From the Water's Edge: The 1884 Cotton Centennial Exposition

In the eighteenth century, working sugar plantations existed on this land. They faced the Mississippi River, which is straight ahead about a half mile. Pierre Foucher planted long alleys of live oak trees to frame his house. His neighbor Etienne de Boré, the city's first mayor, helped simplify and commercialize the granulation process of sugar that made the crop more profitable. The planters' link to the social and economic world was the river. Where you stand was the back section of their plantations.

By the nineteenth century, the land hosted other links to a changing world. At the start of the Civil War, locals gathered on the Foucher property to watch Confederate soldiers train in Camp Lewis. By 1863, Union General Benjamin Butler took control of the camp and replaced it with a Union hospital. Immediately after the Civil War, African-American troops known as "Buffalo Soldiers" trained here. In 1871, during Reconstruction, the city of New Orleans bought the property for $800,000 and created a Park Commission. Yet, hard times meant little money or impetus to develop the land.

As the city struggled to lift itself out of financial doldrums, politicians and businessmen mounted a spectacular World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in 1884. They hoped that international attention might help New Orleans reclaim its former glory and economic prowess as the leader of a "New South." What was then a barren Upper City Park became landscaped exposition grounds with huge (but temporary) buildings. When the fair closed, all the buildings were sold for scrap except Horticultural Hall, which stood at the river end of Foucher's double stand of graceful oaks.

Once the structures were removed, the Park Commission engaged the Olmstead firm (of Central Park fame) to prepare a master plan that would use Horticultural Hall and the moss-draped trees as centerpieces. Over three decades, the park was a work in progress, plagued with delays and changes. The lagoon before you–park wide and running along the entire downtown side of the grounds–was by then a signature Olmstead feature.

Had you stood on this spot in 1884 and looked across to the left, you would have seen the Government and States Building; looking straight ahead, the enormous Main Building loomed. The wooden structure covered 33 acres and was larger than the present-day United States Pentagon. Beyond the Main Building, a small octagon-shaped Mexican Building stood. Slightly behind you and to the right along St. Charles Avenue were livestock yards. The scent of competing farm animals would probably have wafted across this spot.