Just before 11 a.m. on June 7, 1862 — with an estimated crowd of 10,000-plus watching — a rope snapped tight, and William Mumford’s neck snapped with it.
In that moment, Mumford — a professional gambler from North Carolina accused of tearing the American flag from the pole in front of the Old U.S. Mint in New Orleans at the dawn of the Union occupation of the city — became known as a Confederate martyr.
Union Gen. Benjamin Butler, the reviled military commander of the occupied city who ordered Mumford’s execution, became known as a tyrant.
And the Old U.S. Mint, then still relatively new, gained what would become the most notorious chapter in its wide-ranging history, which also includes ties to iconic American architect Benjamin Latrobe, the little-remembered original Jackson Square, Prohibition scofflaws and jazz history.
From the beginning
Before all that, though, the property at Esplanade Avenue and the Mississippi River was home to Fort St. Charles, one of the city’s chief riverfront defenses during its period of Spanish rule.
It was at Fort St. Charles that Andrew Jackson, upon being informed in January 1815 that the British were indeed coming, is said to have uttered the rallying cry that marked the beginning of the Battle of New Orleans: “By the eternal, they shall not sleep on our soil!”
Six years later, after the decommissioning of the then-30-year-old fort, the city turned the land upon which it sat into a public park named in honor of the city’s newest hero — which is how the city got its first Jackson Square.
Coincidentally, Jackson can be blamed for the eventual demise of his namesake park fewer than two decades later.
His financial policies upon being elected president helped bring about the Panic of 1837, which — long story short — necessitated the minting of more U.S. coins. To make them, the federal government approved the construction of three new U.S. mints, one each in New Orleans; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Dahlonega, Georgia.
A major mint
The largest of the three would be in New Orleans. For its location, city leaders offered the original Jackson Square, and the feds accepted. (Don’t cry for Jackson. He got his square back in 1851, when the current Jackson Square, formerly the Place D’Armes, was renamed in his honor.)
William Strickland, a student of U.S. Capitol architect Benjamin Latrobe and designer of numerous public buildings in Philadelphia, was commissioned to design all three new mints. For the New Orleans building, he was paid $300 to draw up what would be a stately three-story Greek Revival structure made of red brick, with stucco and granite trim.
Facing Esplanade Avenue, the main entrance is dominated by a central portico featuring six classical columns: four round columns with Ionic capitals, flanked on each side by a squared column.
A central street-level door located directly beneath the second-floor main entrance would provide access to a subbasement. A pair of staircases — hidden from the street by a wall — were designed to take visitors up, through the portico and to the main entrance.
It in turn opened into a central bay running through to the building’s rear and containing a central staircase connecting all three floors.
Above the portico, Strickland called for a prominent but unadorned pediment, which is echoed on the French Market-facing rear of the building.
Two L-shaped wings, one on each side of the central bay — and boasting wrought-iron balconies — would give the building an “E” shape.
First coins in 1838
Construction started in September 1835 and, on March 8, 1838, the new mint began production. Its first output: 30 silver dimes made of Mexican silver.
Over the years, the New Orleans Mint produced a wide variety of other coins, including Confederate money during the Civil War, making it the only mint to have produced both U.S. coins and Confederate coinage.
(You can identify U.S. coins minted in New Orleans by the “O” mint mark stamped on them.)
Unfortunately, just as his mentor Latrobe had in designing the city’s original customhouse two decades earlier, Strickland failed to take into consideration the softness of the local soil when designing the Mint. Consequently, it — like Latrobe’s since-demolished customhouse — quickly developed foundation issues.
Called in to fix it: a fresh-faced West Point engineering graduate and St. Bernard Parish native by the name of P.G.T. Beauregard.
Decades later, as a Confederate general, Beauregard would make a name for himself by ordering the assault on Fort Sumter, starting the Civil War.
A mint no more
After the war, the New Orleans Mint became a U.S. Mint again, but only for a short time. By 1909, with other mints operating in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Denver — all of which were closer to gold deposits — the decision was made, despite much hue and cry, to suspend minting operations in New Orleans.
Initially, it was to be temporary, but the closure would become permanent in 1911 with the decommissioning of the New Orleans Mint and the shipping of its coin-making machinery to Philadelphia.
Since then, it has seen a variety of uses.
For a few years after its closure, it was an assay office and an emergency hospital.
In 1932, it was transformed into a federal jail to house Prohibition scofflaws.
By 1943, the U.S. Coast Guard was using it as a storage facility.
After being transferred to city ownership in 1965, it was designated a nuclear fallout shelter.
Meanwhile, it slowly crumbled.
Saved in the ’70s
Finally, in the late 1970s, the state renovated the Old Mint and made it part of the Louisiana State Museum system. In addition to an exhibit on the building’s coin-making past, it houses the New Orleans Jazz Museum, with Louis Armstrong’s first cornet among its prized exhibits.
A National Historic Landmark, it at various times of the year also hosts music festivals including the Satchmo Summer Fest and parts of French Quarter Fest.
Sources: The Times-Picayune archive; Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies at the University of New Orleans; “Butler’s Book: Autobiographical and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General Benjamin Butler”; The Numismatist magazine; United States Mint; U.S. Treasury
Know of a New Orleans building worth profiling in this column, or just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at [email protected]
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