Today, the Cabildo is a facility of the Louisiana State Museum, but the courtyard of the Cabildo was the location of a city prison complex for nearly two hundred years, across French, Spanish, and American rule. Constructed in 1730, the prison and police station were some of the city’s earliest administrative structures. In 1769, following the transition from French to Spanish rule, Spanish officials demolished the existing structure and built a Cabildo, or town hall: a complex with a military prison, a civil prison, police station, jailer’s quarters, and government chambers. The Great Fire of 1788 damaged this Cabildo and another fire in 1794 destroyed other parts of the complex. In 1799, the second Cabildo was completed, and this is the structure you see today.
In the early 1830s, the City Council authorized plans for enlarging the prison to deal with its notorious overcrowding, but the city also built a new Orleans Parish Prison behind what is today the Municipal Auditorium near Louis Armstrong Park. After the construction of the new prison finished in 1839, the old prison was abandoned and subsequently torn down. Throughout the Spanish and American periods of its operation, government officials and visitors commented on the poor condition of the facility, from lack of food and clothing to rat infestations.
In May of 1988, the third story of the Cabildo, by then a part of the Louisiana State Museum, caught fire. Following the fire, the museum hired Earth Search, Inc., led by Dr. Jill-Karen Yakubik, to excavate the Cabildo courtyard prior to the construction of a new water line in the vicinity.
For more information about archeaology at The Cabildo, please visit the Archaeology of the Cabildo tour.