from between some fallen timbers and piles of loose masonry. Both of the horses hitched to it were still trapped in the debris. One looked as if it were dead, while the other kicked and carried on so that one of the policemen on the scene climbed over to where the animal lay struggling and, shoving aside a small timber, took out his revolver and ended its misery on the spot. Several bodies were being extracted from the wreckage. Both of one man's legs were bloodied and dangling loosely as if there were no bones inside. Others were crying out in pain. Fortunately, they all showed some signs of life. I saw Father Maenhaut, the pastor, making his way among the injured, offering help and encouragement. From time to time, with a pained expression on his face, he would turn and look back at the devastation.

Ending the Horse's Misery

Some of the policemen and firemen who were at the station in the City Hall complex next to the Cathedral were the first ones on the scene. In fact, they had run out into the street in such a rush that hats, topcoats, and other parts of their uniforms were left behind. On burly fellow was covered from head to toe with seat and grime, his suspenders dangling around his thighs, while he single-handedly lifted a huge timber to help free an injured workman trapped in the wreckage. The Lafayette Fire Company had stationed the City Hall engine on the banquette bordering the Square directly opposite the Cathedral while the crew was making ready to pump the wreckage at an instant's notice, should the need arise. I could hear the clanging of other engines approaching and more police arriving.

Panic and Confusion

Several scattered screams rose from the crowd as a large chunk of masonry crashed down on the wreckage, narrowly missing two rescuers who jumped clear at the last second. A man was shouting and pushing his way through the crowd behind me calling out a woman's name. It seems he and his wife had been in the crowded courthouse across the alley from the Cathedral when the crash occurred. The resulting panic and confusion was so severe that those closest to the crash thought the entire Cathedral was falling over and rushed to the exits through the Supreme Court Section onto St. Ann Street. No one in the building was hurt from the crash itself, but several were injured in the ensuing exodus.

Architect DePouilly Arrives

The police had finally built up a force large enough to start to control the growing crowd as well as the tangle of traffic, which by this time was already unimaginable. Somehow amid all the fuss a handsome black cab and blue black team managed to make it through and come sharply around the corner of the Square, pulling up with some importance just in front of he newly formed police line. A few hurried words were exchanged by the animated driver and a police captain on horseback, then the cab was waved through and stopped near the main mass of wreckage. I felt Charles' elbow bang against mine several times as the cab door opened and out stepped none other than Mr. DePouilly, the architect responsible for the Cathedral renovations that were in progress. He was especially well-known to my colleagues and me since he was, of course, a prominant architect. At one time or another we had sought employment under his supervision, only to be shown such a waiting list of draughtsmen and apprentices that would make you dizzy with envy. Nevertheless, here was the embodiment of our dreams, the successful and well-known architect, the designer of prestigious buildings, the director of armies of workmen. At this moment, we all agreed we would prefer not to be in his shoes.

Architect DePouilly

It may have been our imaginations, but it seemed the crowd sensed that this was a person of some importance as he stood surveying the wreckage and activities, first from a distance then closer … probing and pushing on bits of rubble with his cane. We watched his every move as he pointed up to several places where the tower had stood, while conversing with another well-dressed gentlemen we did not recognize. He walked around the fringes of the main mass of debris … looking first into the rubble, then up at the front of the building. At one point he took off his gloves, reached down and picked up a brick and began striking with his cane at some mortar which was still clinging to the brick. He handed the brick to the gentleman with him who also examined it, nodding. DePouilly reached down once more and extracted a huge twisted bolt which he dusted clean with his pair of gloves and handed it to his friend, who then carried the collection back to the carriage.

I turned to see if Michael was watching this bit of drama, but he was already busy sketching and scribbling furiously in his notebook. I knew he was recording the events for later discussion at our favorite drinking place. Over a glass of brew we would design the buildings of the future on the tablecloths, critique the work of prominent architects, chastise them and dismiss them from our forum, and in general solve the problems of the world. Tonight's session would be a most unusual and interesting one.

Builder Kirwan Appears

I felt Charles' elbow jab me in the ribs again and, looking up, I saw the owner of the building company whose men were working on the Cathedral. Mr. Kirwan came out of the Square through the main gates directly opposite the Church, nervously nopping his brow with a large blue silk handkerchief. He walked over to where some of the injured workmen were being treated, shaking his head a stopping a moment to talk with each of them. To some he gave a consoling pat on the shoulder, others, a firm handshake. He finally turned his attention to the scene of the accident. That was when he spotted Mr. DePouilly, quickly strode over to him, and with a slight bow, shook hands and immediately shrugged. Though I'm sure unintended, it was a comical gesture— as if to indicate that, without question, he had no idea what could have caused such a thing to happen. They walked together for several minutes … or rather Kirwan followed DePouilly around, talking incessantly, mopping his brow, and shrugging every now and then. DePouilly finally turned, tipped his hat and disappeared down the alley along the left side of the Cathedral, leaving Kirwan to shrug once more at his departure. This was the last time they would exchange pleasantries.

Builder Kirwan

Rescuers were still searching and sifting through the rubble, apparently looking for anyone who might still be trapped or buried. The driver of the lumber wagon that had been crushed was still missing, but we found out later that he had gone for a drink and when told the news about his wagon and team, fainted dead out, suffering a concussion upon hitting the bar rail.

With much of the excitement beginning to subside, we were turning to leave when Charles spotted a large twisted bolt on the cobblestones, much like the one Mr. DePouilly had impounded, not more than five steps from us inside the police line. Wouldn't it be something to have such a souvenir? When the policeman nearest us appeared to be engaged in conversation with one of the spectators, Charles brazenly sauntered out to where the bolt lay, picked it up and examined it, mimicking DePouilly's little glove-dusting episode with his hand. He started back toward us with that clown-face smile of his, but before he had taken two steps our policeman friend turned, spotted Charles, and let out a roaring, “Here, you! What you think you're doing?” I heard the bolt clang on the stones as Charles went white and began stammering and gesturing, upon which the policeman closed the case with a resounding, “Get back in line.” The three of us were laughing so hard by the time we made it through the crowds that I was sure we were going to be mistaken for the lunatics we were and placed under arrest for irreverence at a public disaster or some such charge.

All in all it was a most exciting day and we still had a building to size up. Who knows, maybe someday we'll have a business of our own and then we can send our apprentices out to size up the work. Hopefully, they won't spend the day witnessing the collapse of one of our grand buildings.

Sorting Out the Aftermath

We later found out that Mr. Kirwan, the builder, and Mr. DePouilly, the architect, were dismissed by the Cathedral trustees because of the dispute surrounding the catastrophe. Mr. DePouilly blamed the builder for not bracing the organ loft sufficiently at the base of the tower and for using poorly-skilled workmen who did not protect the masonry from the weather. He also charged that the scaffolding in use was touching the fresh masonry, causing vibrations when the men worked. We howled with laughter at that one. Mr. Kirwan, on the other hand, blamed the architect, saying his plans were defective and impractical. We agreed out of sheer nonsensical spite. A separate building inspection committee eventually reported that the collapse was due to the builder's failure to anchor the new brick work into the old front walls and that the bricks used were inferior. The committee also reported that the builder failed to let the mortar harden sufficiently before laying on additional masonry.

Jimmy McLaughlin, Mr. Kirwan's building foreman in charge of the workmen at the Cathedral, alleged in a letter to the Daily Picayune that, contrary to previous reports in that newspaper, the architect DePouilly was responsible for ordering the supporters to be removed from under the arch of the main tower before the masonry had completely set.

We were not sure that the cause was ever finally established. But we were certain that it was a miracle that no one was killed. The damages were estimated as high as twenty thousand dollars, and naturally we all had some special observations of our own at our nightly drinking sessions for months afterwards. That was quite a day. I can still see that half-witted smile on Charles' face when he tried to get his souvenir bolt. That was in January, almost a year ago.

A Slight Winter Chill

Soon we'll be taking down the Christmas decorations. The New Year will be on us and 1850 will be part of the past. Another year. I wonder if the shoppers, scurrying about laughing and chatting below my balcony in their Christmas finery, feel the sadness in the passing of a year as I do. The December sunshine feels full and bright on my face, yet there is a slight chill in the air that carries with it the distant sound of music and laughter and the warning of a winter unfulfilled. I've lost an old friend that I will never see again.

I'm suddenly cold. The balcony creaks softly beneath me and as I look down I see the remains of a crowd and, in their midst, some street musicians packing away their instruments and picking up the last of some coins lying on the pavement around a tattered old instrument case… déjà vu, mon ami?

I have lived here before….