History and development of New Orleans, Vieux Carre
Architectural Types and Styles
The Vieux Carre, and its architectural character is the result of two and half centuries of growth, reflecting the cultures of three nationalities. While little remains of the buildings of the French Colonial period, the influence of the French cultural background of the population continued to be felt in the building style and construction techniques into the nineteenth century. Much of the early French methods of construction developed were carried on, adopted or modified by later Spanish and American settlements.
Architectural Types and Styles of the Vieux Carre
The architecture of New Orleans, from its beginnings as the capital of the French Colony of Louisisana, is principally French with modifications introduced by Canadians and French islands of the West Indies. The first architects were French military engineers, using building styles that followed official forms adapted to use local materials. At first wood was used that was cut to clear the site of New Orleans. The original buildings were of a simple colombage construction, a framework of heavy timbers, mortised and tenoned together, set on wood sills placed directly on the ground, and roofed with steeply pitched hip roofs. The walls were covered on the exterior and sometimes inside, with wide horizontal ship-lap siding, the structural timbers arranged so that they formed jambs for door and window openings. Batten shutters were used to cover all openings. Galleries along the front of buildings were not used originally, but the necessity to protect the facades of buildings from the elements soon became apparent. With the establishment of the first brick yard in 1725, brick foundations replaced the rotting wood sills, and soon spaces between posts were filled in with brick for greater stability and insulation from the cold and heat. The local bricks were soft and porous, and it was necessary to continue to cover them with boards and later with a cement stucco. Roofs were initially covered with long strips of wood, and later with wood shingles, but when tiles became availiable from the brick yard, flat tiles became common for steeply pitched roofs, and round tiles were used for roofs of a lesser pitch. The last examples of these roofs dissappered early in the present century (20th). At about 1730 all brick buildings were constructed, basically one story structures, but later as widths were to increase to 30-40 feet, two story buildings were proposed, and later were determined to be impractical. It was then decided the best technique of construction for local soil conditions was brick masonry for the first floor, and second story construction would be of brick between post, as in earlier one story buildings, covered with boards where exposed to the weather and occaisionally plastered over where protected by balconies.
The French Colonial Period,
Spanish Colonial Period, 1765-1803
The same style and methods of construction that had been used by the French earlier for minor buildings, continued to be used until sometime until after the great fire of 1788. Typical were single story structures of brick between post construction, with a gallery across the front. Chamfered wood columns, curved wooden brackets at the top to reinforce and ornament the connection to the roof plate, supporting the gallery roof.
Madame John’s Legacy
An example of this type of architecture, rebuilt after the fire of 1788, is Madame John’s Legacy. It is a style typical of the French taste. The basement walls are built above the ground level, are of solid brick, and the second level is built with brick between post construction, covered on the exterior with wide beaded horizontal boards. The frames of the windows and doors are formed from the timbers of the wall, with a plain board forming the simplest type of exterior casement, finished flush with the beaded siding of the wall, with the heads cut to form a low segmental arch. The windows have no transoms. The roof framing consists of triangular roof trusses resting directly on the exterior walls with additional rafters, of of a lower pitch, extending over the front and rear galleries, to form a double pitched roof, characteristic of the colonial period. After the second great fire of 1794, stricter building codes were established. It was required that all buildings of two stories should be constructed of brick or timber frames filled with brick between the upright posts, with the timbers to covered with cement at least one inch thick, roofed with flat roofs of tiles or brick.Small one story buildings were still permitted to be built with wood if there depth were limited to thirty feet, including the galleries. All buildings were also required to face the street, and cannot be built with their sides or rear facades facing the street where the lots are more than thirty of the frontage. Flat terraced roofs were altered to form a more steeply pitched slate roof. The patio is entered from the street through a wide carriage way, with the principal staircase to the rear. The patio enclosed on two sides by an L-shaped service wing. The openings on the first floor on the street were either curved or flat headed, the openings from the carriage way had heavy batten blinds typical of the period. The casement doors opening onto the front gallery had louvered shutters. The stucco bands and cornices around the openings are typical. The front balconies were usually only three feet wide. Most of the few surviving examples have been altered to the extent that a clear understanding of the original appearance is difficult. Houses of the Spanish Colonial period were the simplest type and French in character, without interior walls, rooms opening into each other or entered from galleries. In the town, first stories were generally low and used for commercial purposes. The second floor provided the principal living areas. The ceilings are much higher, often with exposed beaded beams. Windows were of the casement type, with small lights. Doors were generally tall and only an inch thick, with raised panels on one side with small moldings.Principal interior interior openings were double doors. Balcony railings were wrought iron, often of an ornate design on the more pretentious dwellings. Balconies of service buildings were of wood and simple wood railings, covered by an extension of the roof without supporting columns. Most of the characteristics of the Spanish period carry over into the post colonial period, although most architects and builders were French, many of whom were in the service of Spain.
Post Colonial Styles, 1803-1820
Great numbers of Americans arrived in New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The dominant character of the city remained French, and the majority of newcomers preferred to live outside the Vieux Carre, primarily in the Faubourg St. Mary, above Canal Street. This area soon acquired an appearance of an American town. Also an increased occurred in the French population, as refugees from France and the French West Indies, after revolutions in those areas. This helped to continue the French architectural character of the Vieux Carre, and until the 1820’s, the predominant style was French, reflecting newer styles of the Napoleonic period. Typical of this period, the building at the first floor level was commonly used for commercial uses, with low ceilinged heights. The principle rooms for living space were generally high ceilinged, and are located on the second floor. Windows are rhythmically placed, and the floor levels are defined on the exterior by strong horizontal belt courses. The balconies are supported by handsome wrought iron and was popularly used until the 1830’s. The hipped roof, often interrupted by dormer windows, still maintain the original flat tile roofs.
73. 1984 ©Jeffrey Lamb 2007
The majority of houses built during this period are of the type commonly referred to as “Creole cottage”. Although the one story cottage was not a new idea, the floor plan only came into general use during this period. The typical square plan is divided into four rooms by intersecting walls, and has a recessed gallery at the rear flanked into small rooms called “cabinets”. The ceiling heights are relatively low. The wide overhanging roof protected the sidewalk and the front wall from the sun and rain. The roof is steep and generally covered with tiles or shingles, not slate, and were constructed with a ridge parallel with the street, gables at either end. Kitchen and service quarters were detached, often two stories in height, to the rear of the cottage.
Each of the two rooms facing the street had one door and a window, and the house had two chimneys to serve back to back fireplaces of the front two rooms and the rear two rooms. This plan may have been introduced by refugees from San Domingo (Haiti)
Another feature, the entresol, a low ceilinged area above the first floor, was used for storage of goods for the first floor commercial establishment, and was popular during this period. This space raised the level of the balcony of the principal floor considerably high above the street level. The entresol was often lighted with fanlight transoms above the ground floor doors and windows, and sometimes by separate square windows. An example of this building type is the Cottin House on Royal Street..
This period also saw the use of more classical forms of a delicate nature than those originally used at the end of the previous century. Essentially French in character, empire in detail. American architects and builders were introducing the Federal style into the city, often using red brick, white trim, freestone columns and green blinds.
Transitional Period, 1820-35
This period is witness to the transition from French to the American manner of building. The “Creole cottage” remained popular, and while many were still built with stuccoed walls and cornices, casement doors and windows, more were built red brick and double hung, American windows. Exposed brick, particularly of local origin, was not a suitable material in the humid climate, and many of these structures were later stuccoed and/ or painted. Ceiling heights increased and continued to be used until the Civil War. Access to the rear was often by a narrow passageway through the center of the house, these are commonly referred to as “dogtrot” type cottages.
Greek Revival, 1835-50
It was not until 1835 that this almost universal style began to appear in New Orleans. Even the differences could be seen between the Creole and American versions.
The works of Gallier and Dakin, representing the Anglo-American version, and the De Pouilly brothers, representing the Creole interpretations. Gallier designed structures of this style mostly on the fringes of the Vieux Carre. Row houses continued, using red brick (from Baltimore of St. Louis) for the facade, with a deep wood cornice pierced with small horizontal windows at the attic level. Continuous narrow balconies occurred at the second level. Double hung windows were almost always used, and entrance doors were placed to one side of the facade, opening to a stair hall. Simple greek casings were generally used. The De Pouilly brothers used arched above the first level and the brick was generally stuccoed. Greek Revival houses were generally larger in scale than buildings that had been previously built, and had increased ceiling heights. Numerous buildings were built with square granite columns at the ground floor. During this period we see the change from wrought iron balconies to cast iron work, and the use of freer Italianate details, replacing the more academic classicism of the Greek Revival.
The Ante-Bellum Period, 1850-62
This period, until the fall of New Orleans in 1862 during the Civil War, was one of great prosperity and growth. The Vieux Carre, however, did not participate in the building boom, and those who enjoyed great prosperity among the Americans, built above Canal Street, in the Garden District and Lower Garden District. While the Creoles built along Esplanade Ave., along the downtown edge of the Vieux Carre. The Vieux Carre was well developed at this point, however new buildings were being built where others had been demolished. As well, manny changes were made to existing structures. The introduction of cast iron balconies had the greatest visual effect on the area, and were additions to the earlier Greek Revival buildings. Thee balconies served a practical function as well as a decorative one, providing shelter from the elements. Cast iron was used extensively during this period for galleries, verandahs, balconies, canopies, grilles, lintels, gates and fences. In commercial structures, cast iron columns and lintels replaced the heavy granite that was previously used.
The Later Victorian Period, 1862-1900
Little building took place during this period in the Vieux Carre. A change occurred that involves the introduction of the mansard roof, however examples of this in the Vieux Carre are not quite as noteworthy as others found outside the district. The most significant significant building type to be introduced to the Vieux Carre , and built everywhere else, is the narrow frame cottages of the shotgun variety, mostly doubles. These houses were built throughout the 70’s, until the 90’s, and into the present (20th) century, wherever land could be bought cheaply and rental units could be developed. The fronts were often embellished with a wide variety of jigsaw brackets supporting the wide overhang of the roof, door, window trim, rusticated board facings and quoins, and in later years a wide variety of wood turnings. 21
While types and styles of architecture discussed above reflect the history and development of the Vieux Carre, this material is useful in looking at other neighborhood districts where these types and styles of architecture contributed to the further development of the city along the Mississippi River, above and below the Vieux Carre.
This history and development of New Orleans, was written in 1985 as a part of my master’s thesis, “the Visual Survey, Documentation and Analysis of Historic Resources and Districts, Case Study: New Orleans, Louisiana”. MLA, University of Michigan, School of Natural Resources. There are two parts, the first is the history and development of the city, and focuses only on a number of established historic districts, The Vieux Carre, the Creole Faubourgs, Lower Garden District, the Irish Channel and Algiers. Part two will address the history and development of New Orleans architectural types and styles, as they developed through the 1800’s and into the early twentieth century. footnotes will be last. ©jeffrey lamb 2007