Louisiana Architecture: A Handbook on Styles
The French Creole Style
by Patricia L. Duncan
Click the pictures above for 7 examples of French Creole Architectural styles
When most people think of Louisiana, they concentrate on the food, the French language, and the zest with which Louisianians celebrate life. Nevertheless, preservationists would suggest that the state’s French Creole architecture plays an equally important role in making Louisiana unique. The French attempted to colonize a vast area along the Gulf Coast and up the Mississippi River into America’s heartland. However, their settlements were thinly scattered, and they were eventually overwhelmed by the expanding American republic. Although a few historic French buildings can be found outside Louisiana, only in the southern and central sections of the state do remnants of French culture and language, and a significantly large collection of French Creole buildings, survive. However, the tradition is only now beginning to receive the appreciation it deserves. Creole architecture may be the only one of America’s three major colonial building traditions to have at least partially evolved in the New World. The British and Spanish, as well as lesser colonial powers such as the Flemish, Dutch, and Swedes, completely imported building types from home rather than developing new building forms.
Just who were these people who contributed so much to the state’s cultural milieu? The word “Creole” itself is confusing because its meaning has changed over time. Adapted from the Spanish word criollo, it originally referred to white children born in the Caribbean. In Louisiana, people of European descent, and especially the descendants of French settlers, were called Creoles. Later, the term was also used to denote Louisiana’s large population of persons of mixed European and African descent. It is the concept of mixture which best defines the word “Creole” today and, in fact, best defines Creole architecture.
Louisiana’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Creoles were a permissive, fun-loving, and status-conscious people with a fondness for European courtly customs. These included good manners, lavish hospitality, close family ties, dancing, and gambling. Creoles also practiced the widespread European custom of dueling—over both important and trivial matters. In addition, they sanctioned a double moral standard which placed women on pedestals but encouraged young men to sow their wild oats.
The Creoles left Louisiana two very different types of dwellings. The first is the Creole cottage, which they built in both rural and urban locations. The second is the urban Creole townhouse, which is found in large numbers in New Orleans and, to a much lesser extent, in Natchitoches. In addition to dwellings, the Creole building tradition spawned an important outbuilding type, the pigeonnier.
Creole cottages can be defined by the features they shared. Heavy braced timber frames and Norman truss roof systems formed the structure, with bricks or a confection of mud and Spanish moss called bousillage filling the space between the timbers. Houses were raised several feet off the ground on piers or blocks. The earliest Creole houses had broken pitch roofs. Later, straightly pitched gable or hipped roofs were preferred in both urban and rural areas. Despite the large attic space available beneath the high rooflines, the Creoles almost never utilized the attic for daily living. Most Creole houses had generous galleries set beneath their broad, spreading rooflines. Depending upon the weather, the gallery might serve as a sitting or dining room, with curtains hung from iron rods between the columns to provide shade. Thus, the Creoles decorated their galleries as outdoor rooms with chair rails, wainscoting, and cornices. Multiple French doors opened from the gallery into the rooms. Urban cottages displayed similar floor plans and decorative elements but usually lacked the commodious galleries found on rural examples. Instead, the house stood flush with the property line or adjacent sidewalk. The latter was protected from the elements by a change in roofline pitch, known today as a “kick,” which extended the roof outward.
The floor plans of Creole houses varied greatly in size. The plan always consisted of at least one range of rooms typically paralleled by a front gallery. This range included a nearly square salle (parlor), with at least one narrow chambre (bedroom) located next to it.
Larger houses had from three to five rooms across the front. Sometimes, a second range of rooms stood behind the first. Most Creole houses had a rear cabinet/loggia range (a central open area flanked by a room at each corner) as well. The houses usually lacked hallways; instead, the rooms opened directly into each other.
Decorative elements preferred by the Creoles included turned or chamfered gallery columns, exposed beaded ceiling beams, the use of a French diamond shaped parallelogram called a lozenge, and wraparound mantels. The latter centered upon boxed chimney flues located on interior walls. Elegant overmantels were found in the wealthier homes.
As colonial planters prospered, they began building grander cottages. The raised Creole plantation house featured most of the distinguishing traits found in the single story cottage but had additional special characteristics.
Homeplace, on the west bank of the Mississippi River near Hahnville, is such a house. Although in some raised plantation houses a dining room was included on the lower floor, the ground floor at Homeplace consists of an unfinished above-ground brick basement story used for storage and other utilitarian purposes. Its highly decorated frame upper floor serves as the primary living space. The house has a fully encircling gallery on both levels. A row of thick brick columns outlines the lower gallery, while narrow turned columns outline the upper. Stairways connecting the two floors are located on the exterior. The raised Creole plantation house was the absolute apex of Creole architecture in Louisiana. Louisiana’s Acadian settlers also built a version of the Creole cottage. The Acadians were descendants of French peasant settlers from Nova Scotia who arrived in Louisiana between 1765 and 1790. The Acadian cottage generally featured a two-room-wide plan, with a gallery across the facade and a cabinet/loggia range at the rear. Unlike the Creoles, who expanded this basic house type into the larger structures described above, the Acadians never expanded the type beyond this small configuration. In addition, they imported certain building preferences which distinguished their homes from those of the Creoles.These included the custom of using attics as living spaces and the resulting need to provide a staircase or ladder to reach this area. East of the Atchafalaya Basin these stairs usually appeared on the rear loggia or in a cabinet. West of the basin, narrow, steep staircases were located on the front gallery.1 Today these houses can still be found throughout the region of Louisiana known as Acadiana.
Pigeonniers, small towers with nesting boxes for birds on their upper floors, were found on the most prosperous of Creole plantations. Frequently the lower story contained an office or garçonnière (young man’s apartment). Pigeonniers usually came in pairs and were placed so as to ornament the overall appearance of the plantation complex. Today there are less than twenty of these important structures left in the entire state.
Experts disagree on the origin of the Creole cottage, with some scholars variously claiming its important features to be imported from France, Canada, and the West Indian islands colonized by the French. Others emphasize the importance which accommodating Louisiana’s damp ground and humid climate played in developing the style.2 The most likely case is that the Creole house resulted from a combination of imported ideas and local needs.
One theory focuses upon the Italian double-loggia house as the inspiration for the Creole cottage.3 This house type had appeared in the West Indies by the sixteenth century. According to this idea, there its front loggia was replaced by a full length gallery, but its rear loggia and flanking rooms remained intact. The Creoles came to call these rear corner rooms cabinets. Frenchmen settling in the Caribbean may have copied this house but changed the internal plan to reflect their preference for asymmetrical room arrangements. Whatever its origin, the theory argues, it was this adapted house which French West Indian planters brought to Louisiana. There it blended with the Canadian spreading roof and internal chimney, the French wraparound mantel, and a particular type of timber frame construction native to the farmhouses of northern France. Of course, the new Louisiana house was a vernacular adaptation using local materials such as bousillage.
The Creole townhouse was a multi-story, timber frame and masonry structure in which the main block stood flush to the sidewalk. Its dependencies were usually attached to one side of the structure, resulting in an “L” shaped building. The townhouse had either party walls or only a narrow passage between each house and its neighbor. Its first floor served as mercantile space and its upper floors served as the family’s primary living area. Some had a low mezzanine-type storage area known as an entresol located between the first and second floor. The entresol was lighted by semicircular grilles or fanlights placed above first floor entrances. The family’s area featured French doors, wooden or iron balconies cantilevered above the front sidewalk, and rear galleries providing additional outdoor living space. A wide, gated carriage passage known as a porte-cochère connected the street to a rear courtyard. Contrary to popular belief, townhouse courtyards were not used as gardens before 1865, and the lushly planted courtyards known today did not develop until the early years of the twentieth century.4 Instead, courtyards were utilitarian spaces surrounded by service structures such as stables, kitchens, wash buildings, privies, garçonnières, and slave quarters. In Natchitoches, an excellent example of the Creole townhouse is the building known as Ducournau Square.
The inspiration for Creole townhouses is just as unclear as that of the Creole cottage. At least two theories attempting to account for the townhouse’s development have emerged. One hypothesis credits the townhouse to the influence of Spanish officials who controlled most of present-day Louisiana from 1762 to 1800. Another finds prototypes for the Creole townhouse in France.
The Spanish theory is based largely upon the fact that the townhouse did not appear in New Orleans until after fires in 1788 and 1794 destroyed much of the city. Thus, it was Spanish officials who controlled all addition, many were constructed for prominent Spaniards. The Hispanic influence can supposedly be seen in the barrel tile roofing, paving tiles, wrought-iron balustrade work and flat or almost flat rooflines which appeared on buildings during this period. Perhaps the best known champion of the Spanish theory was the noted New Orleans architect and architectural historian Samuel Wilson.5; The French theory suggests that Creole townhouses were modeled after dwellings found in prosperous eighteenth-century Parisian neighborhoods. These homes, in turn, had been inspired by a type of closed-court farmstead which can still be seen in northern France. According to this theory, the general plan of the Creole townhouse closely matches the arrangement of these three-part Parisian houses. The first section of the French prototype was a main block of two or more stories. The second portion was a series of narrow, shed-roofed service buildings separated from the main block by a set of winder stairs. The third part of the dwelling was a private courtyard garden surrounded on all sides by the previously mentioned buildings or tall masonry walls. This garden was connected to the street by a porte-cochère. Some of these houses even featured French doors and open galleries facing the courtyard. Louisiana State University cultural geographer Jay Edwards introduced the French theory for the origin of the Creole townhouse in a 1993 journal article.6 In the end, the reader must draw his or her own conclusions concerning the possible inspirations for the Creole cottage and townhouse.
Whatever its origins, the Creole building tradition dominated the state well into the nineteenth century. Although the houses changed slightly as the Creoles observed new architectural trends brought by Americans, Creole houses were built well into the 1880s. Some experts would argue that they were built even later, and in truth, modern houses with Creole rooflines and galleries can be seen in late twentieth-century suburbs throughout southern Louisiana.