Micaela Leonarda Antonia Almonester y Rojas, Baroness de Pontalba had a colorful life, even by New Orleans standards. Born in 1759, Micaela was the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the then-Spanish colony of Louisiana; her father commissioned the design and construction of St. Louis Cathedral, Presbytere, and Cabildo on the Place d’Armes (now Jackson Square). In 1811, at age 15, she was betrothed to her cousin, Joseph-Xavier Célestin Delfau de Pontalba; the newlywed couple moved to the family chateau outside Paris where Micaela gave birth to four sons and a daughter.
Her father-in-law, growing increasingly unhappy that he could not get his hands on her entire fortune, forced her to sign over her assets, including her extensive property holdings in New Orleans, if she wanted to see her mother; Louisiana’s adherence to the Napoleonic code had allowed Micaela to retain control of her property. However, under French law at the time, if a woman left her husband, she lost all her property and access to her children. Micaela’s father-in-law sought to make Micaela so miserable she would leave, thus abandoning her vast fortune to the Pontalba family. Micaela begin suffering daily epileptic fits due to the strain of living with the Pontalbas.
In 1834, Micaela’s father-in-law, desperate to hold on to her fortune, cornered Micaela and shot her blanket close range four times with a pair of dueling pistols. She survived, but was disfigured from the attack. Her father-in-law committed suicide later that day.
Upon her father-in-law’s death, her husband inherited the title and Micaela became the Baroness Pontalba. After two long trials, she gained full control of her finances and started multiple building projects, including the Hôtel de Pontalba, now the residence of the United States Ambassador to France. In 1848, she returned to New Orleans and commenced construction of townhouses, the Pontalba Buildings, on either side of Jackson Square and framing her father’s contributions to the city. She routinely inspected the ongoing work and ensured the elaborate ironwork to include the initials “AP” – for Almonester and Pontalba.
She returned to Paris and cared for her ailing husband. Micaela died in 1874 and is buried in the Pontalba tomb. Her descendants owned the Pontalba Buildings until the 1920s.
Row 10 is excited to participate in our first Habitat for Humanity Women Build this year! This is an amazing opportunity to support women and the rebuilding of New Orleans, one house at a time. We named our team, Krewe du Pontalba, after the Baroness Pontalba, who also knew a thing or two about building.
To support our team, click here.
More about Women Build, click here.