With grace, charm and an enduring ability to provide comfortable living in inhospitable environments, French Creole architecture has long been a design favorite. The origins, influences and examples of this popular style of design embrace contributions from a multitude of heritages.
French Creole Architecture
An icon of graceful design, French Creole architecture has brought charm and functionality to buildings for centuries, and continues to be a highly-desired and popular choice for homes in many places of the world.
Origins and History
The French Creole architectural style arose in the Mississippi Valley region of the United States, particularly in Louisiana. But the exact circumstances of how the French Creole approach to design emerged is a subject of disagreement among architectural experts. It is generally accepted as the only US colonial design that is truly American in its development, emerging during America’s French colonial period in the first half of the 18th century. Styles reflecting the English parentage of the American colonies were not mimicked in this region; rather, both French and Caribbean influences were evident in the signature features of French Creole architecture.
Of course, the Creole flavor itself is multi-cultural, blending French, Spanish, African, Native American and additional heritages. Drawing from this wealth of global influences, it only makes sense that the architecture of early America would reflect a melting-pot diversity.
The popularity of French Creole design secured its place in architecture through the 1800s, with more traditionally American features (such as symmetry) being blended into US designs by the mid-1800s.
Part of the history of French Creole architecture’s evolution hinged upon the quest for perceived status within a community. In France, only landowners were granted the right to keep pigeons. Some landowners would promote their status by erecting elaborate dovecotes–basically, nesting boxes for the birds. These structures would be far more lavish than necessary in an effort to advertise one’s wealth. The inclusion of pigeonniers crept into rural French Creole design, regardless of whether birds were kept. These towers would remain typical elements of French Creole architecture through the 19th century.
Influences on French Creole Architecture
Both culture and climate influenced the development of French Creole architecture. It is odd that the style is named “French” Creole, since, although French architecture certainly did play an influencing role, no single country’s design style took precedence over another. Architectural traditions and elements from France, Spain, the Caribbean and other countries brought together ideas and approaches to design with a worldwide cultural contribution.
The primary elements that stand out as mostly hailing from one particular global region are the breezeways and other features originally designed to make life more comfortable in the steamy, wet environment of the tropics. The so-called “tidewater” design element extends broad, hipped roofs over deep, raised porches that wrap entirely around dwellings, providing extra living space while offering protection from rains overhead and flood waters below.
Such tropic-inspired features nicely serve the ecosystems of Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, North and South Carolina and Texas, which regularly experience hurricanes and other storms. In the rebuilding aftermath following hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the US South, many newly-constructed homes followed the French Creole blueprint, but bolstering the strength of the designs to better withstand the onslaught of natural disasters. While Louisiana may get to claim the most surviving original French Creole structures, new examples of this charming architectural style are sprouting up in states throughout the Southern US. Not only does this underscore the safety of such design; it furthers the popular support of French Creole design as a preferred architectural style.
Elements of French Creole Architecture
So, what defines the French Creole style? Hallmarks include a raised foundation, with plans placing the main rooms well above ground level, even up a full story. This protects the structure from ground water and also helps to more effectively catch breezes. Atop this, a wooden framework is formed, employing French joinery, utilizing very steep angle braces. The framework is typically finished in brick (or, originally, a mixture of muddy clay, moss and animal hair called bousillage).
Wide porches, referred to as galleries, wrap around the structure and are protected by a low sloped, wide-hipped roof that extends to completely cover the gallery, sheltering it from the elements. This roofline is supported by several colonnettes, thin columns formed of wood. French doors with their quaint multi-paned glass patchwork complete the look, along with numerous windows which, along with the gallery, aid and encourage a continuous influx of circulating air to refresh the home. These windows are placed for function, not fashion; consequently, an exterior view of a home’s elevation will likely seem unbalanced to the untrained eye more accustomed to symmetrical home design.
A curious facet of traditional French Creole architectural design is the complete lack of interior hallways. To get from room to room, inhabitants would stroll out along the gallery and along the wraparound mantles to reach their destination. Without delineated interior hallways to constrict placement of rooms, another curious feature arose in traditional French Creole architecture, in that rooms would be added in any which way, resulting in overall blueprints that were highly asymmetrical in design (this contributed to the seemingly random placement of windows). The backside of traditional French Creole homes would feature covered porticos leading to cabinets, small rooms at the end.
French Creole Examples
While those elements are typical features of French Creole architecture, the flavor of that style is felt in designs ranging from humble to grand. A variety of French Creole building styles stemmed from the basics, resulting in structures that are themselves sub-categories of French Creole architectural design.
Typically just one story in height, Creole cottages are simple expressions of the style described above, but lacking galleries and placed right on the front property line. Grand, two-story plantation houses, more correctly called French Colonial, are representative of the American Old South pictured in movies.
Following the spirit, if not the letter, of French Creole architecture are Creole townhouses and “shotgun” homes. Both the L-shaped townhouses and I-shaped shotgun homes incorporate the strategy of encouraging a free-flow of air circulation.
Designed in harmony with the environment while exuding lovely charm that’s been admired for centuries, French Creole architecture is an enduring style honored and respected around the world.