A Look At French Colonial Architecture, The Star Style Of New Orleans

Big history in the Big Easy.

Louisiana Southern Oak Alley Plantation Architecture with Tree Canopy
Lorraine BoogichGetty Images

The United States is a melting pot, and all the many countries who colonized the land left behind evidence of their own styles. There is Spanish, French, Dutch, and British Colonial architecture sprinkled throughout the nation, and their prevalence is directly related to the longevity and location of each country’s presence in America, explains Andrew Cogar, architect and president of , an Atlanta- and New York-based architecture firm.

Most original homes in the French Colonial style are quite old, as France's official presence in the U.S. began in the mid-1600s and ended with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The buildings are typically scattered around what were once French strongholds—naturally, the majority of such homes in America are found in Louisiana. However, there are other pockets farther north along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers; St. Louis and Louisville were both named for French kings, after all.

What's unique about French Colonial architecture is that we can see its most notable features by looking at homes built around the same time period in drastically different climate. Local geography, and available building materials play a huge part in influencing architecture styles, but several common stylistic elements show up in homes that were built around the same time in snowy Montreal or the tropical West Indies.

Here’s What French Colonial Houses Have in Common

St Joseph Plantation Antebellum Mansion, USA
Tim GrahamGetty Images

For the most part, French Colonial homes have steeply pitched roofs with wide overhangs that are hipped (where all four sides slope down from the center pitch) or side-gabled (where only the front and back sides slope down and the sides are triangular continuations of the exterior walls). Similar to Spanish Colonial homes, exterior walls are often thick and covered with stucco, but the interior walls are typically half-timbered with clay and straw or soft brick infill.

"As a result of this lighter construction technique, the French Colonial style has many more door and window openings," Andrew notes, with each room having access to the outdoors, typically via tall and skinny double doors—yep, French doors.

Within Louisiana, there are both rural and urban examples of French Colonial architecture, with "the city of New Orleans offering the most extensive and complete collection of the French Colonial style," according to Andrew. Wide porches, called galéries, are seen in both settings.

In rural areas, "the homes were often raised, creating considerable loggias (covered, but open-sided exterior corridors) under wrap-around galéries," Andrew says. Louisiana's grand plantation homes showcase this most extensively, where the kitchen and servants' quarters were on the ground level, and the owner's main living areas were a full story off the ground. The dual-level wraparound porches "provided shelter and shade in hot-humid climates and they worked in conjunction with tall ceilings and steep roof forms to enhance natural air circulation."

If You Want to See the Best, Head to New Orleans

Illustration In New Orleans, United States In April, 1976.
Daniel SIMONGetty Images

No other American city has as many original French Colonial buildings and homes still standing—and a wide range of types at that. "Experiencing this amazing city allows you to quickly understand and appreciate the wonderful architectural contributions the French Colonial style has made in America," Andrew says.

Bright colors coat the city's popular Creole cottages, small rectangular homes with many of the quintessential French features blended with building practices suitable for a sub-tropical urban area. In the French Quarter, multi-story buildings are often outfitted with the same double gallery seen on rural homes, which were later enclosed with wrought iron during the Victorian era.

As Andrew explains it: "With the expansion of cast iron technology in the mid-1800s, the urban forms of the French Colonial style adapted the wooden galéries of its rural counterpart into second story balconies as well as two and three-story verandas. This cast-iron element, not found in France at the time, is a perfect example of settler traditions merging with local materials and details to create something entirely new."

Unlike British and Spanish Colonial styles, which had major revivals in the first half of the 20th century, French Colonial hasn't had a big resurgence in the U.S. and it's rare to see new homes borrowing the look. So to get a better sense of the look, you either need to book a ticket to Nola—or build such a home yourself.

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