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Louisiana Architecture Feature

Louisiana Architecture

Louisiana is home to some of the most distinctive architecture in the United States. The history of Louisiana’s built environment began long before the first Europeans or Africans set foot on the state’s soil. The land has supported human habitation for thousands of years, as evidenced by the many burial and temple mounds that survive. Built about 1500 BCE, Poverty Point is the most impressive, consisting of a series of curved ridges, measuring three-quarters of a mile in diameter. As European explorers arrived in the early eighteenth century, they described Native American cultures and structures they encountered while following the region’s coast and waterways. Similarly, the earliest European settlements were built along the banks of the Mississippi River and other rivers and bayous.

Early European Settlements

The first of these settlements was a small trading post built in 1714 on the Red River near Natchitoches. Four years later, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, selected a site for New Orleans. Three years later, French engineer Louis-Pierre LeBlond de la Tour laid out the city in a grid pattern, in accordance with military and French tradition. Early eighteenth-century plans depict a church facing an open square and the river. St. Louis Cathedral now occupies the site of that church, flanked by the Cabildo and Presbytère, and the Pontalba Buildings border the now-landscaped square. In its geometric order and spatial clarity, this architectural arrangement forms one of the nation’s greatest urban spaces. When people traveled primarily by boat, the square acted as a symbolic and literal doorway to the city and the hinterland. French architectural style still informs the architecture of the Vieux Carré, or French Quarter. While the earliest surviving structure is the Old Ursuline Convent, built between 1749 and 1753, drawings of plans and elevations for New Orleans’ first buildings, dating from the 1720s, are in the National Archives in Paris, France.

International Influences

Successive owners of the original French colony—Spain, then France again, and finally, following the Louisiana Purchase and Territorial Period in 1803, the United States—each laid their architectural imprint on the growing city. In the French Quarter, Creole cottages nestle among two- and three-story row houses to form dense and architecturally fascinating streets. French and Spanish architectural elements such as steeply pitched hipped roofs, French doors, and wrought- and cast-iron galleries continue to give the area a decidedly European character.

Shortly after the arrival of the first two slave ships from Africa in 1719, New Orleans quickly became one of the nation’s major ports of entry for slaves, immigrants, and goods. Beginning in the 1720s, Germans began immigrating to the region, followed by the Acadians (now known as Cajuns) in the 1760s. The Saint-Domingue Revolution, which began in 1791, led to the immigration of Haitians in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Among others, Irish, Italians, and, more recently, Vietnamese immigrants added to the cultural mix. While many of these immigrants moved north or west of the city, others stayed and added their imprint on Louisiana’s architecture and culture.

While nothing remains of fortifications the colonists built to safeguard the river approaches to New Orleans, two of the brick forts constructed for the nationa

l coastal fortification system after the War of 1812 survive. These are the triangular Fort Pike in Orleans Parish and the pentagonal Fort Jackson in Plaquemines Parish.

The Influence of Climate and Natural Resources

Climate and the availability of materials profoundly influenced the state’s architecture. Until air-conditioning became widespread in the mid-twentieth century, the semitropical climate was a prime determinant of architectural form. Buildings were raised off the ground both to counter flooding and encourage air circulation. Doors and windows were aligned for cross-ventilation, and deep overhangs shaded walls. Ample galleries provided outdoor living spaces, where residents might catch a cooling breeze, while high ceilings and roofs were designed to draw up the heat. These features are intrinsic to Creole cottages, shotgun houses, and, in northern Louisiana, dogtrot houses. Although not unique to the state, these house types are so ubiquitous that they have become identified with Louisiana.

Louisiana’s cypress and pine forests provided building materials. Since the state lacked building stone, brickyards were quickly established, probably in the 1720s. For important buildings, the brick walls were often stuccoed and scored to resemble stone. When stone was shipped into the state, it was primarily used for major civic buildings. Because it was rare, stone gave these buildings a symbolic weight and presence, as well as physical strength. The monumental granite-walled Custom House in New Orleans is the most obvious example. Southern Louisiana’s soft soils did not deter architects and engineers from constructing heavy stone buildings or, beginning in the late nineteenth century, skyscrapers. Instead, they devised ways to carry and stabilize such buildings, supporting them on piles sunk hundreds of feet into the soupy mix.

Geography and climate also shaped Louisiana’s economy. From early in the eighteenth century, plantations were established along the Mississippi River. Land was laid out on the French long-lot system, with the narrow end of the property bordering the river. This ensured that each property owner had access to the water. Sugar became the crop of choice in southern Louisiana, while cotton proved popular in the northern part of the state. Often huge agricultural enterprises, plantations consisted of a complex of buildings. The planter’s house took center stage, while slave housing, barns, sugar mills or cotton gins, and other necessary buildings were at a short distance. Some of the more magnificent plantation houses survive, many adorned with columns and other classical embellishments. Few of the ancillary dwellings, however, remain. Planters transported their products by river to the port in New Orleans, where sugar and cotton traders built handsome office buildings. They also transformed the suburb immediately upriver from the French Quarter into a vital commercial and business district. In the city’s growing suburbs, some traders commissioned enormous houses in the latest architectural styles.

Industrial Growth

The railroad also had an enormous impact on the state’s architecture. It opened up sparsely populated areas to new industries and created new towns, especially after the Civil War. Although cypress had been exported since 1722, the railroad provided lumber barons with access to the vast inland pine forests. In response, lumber or mill towns grew almost overnight. The lumber boom was essentially over by 1920, however, and few of these settlements survived. A notable exception is Bogalusa, a company town laid out by the Great Southern Lumber Company in 1906 and still dominated by its huge paper mill. Lake Charles, another center for lumber, has since expanded its port for other products. Railroads also opened up the southwestern prairies. There, rice cultivation generated new towns, with silos and rice mills lining the tracks.

Northern areas of the state remained thinly populated until the discovery of oil in 1901. First discovered near Jennings in southwestern Louisiana, the center of production soon shifted to the northwestern part of the state. In 1911, a well was drilled over water (perhaps the first in the world) in Caddo Lake. Though Shreveport was already the commercial center for the region, oil transformed the town into a sophisticated city. Modern commercial buildings, a splendid courthouse, and handsome residential neighborhoods, lined with houses in fashionable styles, soon expanded the city. In 1937, the first offshore well was drilled near the coast of Cameron Parish in southwestern Louisiana. Offshore drilling created new industries. As a result, in many coastal towns, oil rig equipment facilities nudge against boat repair structures and warehouses for the seafood business. Frequently, oil and related industries built vast complexes along the Mississippi River, such as the Standard Oil refinery, established in 1909, just north of Baton Rouge. During the twentieth century, oil refineries and chemical companies spread from Baton Rouge to the area south of New Orleans, transforming a rural landscape into an industrial corridor. Today, the port system from Baton Rouge through New Orleans to Plaquemines Parish is one of the largest in the world.

Nineteenth-Century Architects 

New Orleans’ bustling economy also proved a magnet for architects. In 1819, the nation’s first professional architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, arrived to complete the waterworks system he had designed in 1811. While in New Orleans, he designed a bank in the newest classical manner before the city’s nineteenth-century scourge, yellow fever, killed him in 1820. Architects who had a major impact in the mid-nineteenth century include James Gallier, Sr., James and Charles Dakin, and Henry Howard, all of whom created important buildings, mostly in a classical revival mode.

Later in that century, Thomas Sully introduced the latest stylistic ideas and pioneered metal-frame skeleton construction in the city. Sadly, the railroad stations that nationally known architects Louis Sullivan and Daniel H. Burnham designed—in 1891 and 1908, respectively—for New Orleans have been demolished. And the renowned Henry Hobson Richardson, a Louisiana native who established his practice in Boston, has only one New Orleans building that bears his imprint: the Richardson Memorial Library. Based on a design he made for a Michigan library, this building was constructed by his successor and is currently part of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. All these architects established a legacy taken up by local architects, such as the cousins William and James Freret in the late nineteenth century.

The Twentieth Century

In the twentieth century, homegrown architects have dominated Louisiana’s architecture. In the first decades, the firm of Favrot and Livaudais designed an extraordinary range of buildings in southern Louisiana, as did Emile Weil. Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth became the architects of choice for Governor Huey Long in the 1930s. Long’s ambitious reform and modernization programs led to major commissions for the design firm. Most notably, Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth designed a new state capitol in Baton Rouge, Charity Hospital in New Orleans, and university buildings throughout the state. Their buildings blended modern forms with the stylized, decorative elements of art deco.

It was in Shreveport, however, where architects first broke with traditional historical styles, perhaps because the city had a less powerful architectural tradition than New Orleans. In the 1920s and 1930s, Samuel and William Wiener created buildings whose only precedent was the pure geometric forms of international modernism. Their work kept pace with new, post-World War II design ideals, and they produced innovative houses in Shreveport. World War II also generated new attitudes and goals in southern Louisiana, and several firms became nationally known, most notably Curtis and Davis. Vowing to design solely in a modern mode, the firm’s commissions in Louisiana included houses, schools, the extraordinary expressionistic Rivergate (since demolished), Angola State Penitentiary, and the Superdome. Inventive in their interpretation of modern forms, their buildings were as structurally innovative as any in the nation. Baton Rouge-based John Desmond also added some unique buildings to the state’s architecture.

Preservation and Future Growth

Louisiana’s rich architectural tradition has generated active historic preservation advocates. The survival of the French Quarter (seven-eighths of whose buildings date to the nineteenth century), for example, is due to those who recognized its special character. In 1933, the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) hired Richard Koch as the state’s district officer. Under his direction, buildings throughout the state were documented and photographed. The architectural firm of Koch and Wilson (with Samuel Wilson, Jr., as cofounder) has been vital for historic restoration. The state’s powerful historical traditions create a constant tug-of-war between architects who favor replicas of historic styles and those who prefer architecture that embodies ideals of the present era.

Louisiana’s verdant growth and colorful flora inspire and enhance its architecture, and bring year-round texture to buildings and streets. Yet, as it bestows exquisite beauty, nature has also produced terrible devastation. In the twenty-first century, New Orleans and neighboring Gulf Coast communities strive to remake themselves following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to control the Mississippi River’s course, levees and floodways have inadvertently contributed to coastal erosion and flooding. The drainage of New Orleans’ swamps to establish residential districts added to the problem. As southern Louisiana attempts to resolve these problems and rebuild damaged communities, a population shift from New Orleans to Baton Rouge suggests that the once-sleepy state capital may become the center for innovative architecture.

Written by Karen Kingsley

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