64 Parishes

Audubon Park

Fronting the Mississippi River, Audubon Park is one of New Orleans' most popular attractions for both tourists and locals.

Audubon Park

Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection

Audubon Park. Mayfield, Robert Bledsoe (Artist)

Extending from the Mississippi River to St. Charles Avenue, Audubon Park is one of New Orleans’s most popular attractions for both tourists and locals. Built on the site of the 1884–85 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition, the park currently consists of more than 300 acres and is home to a golf course, the Audubon Zoo, and a sports complex on the river. Its development reflected, and contributed to, a general movement toward the creation of urban parks in late nineteenth century America.

Early History

The City of New Orleans purchased the land Audubon Park now occupies in 1871 and named it New City Park to distinguish it from what was known as Old City Park across town. Previously, the site was home to a sugar plantation, dating from the late eighteenth century and owned by pioneering sugar manufacturer Etienne de Boré. During the Civil War (1861–1865), it was used as a Union campground. After the city’s initial purchase, little development occurred until civic leaders, interested in advertising New Orleans’s prosperity, held an international exposition there in 1884–85.

While not a financial success, the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition left a lasting impact on the city’s landscape. The exposition’s central structure, Horticulture Hall, was modeled after London’s Crystal Palace and held displays of fruits and exotic plants, many of which soon appeared in the gardens of local residents. More important than exhibitions, however, were post-fair developments. Horticulture Hall remained on the site and was used to house animals, effectively serving as the city’s first zoo, until it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1915. The fair’s main legacy, however, was that it demonstrated the value of a large public park to residents, who in 1886 renamed it in honor of naturalist John James Audubon.

Developing a Plan for the Park

Interest in securing a plan for the park dates to 1887, when the Audubon Park Association corresponded with a “Mr. Bogart” of New York, most likely John Bogart, an engineer who had worked in the office of prominent park designer Frederick Law Olmsted. There were subsequent communications between locals and Bogart and Olmsted’s office, but nothing happened. Interest in a permanent plan resumed, however, by 1895, when a municipal appropriation materialized. By then Olmsted’s health had declined and he had retired; the practice was led by Olmsted’s stepson, John Charles, and son, Frederick Jr. In 1898, the association signed a contract for the park’s design with the Olmsted Brothers office, a professional relationship that continued into 1941.

On March 7, 1899, announcement of the Olmsted office participation in the park’s design was reported in the Daily Picayune newspaper with banner headlines: “AUDUBON PARK’S DREAM OF BEAUTY…With Bayous, Lawns, Forest Stretches and Play Places….” The Olmsted office produced a presentation portfolio that showed several before-and-after views of the park. Newspaper accounts continued to monitor the park’s design progress and, on November 13, 1899, a Daily Picayune article reported that the Olmsted plan, using local vegetation, intended to “make the park truly southern.” The article continued that John Charles Olmsted “expressed the idea that the structures…be built to conform to the history and traditions of the city, and be made characteristic of the races that founded and built it.” This design approach is a legacy of the elder Olmsted, whose vision posthumously guided the park’s development through the firm’s proposal. The lagoons, open green spaces, native plants, regional architecture, and areas for active recreation all suggest the continuing influence of his philosophy.

This attention to the park’s growth reflected a broader interest in the development of urban spaces that spread throughout the United States in the late nineteenth century. Civic reformers knew that urban parks brought fresh air to city dwellers, providing them relief in increasingly crowded urban centers, and creating places where diverse communities could interact. In an era of increasing public interest in organized recreation and team sports, urban parks stood as examples of progressive development and new symbols of civic pride. Audubon Park, like City Park, was—at least in part—a response to this movement.

Twentieth Century Growth and Expansion

A swamp exhibit opened in the park in 1913; an aviary was added in 1916, followed by an aquarium and a sea lion pool surrounded by a classical colonnade in 1924. An entrance and an oval bandstand were constructed in the City Beautiful style that became popular following Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition (1893); this movement promoted civic beautification through neoclassical structures, urban monuments, and axial plans. Park structures and other features originated by local philanthropists were situated in locations recommended by the Olmsted office. A redesigned zoo, a project of the Works Progress Administration, opened in 1938. As in similar work in City Park, local architects and artists designed structures reflecting regional styles and materials, in keeping with the Olmsteds’ earlier design strategy.

By the mid-1970s the zoo had deteriorated and either closure or complete overhaul was necessary. The City elected to renovate; existing Works Progress Administration–era buildings were kept and reconfigured for new uses. Through a partnership of local landscape architects Cashio, Cochran and Associates, zoo administrators, and a powerful community-based constituency, the zoo expanded to fifty acres, though not without lengthy controversy and a divisive legal battle with adjacent property owners. Ultimately, an extremely successful facility emerged that continues to be popular today with both locals and tourists. Over time, the Audubon Zoo has gone through periodic renovations, with new exhibits refreshing older ones, thereby adding interest to this major tourist attraction.

Audubon Park does not receive dedicated city funding for operations and is sustained by proceeds generated by Audubon Zoo and other facilities managed by Audubon Nature Institute. To fulfill its responsibility for the improvement and long-term conservation of park’s 300 acres, the Audubon Nature Institute launched a focused fundraising initiative, Olmsted Renewed, in 2012. The campaign supports the care and preservation of existing trees, the planting of new trees and other natural landscaping, and the maintenance of existing structures throughout the park.