The Inn on Bourbon, on the corner of Toulouse and Bourbon Streets, rests on the site of the Old French Opera House, for 60 years, the cultural center of New Orleans Creole society, and the first opera house in the United States. Erected in 1859 at a cost of $118,000, it was opened to the public on December 1, 1859.
The opera house was one of the most famous masterpieces designed by noted architect James Gallier, architect of Gallier Hall and many other classic 18th century buildings. The great elliptical auditorium was beautifully arranged with a color scheme of red and white, and seated 1,800 persons in four tiers of seats. It was Greek revival in design, and its colonnaded front measured 166 feet on Bourbon Street and 187 feet on Toulouse Street. Its 80-foot high loft towered above all of the buildings of the French Quarter. In the loges of the opera house, there were screened boxes for pregnant ladies, ladies in mourning, and "ladies-of-the-evening" (elegantly dressed madams from nearby Storyville).
From 1859 until it burned in 1919, the French Opera House was not only the scene of hundreds of operas, but was the hub of the dwindling Creole society, the last refuge of the "creme-de-la-creme."
They called it the "Big Easy." The term originated with African-American entertainers in the early 20th century.
That was their nickname for New Orleans because it was "easy" for them to earn a living in the city, an oasis of tolerance in an otherwise racist and segregated south.
Others tell a different story. Evidently, one of the dance halls in the New Orleans of early 1900s had an establishment called the "Big Easy." Travelling musicians would talk about playing the "Big Easy," just as country musicians today might talk of playing the Grand Old Opry in Nashville.
After a while, the name was "transferred to the city as a whole, referring to the gentle pace of life and somewhat lax morals for which New Orleans is known," according to a 1887 article in the Times-Picayune, a New Orleans newspaper.
Whatever its origin, it is obvious why the nickname stuck. New Orleans was called the "Big Easy" because it seemed French, Latin, Mediterranean--not Anglo-Saxon or northern.
"Big Easy" because life seemed more relaxed there, its people not as uptight as northerners or intolerant as southerners, "the clock ticked more slowly" there, as the horror novelist Anne Rice put it.
It always seems to have had this reputation. Even in the early 19th century, "New Orleans was dramatic--exciting in itself, with a remarkable outreach that engaged the world's attention," writes Charles Cerami in Jefferson's Great Gamble, an account of how New Orleans became US territory in 1803.
"Its seamy side seemed to sing throatily of Marseilles, of Shanghai, of places that were regarded as being deliciously low, for it had been created not only by French and Spanish priests and adventurers, but also gradually enlivened by Italians, Filipinos, Slavs, Dalmatians, Portuguese, blacks from a great variety of origins, plus a few Jews and Chinese."
Originally a French colony, New Orleans was ceded to Spain in 1762, only to be repossessed by the French in 1800.