The French Market in New Orleans’ French Quarter can still stake a claim to being one of the country’s oldest marketplaces, but in recent years shops stocked with bottles of Louisiana hot sauce, boxes of beignet mix, and other food-oriented souvenirs out-numbered stalls where fresh food was sold.

French Market in New Orleans
French Market in New Orleans
French Market in New Orleans
Images courtesy Billes Architecture
Billes Architecture has designed improvements to the French Market in New Orleans (top). The complex two blocks along the Mississippi River between Barracks Street and Ursulines Avenue (middle). A farmer’s market section opens on February 1 while a flea market reopened last September (above).

Tomorrow the French Market Corporation, a non-profit organization that operates the historic facility, unveils the results of a $5 million revitalization project intended to realign the food-oriented section—a farmers’ market—with its original purpose. The hope is that this transformation, designed by locally based Billes Architecture, will draw more visitors and residents to a more authentic venue where vendors will sell fresh produce, flowers, coffee, spices, baked goods, cheeses as well as meats and seafood.

Historians date the start of a formal market on the site to 1791, but the pitched-roof, metal sheds where the flea and farmers’ markets operate were built as a Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s. The 40,000-square-foot complex stretches two blocks along the Mississippi River between Barracks Street and Ursulines Avenue.

Improvements include the doubling of vendor spaces to at least 15 and the installation of upgrades that will allow some vendors to cook on site. “The old space didn’t work well for the vendors or the customers,” says Gerald Billes, a principal of Billes, adding that the old building was a dimly lit space with poor drainage and circulation, and a hazardous, uneven floor.

A large part of the renovation involved basic upgrades to the infrastructure with the installation of new underground utility lines and a new, level floor. To make the space more open and airy, brighter light fixtures were introduced and a glass-walled clerestory was added to the market’s new roof. Other improvements include uniform signage, upgraded bathrooms, and a new café style eating area.

While the French Market Corporation’s jurisdiction includes a 1970s-era retail complex along Decatur Street to the edge of Jackson Square—including the building where Café DuMonde operates—enhancements are limited, for the time being, to the farmers’ market and a flea market, which reopened in September with new lighting, ceiling fans, and drop-down canvas awnings.