In today’s search for creating not just sustainable, but resilient architecture, looking to the historical architecture of Louisiana is especially relevant. The influence of the region’s humid, semi-tropical climate is directly reflected in its early building forms, representing an architecture that negotiates its surrounding environment. These early examples are in abundance throughout Louisiana and can be observed and examined as architectural types that mitigate environmental conditions in various ways.
Fig. 1.Pitot House, New Orleans, ca. 1799. Louisiana Historic American Buildings Survey, 1986, LA-148. (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.: Drawings, Douglas Breaux.)
To avoid wet soils and flooding, and also to increase ventilation, buildings are typically raised off the ground onto blocks or piers. Window placement is governed by wind patterns to take advantage of prevailing winds through cross ventilation. High ceilings pull heat up, away from living spaces, while pitched roofs are extended to provide shade to the exterior walls. Galleries, or porches, are a common application for creating exterior areas around the house where breezes can be captured. These features are mainly identified with Louisiana in the form of the Dogtrot House, the Shotgun house, and the Creole Cottage.1
The Dogtrot House is characterized by an open breezeway that connects two living chambers, all housed under a unified roof. In combination with window openings, the breezeway was utilized to naturally cool the living spaces of the home. The Shotgun house employs a simple layout, where all rooms follow in a line under one, unifying gable roof. The Creole Cottage aligns with the typical French Creole house, following an asymmetrical, salle-et-chambre (parlor-and-bedroom) core, known as the Norman-plan. Elevated for flood protection and ventilation, and eventually surrounded by galleries, this housing type was constructed along the coast of Louisiana during the eighteenth century (Fig. 2). Introduced at the same time was the more formal Spanish-plan type house which consisted of a symmetrical, almost square, plan with small chambers along the sides (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3. Destrehan plantation, St. Charles Parish, La., 1787-90. Historic American Buildings Survey, 1989. (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)
Although these building types are thought of as the first building styles in Louisiana, the region has been inhabited for thousands of years, before the first European settlers arrived in the 1700s. Poverty Point, a 400 acre archaeological site situated in northeastern Louisiana, was the commercial center of civilization in 1500 B.C.2 The native constructions of mounds and embankments at Poverty Point are among the largest and oldest in the western hemisphere.3 The first European settlers to arrive in Louisiana documented the structures they encountered along the Louisiana coast and modeled their building styles in the same fashion.4 The origin of the term Creole as it is now applied to architecture is unknown. The term now encompasses all architectural tradition in Louisiana that has been created through the blending of tropical and colonial forms.5
In the eighteenth century, additional influences on the architecture of Louisiana developed as the state became one of the nation’s main points of entry for slaves, immigrants, and goods. Regions of influence included Africa, Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Haiti.6 The extensive military defense system along the coast established in the 19th century was constructed of massive masonry fortifications. Two of these, the triangular Fort Pike (Fig. 4) in Orleans Parish and the pentagonal Fort Jackson in Plaquemines Parish, can still be seen today.
Fig. 4. Fort Pike, located east of New Orleans (http://www.neworleansonline.com/directory/location.php?locationID=1258).
The emerging economic success of New Orleans in the early 1800s began attracting architects to Louisiana, including one of first formally trained, professional architects in the United States, Benjamin Henry Latrobe. After arriving in Louisiana to complete a plan for the municipal waterworks, he designed a central steeple of St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square and the Louisiana State Bank in 1820, two iconic New Orleans buildings. Now known as Latrobe’s on Royal, the whisper dome and unique vault space of the State Bank now serve as the backdrop for events and celebrations.
The rich and diverse architecture that has developed in Louisiana has sparked a passion for historic preservation in the area. The Division of Historic Preservation in the Office of Cultural Development focus on buildings representing the forces that shaped Louisiana’s history and culture.
1Kingsley, Karen. “Louisiana Architecture” Know LA: Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. 2010. Web. 23 Jan. Retrieved from: 2013. http://www.knowla.org/category/2/Architecture/&view=overview
2Gibson, Jon L. Poverty Point: A Terminal Archaic Culture of the Lower Mississippi Valley. [Baton Rouge, La.]: Dept. of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, Louisiana Archaeological Survey and Antiquities Commission, 1996. Print. 1. Retrieved from: http://www.crt.state.la.us/dataprojects/archaeology/virtualbooks/POVERPOI/popo.htm.
3Gibson, Jon L. 1.
4Kingsley, Karen. Par 1.
5Edwards, Jay D. “The Origins of Creole Architecture.” Winterthur Portfolio 29.2/3 (1994): 155. Print.