Madame Pontalba
(November 6, 1795-April 20, 1874)

Micaela Leonarda Antonia Almonester y Rojas, Baroness de Pontalba, lived a life that was equal parts fascinating, horrifying, and sublimely strong. Her rich legacy as a real estate developer and ‘lay’ architect has left her indelible fingerprint on the French Quarter, the heart of our city.

Micaela’s father died when she was two, leaving her the sole heir to his massive fortune. Following the tradition of New Orleans aristocracy, after schooling at the Old Ursuline Convent, she entered an arranged marriage at age 16. She married her French cousin (also born in New Orleans), Joseph-Xavier Célestin Delfau de Pontalba, just three weeks after meeting him.

Once married, she and her family moved to France. Her mother took up residence in Paris, while she and her husband moved to the Pontalba family estate 50 miles away, where they subsequently had five children in as many years. Before her daughter’s marriage, Micaela’s mother made an arrangement that Micaela would only bring to her marriage one third of her dowry. To receive the rest, her father-in-law, the Baron, was required to sign over an equal sum to his son. Obsessed with Micaela’s fortune and desperate to gain control of it, he was forced to agree. But, the Baron secretly made his son sign an agreement that under no circumstances would he ask for his inheritance. Micaela found this letter, and soon the battle lines were drawn.

Micaela became a virtual prisoner in her own home as her greedy father-in-law waged a decades-long mental war against her. When she failed to yield to his pressure, he coerced the staff to pretend that she was invisible. Even guests were not allowed to address her, essentially making her a ghost in her own home.

Micaela’s mother continued to live in Paris, where she quietly amassed a sizable amount of real estate. By her death in 1825, she had greatly increased the family wealth. Micaela continued to protect her fortune and her attempts to legally separate from her weak-minded husband.

By 1834, her father-in-law became so enraged with her stubborn refusal to give in to him that he stormed into her bedroom and shot her point blank in the chest with a pair of dueling pistols. After the first shot, she reportedly cried out, “Stop, I’ll give you everything!” whereupon he replied, “No, you’re going to die” and shot her three more times.  After standing over her unconscious body, he returned to his study where he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.  Miraculously, Micaela lived.

After the shooting, her husband, now Baron, paid the local journal to onlypublish his attorney’s arguments from the trial, thus the public heard his ‘side’ of the separation and subsequent incidents, not hers. As a result, the Baroness was completely shunned by society.  Though being shot was not cause enough for legal separation, loss of reputation was- as it was his duty as her husband to protect his wife’s good name. She was granted complete autonomy by the French courts.

Upon separation from her husband, Micaela, now a Baroness, began to design and build. Her first project was the Hotel de Pontalba in Paris, now home to the American Ambassador. She returned to New Orleans where she built the Pontalba buildings, which flank St. Louis Cathedral. She inherited her parents' affinity for building and played a key role in the architectural layout of Jackson Square (in which she had a hand renaming from Place d’Armes).

The Baroness also brought wrought iron to New Orleans, establishing it as an iconic look of the French Quarter. The design in the railing of the Pontalba buildings– an entwined P and A (for Pontalba and Almonester, her maiden name)– was her design.

After many years, following a mental and physical breakdown, her estranged husband beckoned her back to France to care for him in his declining health. She cared for him for 23 years until her death in 1874.

Madame Pontalba was a woman who defined herself in the way she knew best. She had a knack for survival, both physically and symbolically, and the heart of the French Quarter still bears witness to her talent.

Thanks to our sponsor
On the Cover: Sydney Stokes, 14, on the iconic stairs of the Pontalba apartments. Photo by Twirl Photography.

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