Table of Contents

Louisiana Folklife: An Introduction

Louisiana Folklife: An Introduction, Nicholas R. Spitzer

Ethnicity, Region, Occupation and Family

Folklife and Public Policy

Public Sector Attention to Folklife in the United States, Archie Green
Folklife and Public Policy In Louisiana
A Folklife Plan for the State of Louisiana, F. A. de Caro
Folklife and Education, C. Paige Gutierrez
Folklife and the Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism
Office of Cultural Development: Division of the Arts, Louisiana Folklife Program, Division of Historic Preservation, Division of Archeology
Office of State Museum
Office of Tourism
Office of State Parks
Office of the State Library


1. Resources in Research, Preservation, and Presentation of Louisiana Folklife
2. Doctoral Dissertations/Masters Theses Relevant to Louisiana Folklife
3. Film and Video on Louisiana Folklife
4. Louisiana Folk Music on Sound Recordings
5. Louisiana Festivals -- Traditional and Otherwise
6. Louisiana State Documents Relevant to Folklife
7. Oral History and Folklife
8. Louisiana Folklife Legislation/Louisiana Folklife Commission
9. Louisiana Folklife Survey

Louisiana Folk Houses

By Milton B. Newton

This essay originally appeared in Folklife in Louisiana: A Guide to the State published by the Office of Cultural Development in 1985. This essay is provided online courtesy of the editor since the publication is out of print.


Editor's Introduction

Folk houses (and associated settlement patterns) are key elements in the traditional rural landscape. They are also found in modified forms in urban neighborhoods. Housing created within folk cultural traditions can be viewed in a variety of ways. It can be discussed as to formal features of design and dimension. The movement of house forms or types can be plotted over time and space (historic-geographic method). Building use patterns as part of a household economy can be examined. Finally the structures can be viewed as symbols of cultural heritage that lend meaning to the contemporary life of people in a region. The latter is true in the case of log houses preserved by local "pioneer heritage" groups or Creole cottages moved to an "Acadian" museum setting. The symbolism may be less conscious but no less significant as thousands of traditional French hip roof lines are modified into the suburban tract house landscape.

It becomes harder each year to find the core traditional folk houses in Louisiana, and it is important for those interested in such structures and their associated settlement patterns to become aware of the types and processes of construction (and destruction) that make up the folk architectural landscape. To this end we are lucky to have a legacy of internationally renowned folk-house experts following in the work of Dr. Fred B. Kniffen, LSU's Emeritus Boyd Professor of Geography. Kniffen's students and colleagues have for years continued the quest for better understanding of folk houses as cultural forms on the land. Currently at LSU Jay Edwards has carried this research into distribution and formal features of French housing in south Louisiana while also looking into log houses in the Florida Parishes. Faculty members in the Architecture Department at Louisiana Tech in Ruston have carried out similar survey work in Lincoln Parish.

Of all of Kniffen's students, the one best known for his work on folk housing is Dr. Milton B. Newton. Dr. Newton, the current chairman of the Geography and Anthropology Department at LSU, has worked for well over a decade on folk housing and landscapes in Louisiana with particular reference to the Florida Parishes. He has served as editor of Pioneer America: The Journal of Historic American Material Culture, as well as authoring the Atlas of Louisiana and numerous articles on folk housing settlement patterns and material culture in the southeastern United States.


In Louisiana, we recognize two major folk traditions in house construction, plus one mixed category. The southern one-third of the state bears the clear, firm mark of a French architectural heritage of several strands: Continental, Canadian-Acadian, and Caribbean. These sources of ideas blend to make the Louisiana French house types. These traditions were followed, usually not in the same areas, by the British tradition. The Louisiana house types that trace principally back to Britain include three main strands: Tidewater, Upland South, and Midwestern--the first two also including some elements from the Caribbean region. British types dominate the historic built landscapes of about two-thirds of Louisiana, although popular conceptions of the state's heritage commonly omit this extensive region of British cultures. Finally, we may place together several forms that seem historically unrelated: the "bungalow-shotgun" tradition. Bungalows, shotguns, and presumably related types appear most frequently in the Mississippi Valley and in towns. These three traditions, then, laid the folk foundation for Louisiana built landscapes that were eventually twice renovated--in the ages of lumbering and of tract housing.

French Houses

In the parts of France that supplied settlers for the New World, houses were built of masonry, poteaux en terre (palisade), briquette entre poteaux (half-timber framing with bricks between the beams) or bousillage (half-timber framing with mud between the timbers). All of these modes of construction appeared in Louisiana. (Similar forms of wall construction occurred in most west European lands.) For the first decades of French settlement in Louisiana, houses usually had earthen floors and lacked the raising upon piers or brick basements that dominated later construction. Continental houses might have gabled or hipped roofs with ridges running from side to side. In some regions, the roof might sport dormers just large enough to admit a little light. The roof and walls usually completely embraced the hearth and chimney--unlike British houses, which commonly had their chimneys sited in or against an exterior wall. The houses of most Continental source areas were arranged so as to have the formal entry on one long side, adjacent to the public road.

Some sources of Louisiana Creole houses.

Various factors led in the New World to simplifying the European variety during and after arrival in the new land. In Canada, particularly in Quebec, students recognize three basic, colonial French house traditions: a gabled-roof Breton house and a gabled-roof and a hipped-roof Norman house. None of these is just like the types of Louisiana, although the houses of both regions share a family resemblance. Similarly, the houses of Acadia (Nova Scotia) bear a resemblance to those of Louisiana, but strictly Acadian houses are nearly unknown in Louisiana.

French houses of the St. Louis area look somewhat more like Louisiana houses. The French houses of the middle Mississippi Valley, built in the early eighteenth century, were often of poteaux en terre construction, as in early Louisiana. Many middle Mississippi houses had roofs that had pitch changes several feet from the ridge, the "pavilion" roof that can also be seen in some old Louisiana houses. But most importantly, the French houses around St. Louis and St. Genevieve were often built raised above ground level and with galleries (full-length porches). These two characteristics appear in the French tradition after its arrival in the New World. Raising and galleries most characterize the Caribbean and areas influenced from the Caribbean. The sources of these traits remain unknown, but in both French and British traditions, houses built in areas either trading heavily with or receiving settlers from the Caribbean were quite often raised several feet above the ground and had one or more galleries. These two traits appeared in the American South because of settlement and contacts from the Caribbean.

Houses built under influence from the Caribbean also commonly had several full-length, double-door openings across any facade having a gallery, and some had rather large dormers and an all-lumber construction. These traits, too, appeared in the French architectural tradition after its arrival in the New World. And, finally, each floor was provided with its own separate exterior access: the basement (if any) was entered directly; the main floor, by a stair from the ground; the loft, by a stair beginning on the gallery. Such, then, was the Caribbean model for modest and planter houses: a raised, rectangular house with its hipped or gabled roof, ridge from side to side, having one or more galleries, a galleried facade with several full-length openings, ample dormers, exterior access to each floor, and the whole, except for the basement (where present), built of lumber. These Caribbean houses had appeared in rural Louisiana by at least 1740, first with planters who had immigrated directly from the Caribbean. By the time that Acadians began arriving (1765), the most prestigious form of house was that of the Caribbean planter.

French houses in Louisiana, by long-standing academic usage called "Creole" houses, were almost completely modeled on this Caribbean house. Although other French types were built during the first half of the eighteenth century, the Creole type came to dominate the built landscape. Dirt-floored and poteaux en terre houses gradually disappeared in the face of nearly complete acceptance of various versions of the Caribbean model. The Creole type was built in French Louisiana from 1740 to 1940.

Creole houses were both great and small. The greater ones served as plantation houses and commonly had hipped roofs, two to four galleries, several dormers, a brick basement and one or two elaborate stairs leading from the ground to the gallery. They had briquette entre poteaux construction and a few internal chimneys. Being richer, planters commonly had houses with well- finished trim adorning the symmetrical facades, all in the fashion of the day; thus, some Creole- planter houses have central hallways that mark the Georgian (or "American") period in French Louisiana. Cheaply navigable streams with broad, fertile flood deposits provided the opportunity for plantation enterprises so that Creole plantation houses occur along the Mississippi, Lafourche, Teche, and Red.

Smaller Creole houses appear more widely, along these and lesser streams, from Lake Pontchartrain to Ville Platte, from Marksville to the coast. The smaller Creole house might have been raised upon a brick basement, but most sat upon piers of brick or wood; it had one gallery across the front, two to four openings in the front, a gabled roof, usually without dormers, one or two internal chimneys, and a gallery stair to the loft. Some smaller Creole houses had briquette entre poteaux walls, but most of the older ones had >bousillage walls; still later ones had stud-construction walls. The exterior walls not covered by the gallery were covered by clapboards, while the front wall under the gallery was commonly whitewashed (a practice dating from the use of bousillage without clapboards under the gallery).

Creole cottage with false gallery, French Settlement, Livingston Parish. Photograph: Nicholas R. Spitzer.

Both great and small Creole houses seem to have shared some form of a five-room floor plan. The core of the house varied considerably in size but was commonly larger from front to back than from side to side. Two larger rooms (earlier ones of unequal size) occupied the larger front part. Three smaller rooms (of the same size) took up the remaining, rear part of the house, and the middle one of the rear rooms was often a porch. Once the gallery had become an integral part of the Creole house, a simple gable roof generally covered the gallery, two main rooms and the three small rear rooms.

As opportunities occurred for adopting novelties, new forms appeared in French Louisiana. Small, one-room-wide Creole houses (often with British outside chimneys) were built during late settlement on the prairies west and northwest of Opelousas. Creole houses of lumber were widely built after 1890, about the time that balloon framing (light, stud framing) was adopted, a1ong with other novelties, as part of the age of lumbering. Yet, through more than two centuries, until World War II, the built landscape of French Louisiana remained characteristically French Caribbean and distinct from British Louisiana. There were some two-room houses in French Louisiana; these continuous-pitch, galleried houses have not, however, been separated by scholars from quarters houses and must await further study.

British Houses

No less than France, Britain has a varied heritage of built landscapes, yet again, only a portion of the variety of these house types became colonial types in British-American-built landscapes. Although some experts disagree, British houses seem everywhere in the New World to have been based upon one room ("bay" or "pen") having an oblong, rectangular plan, a gabled roof with its ridge running the long way, a door on each long side, and a fireplace on one short end. Such a single-pen house was built on every frontier of British America. When British Americans built larger houses, they joined two or more of these pens, following regionally characteristic plans.

British houses.

British settlement in Tidewater Virginia and Carolina soon became predominantly a collection of plantations. Cheap, water-borne transportation, together with fertile alluvial land, provided the opportunities for plantation development on the Atlantic coast as they would in Louisiana, soon leaving these regions overwhelmingly plantation landscapes of "big houses" and quarters. In Louisiana, there was little of an impact by modest, independent settlers of Tidewater heritage.

Tidewater plantation houses, despite the variability possible because of their owner's wealth, were commonly two stories of four pens each, often divided by a Georgian central hall. These houses had galleries on one or both floors, external stairs, and sometimes a brick ground floor that raised the main body of the house above the ground. Brick, half-timber framing with brick nogging, or lumber construction made up the walls. Either gabled or hipped roofs, often pierced by dormers, covered the whole. Besides the Caribbean influence in Tidewater house types, the folk heritage of the Tidewater tradition was blurred by the planters' ability to pay for fashion, and many such houses were decorated with Classical Revival, Greek Revival, and Georgian details.

Upland sections of the Atlantic states, the "back country" lying between the Fall Line and the Appalachians from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Augusta, Georgia, were also settled by British pioneers. These, however, were predominantly Welsh, Devonish, Scots, and Scotch-Irish, a heavily Celtic British as opposed to the more Teutonic, Anglo-Norman Englishmen of the Tidewater region. These Celtic British were joined in the back country by Rhineland and other Germans. There resulted a standard set of house types of British pen form, often built in German horizontal, notched-log house as a fitting manner of housing one's family; the log house became one emblem of the Upland South, and the area of log construction is the extent of the Upland South in Louisiana. That region lays north of Lake Charles, Marksville, Baton Rouge, and Slidell; that is, the northern two- thirds of the state.

Pens of the Upland South, characteristically l6 to 22 feet across the front by l6 to 20 feet across the end, were combined in three typical patterns. The favorite from l790 to l940 in Louisiana was the dog-trot plan: two pens joined by a central hall, a kind of "frontier Georgian." (Its origin lay in part of a rustic copy of the bilateral symmetry of high fashion, rather than in "adaptation" to the hot climate). The dogtrot, of whatever material, commonly had a chimney at each end, rising slightly above the peak of the gable roof. In Louisiana, it was invariably (like all proper Upland South houses) raised one to three feet above the ground, on brick, stone or wooden piers. Almost invariably, it had either a gallery or a porch (less than full-length) across the front. Although most of the earliest log dogtrots had large, continuous-pitch roofs resting on cantilevers (front-to-back beams), most built after 1820 had a gabled roof over the main two rooms, plus a pent (tacked-on, single-slope) roof over the gallery and another pent roof over two smaller rooms immediately back of the larger, main rooms. In many log dog-trots, the sleeping loft was gained by a ladder or stair in a corner next to one of the hearths; in others and in most lumber dogtrots, it was reached by a stair in the hall. Most such houses eventually came to have their central passages closed in by a central front door. Houses with enclosed halls are called "central-hall" houses, those with open passages, "dogtrots."

Absalom Autry log dog-trot house, Lincoln Parish. Photograph: Susan Roach.

Less common than the dogtrot, the double-pen house involved two pens without an intervening hall. Lacking graceful proportions and being commonly used as slave quarters, this plan gained limited favor. So too, apparently, for the saddle-bag plan in which two pens shared a single, central chimney. When either was used as a home of an independent family, a gallery and rear shed rooms and the other features of the dogtrot were added. In an interesting case of "cultural convergence" (similar looks, but different history), a saddle-bag house having a large, continuous-pitch roof, may be mistaken, because of its central chimney, for a Creole house. The two can be separated on the basis of measurements, construction, and, most importantly, neighborhood pattern and history.

Some early, log, Upland South houses seem to have included kitchen space within the main structure; but they most commonly had a kitchen in an ell to the rear of one side, joined either directly or by a porch extension of the central hall. Many an early kitchen was the first cabin built on the site, the later house being built in front of the kitchen. Fashion soon dictated joining a kitchen-and-dining ell to the rear of the house. Eventually, this and other elements that had historically been added piecemeal came to be seen as a whole composition, and new houses were built accordingly. One such standard combination, the bluffland house, had a squarish front room and a rear room half its size on either side of a central hall; a full- length, integral front gallery; a kitchen-and- dining rear ell; a full, half-story loft; a chimney on each gable end; and a wooden awning ("hood" or "false gallery") around the gallery. The bluffland house flourished between 1890 and 1920, and the model influenced some French builders. The bluffland house was most popular in central and eastern Louisiana. Each such standard combination, many of them quite localized, reflects the occurrence of special opportunities for new construction or renovation, usually occasioned by flush times from cotton or lumber money.

Upland South plantation houses were often better finished versions of the dog trot. Others were what has been called an "I-house," a type (or perhaps a collection of types) that includes a central core that is two rooms wide across the front, two rooms tall, and one room deep (two rooms over two rooms). The I-house may or may not have a central hall, end chimneys, front galleries, or rear shed rooms, but in the Upland South portions of Louisiana, it usually has all of these. In other words, most Upland South I-houses were two-story dog trots. One distinctive variant, called the "Carolina I-house," has a one-story gallery and one-story rear shed rooms; it is everywhere firm evidence of migration from the middle parts of South Carolina. Yet, except for the Carolina I- house and any log I-house, the I-house cannot be said to have been a distinctive trait of the Upland South; in one form or another, it is the most widespread folk type in British America. I-houses were built in Louisiana from about l800 until perhaps l930 in any region where uplanders of plantation background settled, where farmers prospered, or where town dwellers sought to imitate planters.

This 1880s "I" House on the prairies in Lafayette Parish shows the influence of resettling Midwestern farmers. Photograph: Nicholas R. Spitzer.

After l880, new British settlers, with more and later German settlers, migrated to Louisiana's southwestern prairies. These new settlers included many who had formerly lived in the Midwest, and their built landscapes were of that region. When promoters for the State and for railroad companies showed that these prairies offered opportunity for grain growing, many Midwestern farmers moved to Louisiana. These prairie farmers also had their characteristic I-house, one of stern, upright lines, lacking a central hall, gallery (a short stoop, instead), rear shed rooms, and chimneys. Midwesterners also built houses having a four-room, square pyramidal-roofed plan, sometimes of two stories. These Midwestern houses were also built in railroad towns and around some lumbering operations.

Bungalows and Shotguns

Shotgun and bungalow houses.

Houses in this group probably belong to two separate traditions, but definitive studies have not been done that would allow us confidently to state the difference between or among these traditions. One of the sources of confusion stems from wide use of bungalow and shotgun plans in early tract housing. The two commonly occur in the same neighborhood, built at the same time; even so, some notable differences in distribution provide some guidance.

The bungalow plan that concerns us is a folk type, as opposed to the "California-bungalow" style that was popular during the early twentieth century. The bungalow type embraces a gable- fronted plan that is two rooms wide and three or more rooms long; that is, at least six rooms, arranged two by three. The most striking aspect of the bungalow, as well as the shotgun, is that its gable faces the front, toward the road, quite unlike any of the other traditions. Bungalows were almost always made of lumber, although masonry and log specimens did appear. Most typically, the bungalow was the home of an independent family; free farmers, tradesmen, and even people of substantial means owned bungalows. Yet, in cities, some duplex rental houses were built in the bungalow form. Such duplexes ("double shotguns") commonly have a dividing wall that runs from front to back without doors between the units, whereas the bungalows of independent owners had doors connecting each pair of rooms or even a central hall running between the two rows of rooms. Better bungalows commonly had such extra features as one or two galleries, a back porch, an arbor or garage on one side, one or more fireplaces, or perhaps a narrow gable-roofed section across the front two rooms (giving the bungalow the facade of a dog trot or of California-bungalow style or of both). In any case, the rapidly built towns of 1900 to 1930 were commonly filled with bungalows.

Except for some sections of New Orleans, shotgun houses were almost entirely built as dependent housing; most served as rental dwellings or as quarters for farm labor. A notable exception may give some idea of one of the sources of the shotgun: the one-room-wide, gable-front house common in coastal marshes among fishing and trapping families seems to be the old form of the "camp" (a rough house; now used for weekends). These camps might be one to three rooms long, whereas proper shotguns were at least three rooms long. The other exception, better houses of shotgun form in some part New Orleans, may reflect the joint influence of Greek Revival fashion and a Caribbean, Free-Black folk type. In any case, the narrowness and cheapness of the shotgun plan made it useful on both narrow urban lots and as quarters on plantations.

Shotgun house with an attached shed is utilized near Barataria, Jefferson Parish, as a fishing camp. Photograph: Nicholas R. Spitzer.

One New Orleans variant in the shotgun-bungalow group occasionally found in other cities of the state, is the camelback, a shotgun or bungalow with a one or two-room second story. By thus putting bedrooms above the other rooms, the shotgun became slightly more acceptable to middle-class tastes in privacy. Another New Orleans version of the shotgun was built mainly in the summer-resort area around Abita Springs and Mandeville in St. Tammany Parish. This northshore house consists of a row of three rooms crossed at the back by two or three more rooms; galleries usually surrounded all but the rear of this L- or T-shaped plan. Each room commonly has a door giving access to any adjacent gallery; there might well be seven or eight exterior doors on a northshore house. A few scattered, possibly related modifications of shotguns have a vague resemblance to the northshore house.


Strictly speaking, few quarters were folk buildings since planters and full-time builders left little decision to the people who would live in the quarters. Although most quarters resemble folk house types, we do not know whether that resemblance reflects the heritage of the planter, the builder or the worker. One common quarters was the shotgun. Another was the double house, which looked like a saddle bag, a double pen, or even a small Creole house. On many plantations, quarters were graded according to the rank of the laborer, the largest quarters having the appearance of an independent farmer's home. Many plantations had several forms of quarters at once, thus relieving what would otherwise have been an even duller monotony and providing several models for those leaving plantation labor.

Age of Lumbering

From 1880 to 1920, the age of lumbering, the built landscapes of Louisiana were vastly renovated; this transformation was almost everywhere integrally involved with the boom in lumbering. So extensive was this renovation that most of what is called "old" dates from this period. During the generation before the age of lumbering, very little had been built because the Civil War and Reconstruction had left so many impoverished and without opportunity to build. When Northern lumber interests began to harvest Southern forests, many families gained their first substantial incomes from sales of timber or from wages in the forests and mills. When these families began to build new homes, their new houses were different from their older houses, but commonly recognizable as to type.

Several factors contributed to these new built landscapes. New people arrived in the state, generally from the North and East, carrying the fashions of more prosperous areas. Because many of these newcomers occupied moderately elevated social status, their houses served as models. The duration of the boom in any one community was short so that the period of real novelty would necessarily have been limited. Craftsmen who learned their trades at that time learned to build the fashions of that limited period. Other than the houses of the best class, the homes built by these craftsmen were built for ordinary, largely native people; as such, these houses were rustically stylish versions of the old folk forms. Thus, Creole houses continued to appear in French Louisiana, and dog trots in British parts.

Balloon framing became dominant, augmented after about l900 by ready availability of wire (round) nails. Standardization of cuts led to a slight reduction of the scale of houses by standardly thinning lumber. Stylishly lower ceilings also diminished the size of the ordinary facade. In some areas, special building techniques, such as rabbetted-wall construction (vertical planks, tightly butted, erected without studs, except at corners, doors, and windows), left a subtle mark on the new houses that nonetheless kept much of their folk forms. At French Settlement, for example, nearly every bousillage Creole house was replaced about l900 by a rabbetted-wall Creole house. In many parts of British north Louisiana, dogtrot and central-hall folk types were re-expressed in this "box" (rabbetted-wall) construction.

During the age of lumbering, much of eastern and central Louisiana had the false gallery (hood, abat vent) built on new houses or added to old houses; these wooden awnings shaded the galleries and sometimes the windows of both British and French houses in this area. The hood added the final flourish to a local, Louisiana house type--the bluffland house, a rural, middle-class standard for eastern British Louisiana that also inspired some French houses. By 1920, French and British Louisiana were still distinct in terms of their built landscapes; but the differences had decreased in number and degree. Houses were rarely built of log or bousillage; nationally fashionable trim appeared in both regions; national plans, such as the California bungalow, were accepted in both areas; standardization of lumber influenced the scales of both French and British houses; and some folk types, such as the bungalow, became common in all parts of the state.

Tract Housing

Mobility leads to cities, and growing cities must be renovated. As points of greatest mobility, cities required new houses, and these, like all else, were built impersonally, commercially and voluminously. As well-being continued to increase, new tracts (euphemistically called "neighborhoods") arose to attract each rising class of wanderers. For the reasons of mobility and of changing fashion, tracts of city houses, if arranged in our minds according to dated fashions, record the various prosperous periods in the history of each city. Said differently, the neighborhoods of a larger town record changing opportunities for casual, mobile people to adopt and occupy architectural fashion.

In most of Louisiana's towns, tract housing, at first lumber versions of local folk types, was most commonly the bungalow and the California bungalow. By tracing the bungalow through the dated subdivisions, we can see how common builders gradually transformed the bungalow into modern tract housing. At first, a number of normal bungalows were built, side by side along one street. In other streets, the bungalow was adorned with California-bungalow trim. Eventually, the entry was moved to one side, perhaps with a small porch covering it. In another instance, a gable-sided facade concealed the front gable of the bungalow. Another builder added built-on garages; another turned the bungalow sideways, making the long side face the street. According to period fashion, roofs differed: gabled, hipped, hip-on-gable, nearly flat, hipped again. Although other forms (such as the "ranch-style" and other pattern-book houses) participated in the development of tract housing, the bungalow went through the whole sequence, eventually becoming unrecognizable as to origin.

Looking Back

Time flies for modern people, and one mark of being modern is to be going out of date. As new tracts of houses were built, even early tract housing comes to be felt to be old and traditional. A house standing since l887 has endured one-third of the history of European settlement in Louisiana; an "old" house built in l947, one-ninth. Yet, most houses seen by most people are not more than forty years old. This increasingly rapid out-of-dateness makes it more vivid that built landscapes--old and new--change as opportunities of people change, and such change is really renovation during times of relative affluence. Mobility and wealth increase opportunities for commercial enterprises, and mere differentness becomes a commodity; the result is an increased datedness of subdivisions and a decreasing duration of the period of popularity each new kind of house.


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