Spacious wrap-around porches, intricate ironwork railings, high windows, and French doors lend the French Creole architectural style a characteristic look that’s a fundamental part of Louisiana’s ambiance. As recognizable as it is, the style defies precise definition and is better understood in terms of its evolution.
A Blend of Practicality and Tradition
The exact origins of the French Creole building tradition are a subject of debate, but most historians classify the style as a branch of the American Colonial style that developed during the early 1700s, primarily in Louisiana. Between 1682 and 1762, the area of present-day Louisiana was controlled by the French under the name of New France. Naturally, French culture had a powerful influence on the architecture of the time, but it wasn’t the only source of inspiration.
Many of the French Creole architectural style’s distinctive features arose out of an attempt to stay comfortable in the area’s hot, humid climate. Even these functional features, however, bear the mark of deliberate design influenced by cultural traditions.
Each culture present in the area brought its own ideas on how to adapt to the environment. Some historians believe most Creole building traditions are borrowed from French architecture, particularly that of Normandy, while others define Creole architecture in terms of how it evolved due to Haitian and other West Indian influence. Still, others suggest the style came not directly from France, but rather from the French Canadian settlers who moved into the Louisiana area.
Ultimately, like French Creole cuisine and music, French Creole architecture has been shaped by all the cultures that call the Mississippi Valley home, yet it remains a distinctive tradition unique to French America.
Due to the low population density at the time, French Creole architecture spread little outside of Louisiana. Sadly, many of the original Creole buildings were destroyed in the Great New Orleans Fires of 1788 and 1794. At that time, the area was controlled by the Spanish, who revamped building codes to improve safety and contributed their own architectural conventions during reconstruction, altering the archetypal Creole look.
Even so, the French Creole building tradition flourished until well into the mid-19th century. By the 1830s, builders began incorporating more British colonial features, such as double-hung windows, into Creole style buildings. Today, you’ll find French Creole features on a wide variety of structures around Louisiana.
The Features That Give French Creole Architecture its Flair
The quintessential French Creole home is a two- or three-story symmetrical building with a large front porch and balconies, called galleries, on every story. These galleries reflect the balconies found on some farmhouses in Normandy. The house’s broad, hipped Norman-style roof extends over the galleries to provide shade and is held up by thin wooden columns known as colonnettes. Ornate ironwork railings trim the galleries’ edges.
The house’s main entrance is typically positioned at the center of the facade and flanked by full-length windows that stretch all the way up to the second-floor balcony. While these are all common elements, not every French Creole building incorporates every one of them. These buildings come in two distinct styles, each with its own distinguishing features.
The Creole Cottage
This is the original Creole-style home. These buildings consist of one to four rooms arranged side by side, parallel to the street and without long hallways. In multi-room houses, a Norman-style salle-et-chambre (parlor-and-bedroom) sits at the center. Chimneys were placed in this room or another central location, rather than on an exterior wall. In other cottages, bedrooms were housed in an additional half-story.
The cottages’ timber frames are often infilled with bousillage, an adobe-like material made from clay mixed with moss, grass, and animal hair, depending on what was available in the local area. Many are faced with clapboard or brick. Both wide, hipped roofs and steeply peaked roofs are common, while gabled roofs are less so. Often, the entire building is elevated on piers to provide ventilation and protection from floods and water-logged soil.
In rural areas, builders took advantage of the plentiful space to construct sprawling front porches and galleries that provide a breezy, shaded refuge from the stuffy interior. These often wrapped all the way around the house, doubled as passages between rooms, and functioned as bedrooms in summer. In fact, these outdoor spaces were so important, they were painted and detailed with the same care as the home’s interior.
The Creole Townhouse
Abundant throughout the New Orleans’s French Quarter, these urban homes sprang up in the wake of the Great New Orleans Fire of 1788. They’re similar to their rural cousins, but with one major difference: their more fire-resistant construction. They’re built not with traditional wood framing, but with thick stucco or brick walls. They’re typically multi-story, L-shaped buildings that stand flush with the street. The ground floor served as shop space, while the upper floors provided more secluded living space for the family. Some homes included an entresol, a low-ceiling storage area between the first and second floor.
Due to limited space in New Orleans, townhouses often lacked galleries, but made up for the loss with spacious rear courtyards and a porte cochere, a passageway leading from the front of the building through to the rear courtyard. Being built later in the Creole period, many display Spanish features, such as tile roofs and dormers.
Not all Creole buildings in New Orleans are townhouses. You’ll also find cottages built at the same time as the townhouses. Unlike rural cottages, urban versions are usually built flush with the street and without galleries. The symmetrical arrangement of two doors and two windows on the facade is one of the most instantly recognizable features of this cottage style.
Creole plantations gave rise to yet another noteworthy structure: the outbuilding known as the pigeonnier, or dovecote in English. In France, only gentry members were allowed to keep pigeons, which were raised for meat, eggs, and dung as fertilizer, so the birds became a status symbol in French-controlled Louisiana. The Creole pigeonnier is a small, one-and-a-half, or two-story square or hexagonal building with nesting boxes inside and holes in the upper section to allow the birds access.
By combining practical climate adaptations with French and Caribbean aesthetics, the French Creole architectural style evolved into one of Louisiana’s most distinctive traditions. Understanding the roots of this style gives you deeper insight into how the region’s culture developed into the complex fusion it is today.