Housed at the New Orleans Notarial Archives is an important group of 5,149 large-scale 19th century watercolor lot surveys, about half of which also contain architectural drawings with floor plans, landscape designs, or other cultural details. The drawings date from 1803 to 1918, with 70 percent falling between 1830 and 1860. The lots were drawn to scale, signed, and dated by trained surveyors, civil engineers or architects. The illustrated buildings are painted and detailed in their scale, materials, and colors, while the grounds of the properties are rendered in heavy watercolors, predominantly hues of deep pink, bright blues, yellows, and greens.
The drawings were created as legal descriptions and advertisements of houses, lots and tracts of land offered for sale at public auction. The color yellow signifies the lot or lots being sold; pink indicates property not for sale. These artworks were designed to hang in auction houses and attract bidders to ensure that the properties sold for fair market value. Notaries received the plans a couple of weeks after the auction, at the time of the transaction, and officially signed or paraphed them to enter them into the legal record. The notaries then kept the plans in their études (offices) as part of their official archives. The plans, averaging 38 inches long by 24 inches wide, were too large to bind into the regular books of notarial acts, so notaries folded and bound them into oversize books of their own called plan books. The Notarial Archives received a portion of these plan books upon its founding in 1867, and continued to receive the remainder as later 19th century notaries died or retired. During the 1930s, Works Progress Administration workers rebound the plan books. In 1988 and 1989, with Save America’s Treasures grants administered by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Notarial Archives removed the plans from their bindings and individually encapsulated the drawings, storing them flat in plat cabinets.
The plans are varied and unique, and they offer resources for the study of architectural history, historic landscape design, graphic arts and color, technological history, social history, city planning, and topographical studies. They depict a wide variety of building types and styles, including plantation houses, Creole cottages and townhouses, Greek Revival and Italianate suburban houses, American townhouses, row-houses, storehouses, warehouses, shotguns, markets, street railway depots, detached kitchens, servant quarters, stables, poultry houses, cisterns, wells and sheds. The authenticity and richness of the information in these drawings make them a valuable – and beautiful – source of historical evidence.