The new orleans creole cottage

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America’s Atlantic-World House

Jay D. Edwards

With Gabriele Richardson

The Fred B. Kniffen Cultural Resources Lab

Dept. Geography & Anthropology

Louisiana State University

Baton Rouge, LA 70803


Tel: 225 578-2566

NOTE: Kindly, do not quote from, copy, or distribute this study until it is published. This is a preliminary draft not in its final form. If you have questions, please contact the author.

Figs. 0.1a, 0.1b (Frontispiece): An elegant Four-Bay Creole Cottage in the style of the colonial French West Indies. This house stood at 1031 Royal Street and survived well into the nineteenth century. The plan is semi-double with a cabinet-loggia range added to the rear. The floorplan is probably asymmetrical, despite the appearance of the plan. Entrance to the house is via one end of the broad front gallery. The gallery roof is supported by slender bottle-shaped naval style colonnettes.

The cottage is completely encased in clapboards. The roof is double-pitched (Creole Class II), popular in Louisiana between about 1760 and 1795. Note the tall wrought iron lightening rod over the roof. A small colonial style dormer has been added to the lower surface. It is probably more for ventilation than for lighting the attic.

The two deux-battans (double leaf) “French” doors have fourteen small lights in each battan with double panels below; the two front casement windows have twenty lights in each leaf. The doors are capped by eight-light transoms. Fenestrations have distinctive segmental arched tops. The openings are protected by the Paris-green three-batten storm shutters in the style of the town of Cap Haïtien and French colonial New Orleans (compare Figs. 3.17; 3.19; 3.40). The cottage so closely resembles Madam John’s Legacy in form and style that it could have been built by the same hands, at about the same time (1795; refer to Fig. 1.27, below and Bacot 2000:91). Images are by Adrian Persac, June 8, 1866 (courtesy New Orleans Notarial Archives: 005.004).



NOTES: 311.


There is no such thing as the New Orleans Creole Cottage.

This book is about the Creole Cottage.i
The historic architecture of Louisiana and the Gulf South is recognized and admired throughout the United States and far beyond. Its attraction arises out of a unique French style enhanced with Caribbean embellishments and adorned with Iberian and Neoclassical touches. The result is an ineffable sine qua non which, since the end of the eighteenth century, visitors have attempted to capture in their travelogues and commentaries. Standing far outside of the severe Anglo-American aesthetic, Louisiana’s vernacular continues to provide a very special charm for millions of visitors from every part of the globe.

This complex amalgam of styles enjoys an abundant history of scholarship. Louisiana’s “Creole” architecture seems to have been more thoroughly documented than one might reasonably expect.ii Studies range from classic works, such as Clarence John Laughlin”s Ghosts along the Mississippi (1948) and Nathaniel C. Curtis’s early article on “Creole Architecture in Old New Orleans” (1943), to recent overviews such as Karen Kingsley’s Buildings of Louisiana (2003); Louisiana Buildings 1720 – 1940, edited by Jessie Poesch and Barbara Bacot (1997); and Louisiana Architecture: A Handbook on Styles, written by Jonathan and Donna Fricker and Pat Duncan (1998).

For the city of New Orleans, the documentation is also exceptionally comprehensive.iii Architectural historian Samuel Wilson Jr. produced numerous articles and reports on the colonial and nineteenth century architecture of the city. He illustrated these with marvelous images recovered from French archives.iv The Friends of the Cabildo series of New Orleans Architecture, now in eight volumes and still growing, documents the styles and types of houses found in various historic sections of the city. Malcolm Heard’s French Quarter Manual (1997) does much the same thing for the Vieux Carré, and Lloyd Vogt produced two volumes adorned with his delightful sketches (1985; 2002). In addition to these exemplary studies, a vast compendium of books has poured from the architectural presses. More arrive every year.

One reason for all of this scholarly and popular attention is that that New Orleans and southern Louisiana seem to be blessed with a rich repertoire of localized housetypes. Greater colonial Louisiana gave birth to an abundance of architectural forms unlike anything found in the other parts of the union. Indeed, it might reasonably be argued that despite its being a relatively small state, Louisiana enjoys the greatest abundance of native architectural variation in the nation. Creole cottages, raised Creole plantation houses, the marvelously complex shotgun family of housetypes, Cajun houses, and unique versions of American housetypes such as townhouses, dogtrot houses, storehouses and service structures combine into a cultural landscape like no other.v

Public interest in the vernacular landscapes of New Orleans has been popularized in many ways. Over the centuries its buildings and street scenes have been charmingly illustrated by numerous artists. Particularly noteworthy are the Notarial Archives poster artists (c.1790-1890), particularly Adrian Persac (1850s). Other historic artists include Joseph Pennell (1880s), Boyd Cruise (1930s-40s), and the brothers William and Ellsworth Woodword (1890s-1940s). Contemporary artists such as James Michalopoulos and Terrance Osborne emphasize the color and the chaos of New Orleans vernacular buildings. In literature, the houses of New Orleans take on a personality of their own, almost as vivacious as a living character. From George Washington Cable, to Tennessee Williams, to Ann Rice, to John Kennedy Toole, to recent popular writers such as Barbara Hambly, literary observers have tried to interpret how that special feel of life in New Orleans is intimately connected with its architecture. In the cinema, hundreds of movies have dramatized the streets and houses of New Orleans. Most Americans are familiar with the cityscape of New Orleans through films such as The Big Easy (1986), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), and Easy Rider (1969). Dissertations and scholarly studies have been written about the exoticism and exceptionalism in historic narratives about New Orleans (Souther 2007; Thomas 2014; Bryan 1993).

Yet despite all of the popular attention and abundant scholarship, no previously published work tells the remarkable story of an important Louisiana housetype. Architectural histories have in general neglected the origins and evolution of individual architectural traditions. Their authors have tended to disregard the wide variety of influences which gave rise to the dozen or more distinctive New Orleans housetypes during the colonial era and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet, it is these same housetypes which provide New Orleans with much of its distinctive character today.

No published work presently exists which is devoted specifically to the varieties, the component parts, the history, the dating, or the evolution of such apparently well-documented and iconic Louisiana building types as the Creole Cottage or the Shotgun house. More than most, these building types function as essential metaphors for the creolized Latin- and Afro-Caribbean-based cultures of Louisiana. Many families of New Orleans resided in one or the other of these types of houses during the nineteenth century. If one knows how to read them, they stand as surviving memorials to lifestyles of the past, remaining a significant component of the tout ensemble so attractive to millions of

The relative lack of prior insight on the causes of development of the creolized cultural landscape of New Orleans provides us with a unique opportunity. But it would be difficult to take advantage of this opportunity and to explore it fully were it not for the fortunate coincidence of two unrelated historical phenomena. One is the relatively high level of preservation of New Orleans’ cultural landscapes. The other is the survival of special forms of documentation bequeathed to us by the French colonial laws of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Unlike most other historic American cities, New Orleans has enjoyed a relative lack of demolition and rebuilding of the historic neighborhoods of its inner city. Gentrification and large-scale urban renewal, while present, have left many of the older neighborhoods largely intact. Chief among these is the Vieux Carré – the old colonial city. There, a couple of dozen eighteenth century buildings and numerous buildings of the first half of the nineteenth century survive in various states of preservation. Although many colonial types have disappeared almost completely, enough survive to provide the historian with a reasonably good picture of the evolution of our Creole architecture.

What is missing is largely filled in by a set of remarkable archival collections. Foremost among these are the roughly 1,600 unique affiches (“plan book plans”) or posters which were created to advertise properties being put up for sale in the nineteenth century. Thanks largely to archivist Sally K. Reeves who has sponsored their preservation and restoration, these remarkable large scale colored surveys of for-sale properties provide us with an unprecedented look at the elevations, the plans and the locational information of hundreds of old properties, now long gone. Tens of thousands of contracts, notarized by French notaries, and building contracts beginning about 1780, add to this remarkable collection. It is unique in the world. Other substantial architectural collections of architectural surveys, historic photographs, paintings and sketches are to be found in the Historic New Orleans Collection, Williams Research Center, the Louisiana Historical Center of the Louisiana State Museum, and the Southeastern Architectural Archive of the Tulane University Library Special Collections. New Orleans is blessed with many other collections relevant to architectural history, as well. Considered together, these two historical phenomena impel us to raise important questions concerning the role of architectural history and its modes of interpretation of American landscapes.

Traditional architectural histories seldom attempt to connect the complex daily lifestyles of the common people of the past with the kinds of architecture those people selected for their abodes. Why did people choose to live in a Creole cottage or a Shotgun house instead of in a British style row house or a Federal townhouse? Exactly why did New Orleans houses change across the decades? When were the turning points, and what caused them? What social, economic, or technological changes stimulated the selection of newer types or the radical jump to entirely different house types? To date, these questions have been insufficiently explored.

In order to better penetrate some of these open questions we begin by divesting ourselves of the popular notion that an architectural history is most importantly about specific buildings or the works of prominent architects of the past, no matter how creative and influential they may have been. To paraphrase Richard Overy, a proper explanation of the history of an important architectural tradition requires a “wide canvas and a broad brush.” vii An architectural history is most fundamentally the history of common people and the changing themes of their culture from one decade to the next. When history fails to take sufficient account of their economic strengths and weaknesses, their social dynamics, their moral priorities, their population movements, or their technologies, it forfeits explanation, substituting only raw academic description.

Here, we set ourselves somewhat apart from familiar architectural history. The focal point of our investigation becomes the cultures and peoples of New Orleans’ past. Of course, no single study can encompass the entirety of any culture -- particularly one as complex and fluid as eighteenth and early nineteenth century New Orleans.viii Throughout its history, visitors to New Orleans were not merely impressed, but were often even overwhelmed by the diversity of the cultures which mixed and worked together in daily intercourse. The streets resounded with a cacophony of mutually unintelligible tongues. People of every imaginable racial variety mixed and mingled in ways unfamiliar, if not sometimes repugnant, to newly-arrived visitors from Europe and the eastern colonies (later, the States). “Probably no city in the world, in an equal number of human beings, presents greater contrasts of national manners and language” ix

Public morals were alien and often shocking. At the very height of slavery in the Deep South, huge numbers of black citizens were seemingly free as birds to buy property, to own businesses, to attend fancy public entertainments such as the opera, and to demand the respect owed exclusively to free citizens. By day and by night men gambled freely, drank hard liquor in public “coffee houses,” and danced at night in lavish ballrooms with women of different races. Institutions such as plaçage (extra-legal arranged “marriages” between people of different races) were considered normal and natural by almost everyone (white women, excepted). Priests of the Catholic Church formalized multiracial marriages even in the face of laws which forbade them. Men fought duels, often to the death, because of even imagined slights to their sacred honor. Laws of all kinds were flouted by almost everyone. Smuggling, trading in captured slaves and other stolen properties, prostitution, swindles, and street crimes were openly practiced. A local resident who became Mayor of the city characterized the condition in 1802:

Hundreds of licensed taverns openly sell to slaves, and, in making them drunk, become throughout the day and night receivers of goods stolen from their masters. And those gambling houses are openly protected where the swindler and adventurer rob the inexperienced young man as well as the father of a family who is forgetful of his duties. A public ball, where those who have a bit of discretion prefer not to appear, organized by the free people of color, is each week the gathering place for the scum of such people and of those slaves who, eluding their owner’s surveillance, go there to bring their plunder. There is a gambling table at the ball where the happiest rascal appropriates for himself what others have stolen; and as a crowning infamy one finds even some white people who repeatedly battle with the slaves for places in the quadrilles, and for their share of the household pilferage which they decide by a throw of the dice. The government is aware of and permits of that; and woe to unto the minor official who would want to stop it.x
In 1860 similar sentiments were still being expressed by travellers: “Vice, in every form which a diabolical invention can devise, is become habitual to a large portion of the community, especially in the dregs of the French and American population which here find a refuge.” xi

As early as the Territorial Period (1803-1812) New Orleans riverbanks were lined with hundreds of ships disgorging people from Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Ste. Geneviève, Philadelphia, Charleston, New York, Havana, Santiago, Cap François (Cap Haïtien), Cartagena, Veracruz, Nantes, Bordeaux, London, Saint Louis (Senegal), Gorée Island (Senegal), and dozens of other ports, comptoires and entrepôts.xii Despite the appearance of social mayhem embraced by an unusually large and transient underclass, late colonial New Orleans also supported well-ordered middle and upper classes of merchants, bankers, trades people, artisans, shippers, bureaucrats, planters and commodity brokers.XIII

Yet, somehow, this veritable flood of people from far-flung and culturally dissimilar locations worked and played in and around an architecture which was reasonably coherent and unified. Like most places, the styles of architecture changed with the times, while the city maintained a certain stylistic unity which came to be called “Creole.” It was a style quite unlike the architecture of the British colonies and the United States. Visitors attempted to capture its unique qualities, describing it at length in their diaries and letters.

In order to better comprehend this phenomena, we shall focus our attention on the interrelationships between the modes of design and construction on one hand, and those aspects of culture which embodied the forces which shaped it, on the other. Pressures for architectural conformity derived primarily from certain critical segments of the culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. We refer to this collection of forces as “architectural culture.” This does not refer exclusively to the specialized knowledges of trained builders and architects, though their influences were certainly significant. Architectural culture is broader. It refers to all of those relevant needs, understandings, and values which were the patrimony of the common people of the region. To study it properly, a wide variety of skills and techniques are combined.

The principal job of an anthropologically-oriented architectural history is to investigate and dramatize the architectural preferences which arose from the common people -- not only the educated elite, but also that vast pool of everyday people whose needs are seldom considered essential to the shaping of architectural traditions. This pool includes classes and groups who at different times exerted the power of selection upon the changing architectural kaleidoscope. Their influences, anonymous and usually invisible, were largely ignored or later deliberately expunged by those who wrote the histories of the times. Informal influences arose from merchants and slave traders who had traveled widely in distant lands and observed the advantages of alien architectural traditions before establishing businesses in New Orleans. These influences came from common housewives and enslaved cooks and free people of color who functioned as landladies and shop keepers and homeowners. Enslaved laborers and skilled mechanics and artisans helped to reshape the building traditions of Europe into the ways of the Atlantic world. It was, of course, bonded workers who, up through antebellum times, constructed nearly all of the buildings of New Orleans, under the overt direction of experienced builders, some of whom were free people of color.

Architectural culture is symbolic. It creates meanings out of shared ideas about living. Architectural symbols are not all simply decorative. They include spatial patterns, including floorplans, room proportions, and ways of expanding and modifying buildings. Architectural culture recognizes the historical significance of patterns of domestic behavior, traditional patterns of communication, and the ways that people organize their daily rounds and other quotidian activities. Students of architectural culture pay particular attention to the historical significance of regionally distinctive kinds of domestic spaces. In New Orleans, these included such common features as rear patios, cabinets, cabinet galleries (rear loggias), detached kitchens, full-width front “living” galleries, garçonnières, slave quarters, entresols, and front facades and stoops shaded by abat vents.

Architectural historians recognize that housing culture is made up of webs of influences that extend beyond the bricks and mortar of standing structures to the lives of those who inhabit them and invest them with furnishings and adornments. Values surrounding furniture and furnishings often influence room sizes and room proportions. Anthropologists also recognize that almost no building, no matter how popular, stands alone. Each house is, rather, one part of a labyrinth of traditional architectural forms which, together, compose the cultural life of its residents. In addition, the house is incomplete without those social nuclei external to it -- the place of worship, the place of one’s business, the place of storage, the place of finance, and the place of commerce, and the place of entertainment (the bar, the coffee house, the dance hall, the gambling hall). Change any one and the internal life of the house, itself, is affected. In the end, architectural history is really about the lives of common people and the conditions and opportunities which fashioned and changed those lives. It is broader and more socially focused than traditional architectural history.

Beyond all of this, a fully engaged architectural history requires a coherent point of view – a theory of the human condition. More than the study of dusty documents and even dustier old buildings, architectural history commits itself to humanistic interpretation. It aspires to total history -- arising out of an empathy with the designers and builders and residents of the past. Even today, vernacular and folk houses are abundant throughout the world. Vernacular specialist Paul Oliver estimated that at the end of the twentieth century there were some eight hundred million vernacular buildings on earth – by far the greatest of any of the categories of architecture.XIV

Buildings are almost never simple passive statements. The forms and adornments of vernacular buildings arise from often unstated values and social presuppositions. In quotidian life, people are beset with problems and ensnared in webs of social constraint. They strive for culturally defined goals while competing with one-another and struggling against barely surmountable limitations. In these struggles they acquire certain tools, now often referred to by social historians and anthropologists as cultural and social capital. Foremost among their forms of “(objectified) cultural capital” is their vernacular architecture. XV

After the basic need for shelter has been met, buildings become the embodiments of social functions. They are active symbols used as weapons in struggles for social standing and acceptance. Each house, store, club, or church stands as a metaphor for family’s aspirations and its relative standing in the hierarchy of the community. The value associated with one’s architecture is embodied also in the personality and status of the individual. We are, in important ways, identified with and defined by our buildings. An interpretation of how architectural symbols are launched into the social fray is fundamental to architectural history, and particularly to that of vernacular architecture. When architectural history neglects the spirit of a people and their social dynamics, it tends to substitute hyper-detailed scholarly description and abstract aesthetic history for deep explanation. What is required, but often neglected, is an interpretation of the living contexts in which a tradition of architecture arose.

In an attempt to fill in a few of these omissions, we are introducing a series of books devoted to the most important historical housetypes of New Orleans. The present volume takes up the The New Orleans Creole cottage. Although the subject has been dealt with in a number of book chapters and reports, no detailed architectural history of the Creole cottage has yet been published. Even its very definition is open to debate among architectural historians. Its origins have not been adequately researched. Ironically, there is little appreciation of the role of France and Spain and their West Indian colonies in the shaping of what is essentially an Atlantic World phenomenon. Nor are the important distinctions between the French Colonial cottage, the French Creole cottage, and other common New Orleans cottage types well described or understood. The dramatic transformations of the Creole cottage between the beginning of the eighteenth and the end of the nineteenth century are not widely appreciated, nor are the causes of those changes.

This book begins the process of taking up these challenges. It is as much about architectural culture history as it is about Creole cottages. The authors attempt to provide the reader with a more detailed working framework for thinking about and interpreting an historic vernacular type such as the Creole Cottage. We suggest that humble and unobtrusive housetypes are far more significant in the life of the community than is usually mentioned by historians. In this, we point to the essential differences between the New Orleans colonial cottage and the Creole cottage. We review the early history of the Creole cottage with a focus upon foreign contributions and their sources. We trace the dramatic changes which this most popular housetype underwent during and after the colonial period. To understand architectural phenomena such as housetypes, we must have a vocabulary fitted to their description. The book also suggests a more logical approach to the naming of the cottage types and their various component parts. It deals with problematic theories and classification schemes. It surveys all important subtypes and styles including some which have entirely disappeared from Louisiana’s landscapes. The text of the book eschews theory, but the readers should know that it is set an intellectual tradition. The ideas and assumptions expressed here are set upon a foundation of structuralist and creolization theories and the theory of social and cultural capital. In this, we emphasize the social and ethnic history of New Orleans and the intense relationships between its residents and the wider Atlantic World.

We all know that every individual house has a history. Each house begins as a vision and ends as a wreck. In between the two lies a fascinating and usually untold story of the people, who lived there and the events which transformed the original vision into something different. Old houses, particularly, undergo numerous transformations. Walls are resurfaced, rooms are redecorated, new spaces are added, old spaces are segmented, chimneys are torn down and replaced or covered over, porches are dismantled and sometimes reconstructed, ceilings are raised or lowered, technological changes in heating, lighting, cooking, plumbing and sewage result in extensive internal updates. New and more stylish decorative features are added to the façades, the openings and the interiors. In Louisiana, it was common for dormers to be added to the roofs to provide light and ventilation for the attics. It was not even unusual for entire roofs to be dismantled and replaced with roofs of a different pitch or shape, without expanding the interior living space so much as a single inch. Entire houses are raised or expanded upwards, or sometimes reduced a full story in height.XVI Add to all of this the sad story of slow deterioration and neglect which anticipates the wrecking ball, or the fire, or the storm -- any of which may ring the inevitable death knoll for the decrepit old abode. What remains is little but food for the archivist and the archaeologist.

But houses also share a completely different form of history. They are seldom isolated expressions. Rather, they are bound together by culture links into groups and popular types. They seldom stand alone as unique forms, separate from the stylistic fads favored by the people of a community. Though more difficult to define and isolate, these types are every bit as real as the individual structures formed of bricks and timbers. Indeed, in many ways the types are more important to the understanding of the people of a past society than are the specific examples of those types. It is the types in all of their variety which speak to us of the needs and values and hopes of the people of a community. Arising as a direct, shared expression of those things which were essential to acceptable moral life at one time and in one region, housetypes are central to the story of the history of its people. Because they are so basic to understanding the past, it becomes important – even essential – for us to learn how to read their stories. Their import is far more extensive than is generally appreciated. This book is about a single tradition of architecture, if you wish, one housetype. However, the New Orleans Creole cottage is, in reality, a complex collection of many different but interrelated architectural forms. There is no single Creole cottage from which all of the rest are derivatives. So our exploration of the domestic architecture of New Orleans and its cultural outliers is in reality an interpretation of cultural diversity in all of its messiness. It is about the composition of cultural landscapes, specifically that of New Orleans where special approaches to architecture and building ruled.









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