Of all American colonial building traditions, that of the French is one of the richest. While the houses of French Colonists owe a debt to their native traditions, they also wisely responded to the materials and climatic conditions found in America. From St. Genevieve, Missouri (1735) to New Orleans, Louisiana (1718) and beyond, French colonists created a diverse tradition including the Creole and Acadian Cottages, and the classic French Colonial house of the raised cottage type.
The Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi River valleys were populated from the North by French colonists who originally settled in what is today Canada. From the south, the French settled along the Gulf Coast via the West Indies. To this broad swath of North America, they brought with them their low houses with steep hipped roofs and memories of French building traditions. Those settling via the West Indies contributed new solutions that responded to the hot, humid climate of the Caribbean such as one room deep houses with high ceilings, aligned openings, and deep galleries shading the walls from sun and protecting them from heavy rains.
Most uniquely, they brought their technique of vertical post construction. Wooden posts were placed vertically in the earth (poteaux en terre) with the six to eight inch gaps filled with a mixture of mud or clay and spanish moss or hay (bousillage); or with small rocks or broken bricks “mortared” with bousillage (pierrotage). Walls were bound by a top plate and protected from the elements by plaster, deep galleries, or siding. As they learned that the poteaux en terre quickly rotted, the practice of raising a bottom sill up two to eight feet on piers (poteaux sur sole) soon developed. Piers below the sill plate were wood, which could be replaced when they rotted, or brick piers or tapered columns coated with plaster. Raising the main floor also provided an air space under the house which protected inhabitants and the house from damp and insects, aided in passive cooling, and minimized water damage from floods in low-lying flood prone areas.
No internal hallways and aligned openings allowed maximum air circulation through rooms. High ceilings, from ten to twenty-two feet on the main floor, allowed for tall windows and doors to increase air flow. These opened directly onto the galleries, normally without any change in floor level. These doors were often designed as triple-hung windows with the lowest and middle sash sliding up over the upper sash to form an opening, or as casement windows, or French doors. Transoms were commonly used, allowing shutters to be closed shading the room while keeping transoms open to airflow.
French Colonial houses are characterized by simple forms: a rectangular cubic mass, one to two rooms deep, two to four rooms wide, one to two stories high with a steeply pitched gabled, hipped or double hipped roof extending eight to twelve feet beyond the walls to form deep galleries (porches) on one, two, three or four sides of the house. Kitchens, pigeonniers (dovecotes), and garçonnières (small buildings for young men to cavort) were located near the main house. Circulation, including vertical circulation along stairways, was within the galleries.
The French Colonial house also owes its appearance to available materials. Trees were abundant and brick, generally plastered over, could be made out of the soil. The readily available bald-cypress, particularly in southern Louisiana, provided an excellent building material of great strength, easy workability, high rot resistance, and long straight lengths.
As with all architecture of the broad classical tradition, beauty and utility were met in equal measure by the French Colonial house. Over time French Colonial houses were rendered in Georgian, Federal, Grecian and Victorian modes. Well suited as this tradition was to the locale, it inspires to this day, most notably in the work of A. Hays Towne. One of my favorite books on the subject is Mississippi Valley Houses by Steven Schuler. These books and more on America’s traditional domestic architecture and classical architecture may be found at my online bookshop. And while one generally associates the French Colonial tradition with the lower-Mississippi River valley, the best preserved group of houses built in the French Colonial tradition is found in St. Genevieve, Missouri, an old town well worth a new visit.
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