James Gallier Sr.

(1798–1866)

A painted portrait of James Gallier Sr. Attributed to Charles Octavius Cole. Learn more »

The reputation of James Gallier Sr. exceeded that of all other architects of the nineteenth century in New Orleans. During a career spanning forty-six years he worked with leading architects in London and New York, but it is through his practice of only fifteen years in New Orleans, following his arrival in 1835, that he can be identified as one of the most successful architects of his time. His proficient adaptation of classical forms and his skillful construction management, informed by his early work as a builder in his native Ireland and in England, resulted in many successful buildings. In his self-assessment as an architect, recorded most vividly in an autobiography, he prefigured the rise of professional architectural practice nationally during the second half of the nineteenth century.

James Gallier was born on July 24, 1798, in Ravensdale, County Louth, on the eastern coast of Ireland, the eldest of thirteen children. He apprenticed with his father, a builder, before taking up architectural drafting at the Dublin School of Fine Arts—his only formal instruction in architecture. After working as a builder for projects in Dublin’s Mountjoy Square, and then in Liverpool and Manchester, England, he returned to Ireland in 1818, where built residences at Flurry Bridge, Cooley, and Dundalk, and in Northern Ireland at Mourne Park. Gallier moved to London in the summer of 1822, where he found employment with two prominent building firms, John William Griffiths and Cover and Lawrence. In 1823 he married Elizabeth Tyler in Shropshire.

The turning point in Gallier’s career came in 1826, when London architect William Wilkins hired him as superintendent for a prison project at Huntingdon, north of Cambridge. Wilkins was apparently favorably impressed with Gallier’s work, and from graphic evidence it appears that Gallier may have assisted Wilkins at Kings College, Cambridge (1823–1828) and University College, London (1826–1828), two of Wilkins’s most important commissions. Under Wilkins’s guidance, Gallier acquired an authority with classical forms—sometimes, in fact, with an overtly scholarly approach to the antique—that became the basis of his mature work. Reflecting on having achieved a position as assistant to the most prominent architect in Britain, Gallier wrote, “I began to fancy myself a person of some little importance,” having started in life “on nearly the lowest rung of the social ladder.” Also during this time he designed a bridge over the River Ouse and at least one house at Godmanchester (1827).

From 1828, Gallier superintended building projects in the Mayfair section of London for J. P. Gandy Deering. He also began to work independently for several clients, including the coach builder John Robson, for whom he built a factory and residence on South Street, but the work was ultimately unrewarding. In his autobiography, Gallier wrote that he “could never reckon upon any great success in London without the patronage of people in high station…[but] with such people I had no influence.” In February 1832 he immigrated to New York City, apparently to escape bankruptcy.

 

Building in the United States

In New York City, Gallier worked as a draftsman for Town, Davis and Dakin, the leading architectural firm in the city, where he formed a close association with James H. Dakin, the newly minted partner in the firm (Dakin would later become Gallier’s chief professional rival in New Orleans). Gallier reportedly collaborated with Dakin on the Second Avenue Presbyterian Church (1832). In 1833, Gallier published a construction manual, American Builder’s Price Book, and presented a series of lectures on the history of architecture. He partnered with Minard Lafever in 1833–34 and supplied the frontispiece, a villa design, for Lafever’s The Modern Builder’s Guide (1833), one of the best-selling pattern books of its day. But the “horse-in-a-mill routine of grinding out drawings for the builders” in New York, as he wrote, stifled him. Having heard of business opportunities in New Orleans, he “determined to run the hazard” of the Crescent City. He left New York in October 1834 with Charles B. Dakin, brother of his former employer, and after a brief stay in Mobile, Alabama (where they obtained important commissions), Gallier and Dakin set up an office on Canal Street in New Orleans.

 

New Orleans Sojourn

Gallier and Dakin quickly acquired prominent clients, many associated with the Irish community of Faubourg St. Mary. One of them, John Hagan, and his partner-investors, commissioned Gallier and Dakin to design and build a 350-room hotel, the St Charles. With a portico of Corinthian columns fronting St. Charles Avenue and a 185-foot-high dome visible up and down the Mississippi River, the hotel was the most famous building of nineteenth-century New Orleans. When a fire destroyed the hotel in 1851, it was immediately rebuilt, but without the dome.  

The Gallier and Dakin partnership left a legacy of other admired buildings. The Three Sisters row houses at Bienville and Iberville Streets (1834) were distinguished by three projecting porticoes with massive columns and Tower of the Winds capitals, and the Arcade Bath House (1836), built for gaslight entrepreneur James Caldwell, also featured a monumental Corinthian portico in its original design. At the Merchants’ Exchange on Royal Street (1836), Gallier and Dakin’s plain granite exterior contrasted with an opulent, domed exchange room on the interior. Their Christ Church (1837) was another Ionic temple, this time for an Episcopal congregation on Canal Street. With many of these buildings still under construction (none survive today), Gallier and Dakin dissolved their partnership in late 1835, following the arrival from New York of James Dakin.

Gallier then entered into a partnership with builder Michael Collins, working through the Panic of 1837 on numerous residential and commercial projects. In 1839 he completed a resplendent Gothic Revival sanctuary for St. Patrick’s Church on Camp Street, a project he took over from James Dakin.

The 1840s, Gallier’s final decade in practice, saw some of his greatest achievements as a designer. An Italianate house built for Dr. William Mercer at 148 Canal Street in 1844 was perhaps the best of his many residential projects, and one of a small number that survive today. The Commercial Exchange on the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Perdido Street (1845), was a three-story stuccoed building with a pedimented portico of superimposed orders. One of his most inspired designs was for two blocks of row houses facing Jackson Square (1849), but the client, the Baroness Pontalba, hired architect Henry Howard and builder Samuel Stewart to complete the work.

The City Hall for the Third Municipality on Lafayette Square, completed in 1850 (now known as Gallier Hall), was the culmination of Gallier’s career and his last major work. Reminiscent of Wilkins’s Grange Park, Hampshire, built forty years earlier, the building has an Ionic portico based on the Erechtheion in Athens. Historian Talbot Hamlin in 1944 called it the best small Greek Revival building in America. No building in New Orleans had a better fortuna; even with the decline of the Greek Revival it remained one of the city’s most admired buildings and the seat of civic government for more than a century.

Gallier retired from architecture in 1850 due to failing eyesight (he blamed long hours at the drawing board), turning over his practice to his son, James Jr. His mature career had been profitable, particularly as he had managed the construction trades for many of his projects (he was a sympathetic employer who attracted the most skilled tradesmen). Financial security enabled him to dedicate his retirement to travel in Europe and the Middle East, which he wrote about in his autobiography, published in Paris during the American Civil War. Gallier perished, along with his second wife, Catherine Robinson, in October 1866 in the sinking of the steamer Evening Star off the Georgia coast. He was memorialized with a cenotaph designed by his son and erected in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans.

An archive of Gallier’s papers, drawings, and plans for projects in London (and Huntington), New York, Mobile, and New Orleans survives in the Southeastern Architectural Archive at Tulane University. Other drawings can be found in The Historic New Orleans Collection and the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans.

 

Cite This Entry

Chicago Manual of Style

Van Zante, Gary. "James Gallier Sr.." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published October 1, 2012. http://www.knowla.org/entry/815/.

MLA Style

Van Zante, Gary. "James Gallier Sr.." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 1 Oct 2012. Web. 24 May 2016.

Suggested Reading

Would you like to learn more about this topic from books and other reading materials?

Colvin, Howard. A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600–1840, 3rd ed. London and New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

 Gallier, James. Autobiography of James Gallier, Architect. New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1973 [reprint, with an introduction by Samuel Wilson Jr., of original 1864 edition].

Gould, Elizabeth Barrett. From Fort to Port: An Architectural History of Mobile, Alabama, 1711–1918. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1988.

Hamlin, Talbot. Greek Revival Architecture in America. New York, NY: Dover, 1964 [reprint of 1944 edition].

Lane, Mills. The Architecture of the Old South: Louisiana. New York, NY: Abbeville Press, 1990.

Scully, Arthur, Jr. James Dakin, Architect: His Career in New York and the South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973.

An archive of Gallier’s papers, drawings, and plans for projects in London (and Huntington), New York, Mobile, and New Orleans survives in the Southeastern Architectural Archive at Tulane University. Other drawings can be found in The Historic New Orleans Collection and the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans.

 

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  • Gallier City Hall
  • St. Charles Hotel in Flames
  • Christ Church
  • Merchants' Exchange

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