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Finding the French: Early French Architecture in America

A few easy-to-identify clues reveal the French accent on early American architecture.

By James C. Massey and Shirley Maxwell

Bolduc House with double-pitched roof.
Accurately restored, the 1770-1785 Bolduc House, with its classic double-pitched roof, is the prime French museum house in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. Jack E. Boucher/HABS photo
It's easy to spot old French buildings in the United States—they're distinctive and not hard to find once you know where to look. But learning to see beyond (and especially within) the familiar Gulf Coast or Creole raised cottage is a bit trickier.

Excellent examples of French architecture survive in present-day Louisiana and Mississippi, but there are many others in Missouri, Illinois, and Michigan, too. Vernacular French houses in the New World were, as the saying goes, oddly alike, yet different somehow. That's because French architecture made its way to the United States from several different directions—from the south via the French West Indies, from the north by way of French Canada, and, least important in numbers and impact on the American landscape, directly from France. (The latter were often formal, high-style examples, such as New Orleans' 1745 Ursuline Convent or the long-demolished Robert Morris House in Philadelphia, designed by Pierre-Charles L'Enfant, the architect famous for planning the city of Washington, D.C.) Not surprisingly, America's French buildings also varied depending on where they were built—in hot and wet climates, or cold and damp ones.

Historic Influences
France's priorities in the New World were different from those of their 17th- and 18th-century rivals, Spain and England. The French left the quest for gold mostly to the Spaniards. The English were welcome to settle their own colonies with planters and farmers—as long as they stayed away from prime French fur-hunting and trading routes.

For the French, the issue was always trade, and consequently their houses were influenced by people and traditions encountered in prime trading locales. They forged a (mostly) friendly relationship with Native American tribes and allowed the Indians to roam their customary hunting grounds, encouraging them to bring their rich harvest of pelts to French settlements on the Missouri, Mississippi, Illinois, and Ohio Rivers for shipment to the European market.

In the West Indies, French sugar planters learned from slaves about African building methods, such as deep, encircling porches that provided shade and shelter for buildings and inhabitants alike. They quickly came to appreciate the usefulness of piers that lifted buildings above floods and helped with vital ventilation. In the humid, hot, and often water-logged southern reaches of French Louisiana, these were valuable architectural ideas indeed.

French buildings in North America were mostly modeled after the little buildings constructed in French Canadian and West Indian colonies. In Europe, the French had long used heavy timber framing for steep-roofed, half-timbered colombage houses. With variations, such old-country techniques proved valuable in Canada, where snow and ice posed big problems, and, with further variations, equally helpful in combating the intense heat and rain that plagued the southern regions of the New World.

Thus, when they built in North America—almost always along rivers or other waterfronts that offered transportation opportunities for their commercial enterprises—the French drew on a mixed bag of traditions: European, African, and probably American Indian as well. They used native materials—locust, cedar, or cypress in the South—and whatever filling materials were locally available.

A Creole cottage in Bay St. Louis
This restored Creole cottage, with its paired front doors, sits in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, an early French settlement on the Gulf of Mexico. Photo courtesy of the Hancock County Historical Society
House Details
In general, the early French house in America was a rather simple affair—rectangular in shape, one or two rooms deep, one and a half or two stories high, and usually containing no more than three rooms total per floor. The houses sat close to the ground or were raised a half-story to allow for air circulation around and under the building.

The floor plan was simple, too: No interior halls or stairways cluttered up the space. Access was handled by the ever-useful galerie, an outdoor living space offering multiple functions: living rooms, reception areas, offices, and even—when portions were walled in or curtained off—bedrooms. Galeries had separate doors to every room and often contained exterior staircases to the second floors. A centrally located chimney heated the entire house.

French doors (mais oui!) opened to the interior spaces, and casement windows, artfully aligned on opposite sides of the house, welcomed any passing breeze and encouraged cross-ventilation. The persistent use of casement windows rather than the double-hung sash favored by the English is one of the most prominent indicators of a dwelling's French origins.

For most people, the raised cottage is the image most strongly identified with the French house in America. It was certainly the most persistent house type used in French areas—even though most of the ones we see today date from the later Spanish or American eras.

Eventually, even large plantation houses in Louisiana embraced the twin concepts of the raised basement and encircling galerie. In keeping with their status, however, these big houses were raised a full story above the ground and often supplied with elegantly columned two-story galleries. The ground floor held kitchens and service areas, while the family enjoyed the leisurely social life of the porch. Louisiana's famed River Road sugar plantations and houses in the Cane River National Heritage Area around Natchitoches offer ample evidence of the charm of such arrangements.

Steeply pitched hipped roofs, shingled on four sides, were universal in French houses from Quebec to New Orleans, as they easily shed both snow and rain. Single-slope roofs were common in northern areas, but elsewhere, spreading, double-pitched roofs (which look like a flat-topped witch's hat with a broad brim) both accommodated the wraparound galeries and allowed high ceilings. While dormers are frequently found in the roofs, most are later additions.

The persistence of French architectural influence is apparent across North America—from Louisiana's Mississippi River plantations to Missouri's bustling St. Louis to northeastern Canada's Quebec and Acadia (whence the Cajuns sprang). If you're ready to hit the road in search of the genuine French article, you can take your pick of venues: New Orleans' Vieux Carre; Pascagoula, Mississippi's Krebs House (revealing the kinship of French and Germanic architecture in America); the historic district of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri; Cahokia, Illinois' restored courthouse (originally a settler's home); Michigan's Fort Michilimackinac; Quebec's Iles d'Orleans; even New Paltz, New York, and South Carolina, both of which harbored Huguenot immigrants who built in the French style. Almost anywhere you land in the eastern U.S., you'll find reasons galore to celebrate our French connections.

Speaking French Architecture
Poteaux-en-terre (literally "posts-in-the-earth") involved inserting 6" to 8" posts directly into the ground, in a deep trench that was filled in around the posts. As you might guess, this was a chancy business in hot, wet, termite-infested climates; thus the long-term survival rate of poteaux-en-terre houses was quite low.

Poteaux-sur-sole ("posts-on-a-sill") was an improvement quickly adopted for most construction. Like poteaux-en-terre, it employed 6" to 8" square vertical posts; however, in this case, the poles rested on a horizontal wooden sill, which, in turn, sat on wood or masonry piers or a full masonry foundation. Although rotted wooden piers and sills could be replaced in a pinch, masonry foundations were obviously much more durable.

Colombage, the half-timbered construction of medieval France, was used for more important buildings and houses. It, too, featured vertical timbers, but they were reinforced by horizontal and diagonal braces, with the spaces between the timbers filled with either bricks (briquettes-entre-poteaux), stones (pierrotage), or the old stand-by, bousillage (see below). Since the bricks were usually very soft, colombage also required a protective plaster finish.

Bousillage, the nearly universal infill of the early years, was a mixture of mud or clay with animal hair, Spanish moss, straw, or small sticks. Though invaluable as an insulating material, it had its limitations as a surface finish, given all that moist air and rain. A reasonably effective solution to staving off water and insect infiltration was a plaster or stucco coating applied over the timbers, bousillage, and even colombage. On smaller houses, broad galleries provided fragile bousillage an extra layer of protection.


Related stories: Housing Types and Styles

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