House Styles in New Orleans and the Mississippi Valley

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French Colonial Architecture

Destrehan Plantation House near New Orleans, constructed 1787-1790
Destrehan Plantation House near New Orleans, constructed 1787-1790. Photo by Michael Overton/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

During the early 1700s, French colonists settled in the Mississippi Valley, especially in Louisiana. They learned building practices from the Caribbean and the West Indies to design practical dwellings for a territory prone to flooding.

The Destrehan Plantation House near New Orleans illustrates the French Colonial style.

French Colonial architecture has many of these features:

  • timber frame with brick or "bousillage" (mud combined with moss and animal hair)
  • wide hipped roof extends over porches
  • thin wooden columns
  • living quarters raised above ground level
  • wide porches, called "galleries"
  • no interior hallways
  • porches used as passageway between rooms
  • french doors (doors with many small panes of glass)
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Creole Cottages

Creole cottage in Louisiana
Creole cottage in Louisiana. Photo posted by Forum Member "nolanwb"

Many cultures mingled in the Mississippi Valley. An eclectic "Creole" architecture evolved, combining building traditions from France, the Caribbean, the West Indies, and other parts of the world. In the late 1700s through the mid-1800s, workers built simple one-story "Creole Cottages" that resembled homes from the West Indies. Common features:

  • Wood frame
  • Square or rectangular shape
  • Four adjoining rooms - one room in each corner of the house
  • No interior halls
  • Small storage spaces at the rear
  • A sleeping area in the attic
  • Hipped or gabled roof
  • Main roofline extends over the porch or sidewalk

In New Orleans, rows of creole cottages were constructed directly on the sidewalk with just one or two steps leading inside. Outside the city, farm workers constructed small plantation homes along similar plans.

The reader who submitted this photo writes, "Around a millennium ago, in the late 1930's, I was born in this old farm home in North Louisiana. Back then, it was in much better shape--immaculate in fact. The yard was filled with flowers such as hyacinths, daffodils, dwarf Cape Jessamine, antique roses, and hydrangea .... Note the long 'gallery' across the front of the house. Back then there was a chimney at each end of the front--only left chimney remains here. And, at one time, there was a dog trot down the middle. The house was an "L" shape with a long screened in porch that ran the length of the back of the house. And, it had a 'well porch' at the tip of the "L" in the back of the home."

More photos from the Hancock County Historical Society, Mississippi: Creole Cottages

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Antebellum Plantation Homes

Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana
Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana. Photo:

During America's antebellum period before the Civil War, prosperous plantation owners in the Mississippi Valley built stately homes in a variety of architectural styles. Symmetrical and square, these homes often had columns or pillars and balconies.

Shown here is Oak Alley Plantation (L'Allée des chênes) in Vacherie, Louisiana. Combining Greek Revival, French Colonial, and other styles, the grand house has massive Doric columns and wide porches that served as passageways between rooms.

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Double Gallery Houses

Double Gallery House in the Garden District of New Orleans
Double Gallery House in the Garden District of New Orleans. Photo by Sue Cline / Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

Stroll through the Garden District of New Orleans and other fashionable neighborhoods throughout the Mississippi Valley and you'll find gracious columned homes in a variety of classical styles.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, classical ideas blended with practical townhouse design to create space-efficient double gallery houses. These two-story homes sit on brick piers a short distance from the property line. Each level has a covered porch with columns.

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Shotgun Houses

Brightly painted shotgun house in New Orleans, Louisiana
Brightly painted shotgun house in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo (cc) Flickr Member Karen Apricot New Orleans

Shotgun houses have been built since the time of the Civil War. The economical style became popular in many southern towns, especially New Orleans.

Shotgun houses have many of these features:

  • The entire house is no wider than 12 feet (3.5 meters)
  • Rooms are arranged in a single row, without hallways
  • The living room is at the front, with bedrooms and kitchen behind
  • The house has two doors, one at the front and one at the rear
  • A long pitched roof provides natural ventilation
  • The house may rest on stilts to prevent flood damage
Why Are These Houses Called Shotgun?

A few theories:

  • If you fire a shotgun through the front door, the bullets will fly straight out through the back door.
  • Some shotgun houses were constructed from packing crates that once held shotgun shells.
  • The word shotgun might come from to-gun, which means place of assembly in an African dialect.

Shotgun houses and creole cottages became models for economical, energy-efficient Katrina Cottages designed after Hurricane Katrina devastated so many neighborhoods in New Orleans and the Mississippi Valley.

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Creole Townhouses

Creole Townhouse in New Orleans
Creole Townhouse in New Orleans. Photo by Maria Rodriguez / Flickr

After the great fire of 1788, Creole builders in New Orleans constructed thick-walled townhouses that sat directly on the street or walkway. Creole Townhouses shared many of these features:

  • Brick or stucco construction
  • Arched openings
  • Steep roofs
  • Dormers
  • Wrought iron balconies
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Victorian Era Shops and Apartments

Victorian Era Shops and Apartments in New Orleans
Victorian Era Shops and Apartments in New Orleans. Photograph by Nicole Morse / Flickr

During the Victorian era, town homes and apartments in New Orleans were lavished with elaborate wrought iron porches or balconies that extended across the entire second story. Often the lower levels were used for shops, while living quarters were located on the upper level.

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Creole Ironworkers in New Orleans

Wrought Iron in New Orleans
Wrought Iron in New Orleans. Photo by Kira Butler / Flickr

In New Orleans, Louisiana, Creole blacksmiths added elaborate wrought iron details to cottages, townhouses, and business buildings. Used instead of wooden pillars and porches, the wrought iron often covered the entire facade like a lace veil.

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Wrought Iron Balconies

Wrought Iron Balconies in New Orleans
Wrought Iron Balconies in New Orleans. Photo by Fiona Smallcorn

Although we use the term "French Creole" to describe buildings in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the fancy ironwork is not actually French at all. Many cultures since ancient times have used the strong, decorative material.

The wrought iron balconies of New Orleans are a Victorian elaboration on a Spanish idea. Creole blacksmiths, who were often free black men, refined the art, creating elaborate wrought iron pillars and balconies. These strong and beautiful details replaced the wooden pillars used on older Creole buildings.

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Your Citation
Craven, Jackie. "House Styles in New Orleans and the Mississippi Valley." ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2016, Craven, Jackie. (2016, August 9). House Styles in New Orleans and the Mississippi Valley. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "House Styles in New Orleans and the Mississippi Valley." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 18, 2017).