Historic Structures

Creole architecture Roubieu-Jones Plantation House, Natchez Louisiana

In the last half of the twentieth century, architectural historians have used the term "Creole architecture" to describe a specific style of colonial vernacular architecture found in the middle Mississippi Valley around present day St. Louis, in the lower Mississippi Valley from Natchez to the mouth of the Mississippi River, up the Red River and within the Bayous of southwestern Louisiana, along the Gulf Coast, and on the mainland and islands of the larger Caribbean region. More particularly, contemporary American architectural historians have associated Creole architecture with the raised Creole cottage, also known as the Creole raised plantation house. In colonial Louisiana the raised Creole cottage served as housing on large plantations, yeoman subsistence farms, and as townhouses in the carefully planned townscapes of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Natchez. Seldom are two examples of the raised Creole cottage exactly alike, yet most follow a similar plan.

The most obvious characteristic of the Creole cottage was its raise. Like most frontier architecture of the colonial and antebellum South, the Creole homes were raised off the ground to preserve the wood frames from rotting due to wet soil and floods, and to serve as a cooling mechanism by raising the principal living space above ground in order to utilize the slight breeze of the Louisiana summer. In most cases the homes were raised anywhere from one foot to a full story off the ground by either timber posts or with brick masonry. In early colonial Louisiana the framing was often half-timbered with a sill set on a foundation, or in less sophisticated models, the framing posts were actually set or buried in the ground. In both models, the space between the timbers was filled with a bousillage, a mixture of mud, Spanish moss, and animal hair, which was placed between the vertical timbers on horizontal laths, or with briquette entre poteaux, which were low-fired bricks laid in horizontal rows between the posts. The infilling and posts were usually covered with stucco to create a more decorative appearance, or in less sophisticated examples, all four exterior walls were covered with wood siding.

The floor plan of the raised Creole cottage usually followed one of two distinct traditions. The first plan was based on an asymmetrical room arrangement with two main rooms serving as the core. The larger room, known as the salle and whose Anglo equivalent was the hall, was almost square while the narrower room functioned as the bedchamber. Variations on this plan included the addition of one room added to the side of the salle, two rooms added to either side of the original two-room core, or the incorporation of a double pile plan with matching sized rooms. The other common floor plan consisted of a central room with matching smaller rooms to either side. Variations of this plan included the addition of a second room on either side of the main room, or the incorporation of a double pile plan with matching sized rooms. The doors were usually paired French doors set into a simple narrow surround, which were covered with vertical board shutters hung on strap hinges. These shutters swung outward, while the actual door opened inwardly. Unlike most of its contemporary Anglo/ American architecture, the fronts of Creole design were rarely organized symmetrically; rather, Creole homes had randomly placed doors and windows on the front facade. Seldom did the houses have an interior hallway; on the contrary, if you wished to go from one room to the other, you had to go through the other rooms or go outside and come in through another entrance. Likewise, most raised Creole houses had no interior staircases. In order to depart from the building you had to exit the house and use the stairs located on the gallery.

The galleries of the raised Creole cottage, which were used as a form of climate control for the hot and humid Louisiana by channeling breezes in through the windows, were usually located in the front and rear under the extended roofline, but sometimes wrapped around the entire dwelling. Cabinet rooms were often placed on each side of either the front or rear gallery, with the rear cabinet model being the more common of the two. These rooms were used as either sitting rooms or small bedrooms. In between the two rear cabinet rooms was a portion of the rear gallery called the loggia, which was an open gallery.

The three basic roof types of the raised Creole cottage were the hipped, side gabled, and gable-on-hip roofs. The hipped roof model comprises four adjacent flat surfaces that slope upward from all sides of the perimeter of the building. The side-gable roof type has a gable end that is perpendicular to the facade. Finally, the gable-on-hip roof model incorporates four flat surfaces at the roof ridge that slope upward from each side like a hipped root: but on two ends this slope stops and turns vertically to form a small gable on each side.

Although most scholars agree on the characteristics of the raised Creole cottage, the debate over its origin has created a historiographical dispute that involves architectural historians, anthropologists, cultural geographers, and architects, who have fought out their respective opinions, on the origins of the raised Creole cottage, in the pages of academic journals. The crux of the argument is centered on the point of cultural influence.

Some of the earliest studies credit the origins of the raised Creole cottage to Louisiana Architectural historian William R Cullison believes that the Creole home was an Americanized structure that transformed the French farmhouse into a climate-adapted vernacular form. Cullison emphasizes the addition of the gallery in America as a method of temperature control for the hot Louisiana summers. Likewise, Mary Cable believes that the French in Louisiana created the raised Creole cottage to adapt to the heat. According to Cable, ''the hip roof came down like an umbrella," to shade the galleries from the sun. In his study, William Faulkner Rushton argues that Creole architecture was developed in North America. According to Rushton, Acadians (who were known in Louisiana as Cajuns) brought with them from Canada the technique of using bousillage within the frame.

Another possible origin of the raised Creole cottage is that it was modeled after medieval French cottages, and transferred to the New World by French colonists. The architectural historian Jonathan Fricker has concentrated his research on the French origins of Creole dwellings. According to Fricker, ''the old climatic detenninism argument," which linked the origin of Creole architecture to the necessity for formal climatic adaptation, was ''wide off the mark." Instead, the Creole cottage was simply a medieval styled Norman farmhouse. According to Fricker, ''the origins of such vital Creole architectural features as galleries, French doors, cabinets, exterior stairs, and . raised houses," are found in medieval France, and not in the new world.

The most common opinion on the origin of the raised Creole cottage is that the model was imported from the French and Spanish colonies of the Caribbean. Architectural anthropologist Jay Edwards argues that, "Despite the distance between Saint Domingue and Louisiana, contact between them was surprisingly high," and that, "Almost every ship leaving France or New France for Louisiana stopped at the city of Cap Francois before traveling on to the West." According to Edwards, "This period of trading and refitting that may have lasted weeks or months permitted many French Canadians and European French to become familiar with the architectural adaptations of the West Indies well before their first sight of Louisiana" Architect Eugene Darwin Cizek argues that Creole architecture derived from ''the adaptation of a mother country's ideals to, and their integration with, those of Native Americans and of the Africans who came either as slaves or as free people of color from the islands, as well as those inhabiting the region under the mother country's governance.

The historians who believe that Creole architecture originated in the West Indies have linked the form to a process of cultural synthesis. The basic plan of the raised Creole house was French or Italo-Spanish. The French model incorporated the asymmetrical room arrangement of the medieval Norman farmhouse, while the Italo-Spanish type carried on the tradition of the Italian and Spanish Renaissance where one large reception room sat between two secondary and sometimes tertiary rooms. The gallery and raised main floor was, according to Edwards, from Africa. In coastal West Africa, the homes were built with an outside and inside room arrangement. The outside area was usually attached to the house, and covered. Also, Africans raised their homes off the ground to keep the base from being damaged by floods and damp soil. Historian John Vlach argues that the "African American toil and sweat should not be slighted" when historians examine southern architecture forms and that slaves ''found ways to maintain their own ideals while simultaneously making a contribution to American architecture traditions.

Thus, the historiography of the Creole plantation house has dealt mostly with types, causes, and influences. Yet, while scholarship in regard to architectonic form and function has been particularly thoughtful and compelling, the social, political, racial, and economic context of Creole architecture has been largely disregarded or ignored. In order to properly place Creole architecture within its relevant cultural landscape, architectural historians must begin to examine how, after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the planter elite negotiated the Creole-style architecture of the lower Mississippi Valley, into the larger culture of plantation slavery.

The small town of Natchitoches in the central part of Louisiana is the oldest permanent settlement in Louisiana Purchase territory. Although founded in 1714 by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis to serve as a military outpost for the French Territory of Louisiana, the town of Natchitoches grew largely in accordance with its relationship to plantation slavery. Most slaves in French Louisiana were shipped directly from Africa, although some were transplanted from the West Indies. Of a total of 5,951 slaves imported directly from Africa to Louisiana, only 190 came after 1731. With this relative decline in the slave trade during the second quarter of the eighteenth century, the plantation economy developed rather slowly in Louisiana during the French era.

At the close of the Seven Years' War, all of the Louisiana territory was ceded from Louis XV to his cousin, Charles ill of Spain. It was during the Spanish era that the African slave trade was reopened, and the aging Louisiana slave population was replenished with new bound laborers from West Africa, which created the necessary material conditions for the plantation system to grow.

In Natchitoches, it was during the Spanish era that the plantation economy supplanted the frontier exchange economy, and a whole new set of social relations and discourses transformed the rural countryside into a thriving plantation landscape. As opposed to the French, the Spanish engendered some slaves with a realistic opportunity for manumission without the need for gratuitous emancipation. Although not officially a law, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Alejandro O'Reilly, introduced the coartacion policy in 1769, which stated that slaves with untarnished reputations could purchase their own freedom, and furthermore, if their owners allowed it, they could pay with installments. Some scholars have argued that the Spanish deliberately organized a three-class system in the colonies to keep any one group from gaining too much power; hence, a class of free people of color could offset the possibility of the planters revolting against the crown, and at the same time, a property owning :free class of African Americans would have a stake in the economy and would therefore, align with the white planters during slave revolts.

Imperial Spain's social planning, which sought to maintain absolute monarchical rule over the colonies, created a context where familial power relations within the individual planter households were not centered around the plantation master; rather, the hierarchical chain of dominance flowed from Madrid across the Atlantic to the Spanish colonial authorities and to the church. Unlike the Anglo-South, where, after the English Civil War, individual planters ruled over their own autonomous plantations, planters in the Spanish colonies were accountable to the church and state. Although the Spanish presence in Natchitoches was minimal, patterns of plantation form, culture, customs, and law, which were products of the larger Imperial Spanish mode of plantation control and social planning, transformed the Cane River's racial demographics and class relationships to mirror the rest of the Iberian plantation colonies.

Spatially, the Spanish used a town planning method as a means of articulating their political power.27 The text of the plan, entitled the "Ordinances," was published and circulated for the purpose of town formation, but the architectural consequences of the town plan spread well beyond the Cabildo square. Essentially the ordinances required that the government and ecclesiastical buildings be centered on a plaza and that they "shall be separated :from any other nearby building, or from adjoining buildings, and ought to be seen from all sides so that it can be decorated better, thus acquiring more authority; efforts should be made that it be somewhat raised from ground level in order that it be approached by steps ... Thus, the public buildings, including the church, were supposed to be constructed and spaced in a manner that acquired ''more authority." Domestic architecture in Spanish Louisiana was also state controlled and organized. Both numbers one hundred and thirty-four and one hundred and thirty-five of the Ordinances describe how non-public buildings should be constructed: "They shall try as far as possible to have the buildings all of one type .... , The faithful executors and architects as wen as persons who may be deputed for this purpose by the governor shall be most careful in overseeing that the above [ordinances] be executed."

Although several perceptive scholars have, as mentioned above, been able to reconstruct the cultural diffusion that created Creole architecture, little work has been undertaken to explore why those particular architectural fragments were utilized, and how they were conducive to the larger plantation social relations. Creole design was conducive to colonial Spain's town planning, which was a hegemonic endeavor, because its open floor plan created a nonprivate room arrangement where space could not be manipulated to create familial hierarchies. The royal authorities in Spain were concerned with maintaining their mercantile economy, and were therefore insistent on discouraging the formation of any sort of dominant planter class in the colonies, who might place their own interests over the crown's. The unassuming, asymmetrical, and unadorned Creole facades combined with their non-private floor plans created a built symbol of servility when juxtaposed to government and church buildings on the central plaza. Thus, in the French and Spanish colonies, where power was centered across the Atlantic in the palaces of the absolutes and then consigned to the various state officials in the settlements, Creole domestic design served more as housing than as a symbol of power. To the astute slave, the transparent authoritative posturing that planters emulated, appeared surmountable, a notion that was realized in the Saint Domingue revolution.

In the immediate years after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the free population in Louisiana was largely French or French descended and unsurprisingly interested in perpetuating their French-Creole culture. But eventually, after more and more Americans moved to Louisiana in hope of securing land for cotton production or with more merchant minded aspirations, the Creole cultural base was shaken and eventually transformed. As mentioned above, the Anglo/ American mode of plantation slavery was organized with a completely different set of social relations than the earlier French and Spanish model. In the Anglo/ American South the plantation was organized hierarchically within each individual plantation with the plantation master being the ultimate sovereign. Historian Eugene Genovese argues, rather persuasively, that the Anglo/ American South was a precapitalist society, and, ''that slavery in the Old South raised to power a social class of a new type and laid the foundations for a new social order that was in but not of the trans-Atlantic capitalist world.'. Influenced by Antonio Gramsci's notion of cultural hegemony, Genovese argues that ideology or the mind of the planter class, was at the center of antebellum southern class relationships, and that the legitimizing discourse of planter paternalism, which stemmed from both the material conditions of plantation slavery and from its own internal logic (which was largely influenced by religious life and scriptural interpretation), created the social context for both slave and slaveholder. For the planters, paternalism meant accepting their Christian prerogative to feed, cloth, house, provide a ministry, respect familial relationships, demand a reasonable work schedule, and to punish only if required. For slaves, paternalism meant that the above conditions were ''their due," and slaves often, "drew their own lines, asserted rights, and preserved self-respect. '. In addition, the poor whites, yeoman farmers, and small slaveholders, were intertwined in the plantation social order. Historian Stephanie McCurry argues that non-planter whites ruled their "small worlds" mirroring the larger plantations.33 Because of their democratic sensibility, which enabled them to conclude that they too could eventually enter the planter class, and because they were always, no matter how poor, in a higher social position than all African-American southerners and all women, non-planter whites incorporated plantation paternalism into their own households. Thus, nonplanters articulated the "mind" of the planter class within the context of their yeoman landscape.

After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the "mind'' of the ruling planter class of antebellum Natchitoches constructed the context for appropriate cultural consciousness, as opposed to the Spanish era, where the crown and its mercantile economy created the conditions for intellectual life. Because the French and Spanish planters of Louisiana were deemed more authority under the new administration, there was little resistance to the new super structural formations. Indeed, the planters were able to use their own logic to create a cultural context where old traditions took on new meanings. By examining one building in particular, it is possible to reconstruct how the idea of the raised Creole cottage was reformatted, and later renovated, to serve as a symbol of planter paternalism on Louisiana's plantation landscape.

Thus, whereas during the colonial era the original idea to enlarge the tworoom Creole plan was simply the easiest method to enlarge your house, after the Louisiana Purchase, the plan was adaptable to a new mode of plantation production where the reciprocity of paternalism was used to control and command the "family," black and white.

Another fragment of Creole architecture that made sense in the new economy, was the full-story raise. The full-story raise was a common characteristic of eighteenth-century Creole design, and was found in all areas of the Creole geographic. Originally, a high raise was used to channel air through the bays of the house and along the gallery to cool the building during the hot summer months, and apparently, to situate the principal living space away from mosquitoes and other insects. Over time, the full-story raise was used to signify social position within the planter class, a higher raised house indicating wealth. In American Louisiana, the height of the raise was used to symbolize the center of the power axis, in much the same way the Spanish utilized the height and grandness of the government and ecclesiastical buildings on the town square. For planters concerned with sustaining total control on the plantation, the height of the big house was used to assert a sense of hierarchical authority over all the outbuildings and slave-quarters. The Roubieu-Jones House, with its fully-story raise, served as a metaphor for the seat of the government, church, and father's house, for all residents on the plantation, bound and free.

By the 1820s, after a series of political defeats, slave uprisings (both real and imagined), abolitionist agitation from the North and Europe, and a general understanding that the plantation slavery was on a collision course with the trans-Atlantic capitalist transformation, paternalistic thought became proslavery ideology, which was articulated in various books and magazines throughout the South. According to George Fitzugh, one of proslavery's most prolific ideologues, "Southern thought must justify the slavery principle, justify slavery as natural, normal and necessitous ... By Southern thought, we mean a Southern philosophy, not excuses, apologies, and palliations. Fitzhugh celebrated the cultural and intellectual isolation of the South, and made repeated calls for cultural hegemonic control. For Fitzhugh, "thought, by means of the press and the mail, has now become almost omnipotent. It rules the world." Thus, by the late antebellum era, planters understood that in order to protect their embattled system, they needed an all-encompassing ideology, one that controlled all cultural consciousness.

Although references to architecture within proslavery texts deal mostly with idealized descriptions of the plantation landscape, it is possible to uncover the architectural idea of proslavery by examining the buildings themselves as texts embedded with architectural narratives of the planter class who most adamantly demonstrated its power over culture through its built environment By the middle antebellum era, planter housing was not spatially organized as mere symbols of paternalistic dominance where the planter ruled over his family and slaves within the boundaries of his plantation lands; rather, planter housing served as a symbol of membership in a ruling class, to whom the entire political economy of the southern states were subservient to. Thus, in the last four decades of the southern slave economy, domestic architecture within the ruling planter class, needed to incorporate specific fragments, as a means of expressing plantation hierarchy and to signify a larger class-based consciousness.

The most obvious and probably the most significant characteristic of proslavery plantation architecture was the ordered and decorated ~ade. For Louisiana planters who continued to build an adapted Creole design, the call for orderliness was problematic, as most Creole dwellings had an asymmetrical f~ade where form had followed function. Without completely dismantling the useful bay and staircase orientation of their buildings, although many new Anglo-influenced Creole buildings did use symmetrical openings, Louisiana planters attempted to construct order on their disordered homes. The Roubieu-Jones House is a great example of an attempt to balance and adorn a Creole building. The,.!JlOSt profound change Francois Roubieu made was to incorporate a front staircase in the center of his house. Originally, the staircase ran parallel with the front fa~e and rose from underneath the front gallery to the principal living space. The new staircase was twice as wide and ran from roughly, 16' beyond the front of the house and rose to the center of gallery on the main floor. The most telling characteristic of the staircase, is that it was not aligned with the just-off-center exterior doorway on the gallery; rather, the staircase was centered in regard to the width of the house. Furthermore, the original chamfered posts, which supported the roofline, were replaced with six decorated columns that were evenly spaced to each side of the staircase. The new columns were not placed above the brick squared columns that hold up the gallery and could, therefore, not transfer the load of the roof. Thus, symmetrical form was more important than function. Finally, two dormers were added to the front roof slope, which like the staircase and new columns, was centered in regard to the width of the house.

The heritage of the Roubieu-Jones House is linked to the cultural diffusion, or "Creolization," that occurred in the plantation settlements of the larger Caribbean area Once the type was formed, it was constantly being reformulated both materially, and theoretically, in accordance with its larger economic and social context. The Roubieu-Jones House was constructed to function within the post-Louisiana Purchase era, as the center of power on the plantation. In the late-antebellum era, it was renovated as a response to the centralization of planter class ideology. In conclusion, this essay hoped to resolve some of the larger, contextual questions in regard to Louisiana's Creole architecture, by analyzing the role of power in regard to plantation slavery, and how it was critical in the formation of Louisiana's plantation architecture.