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Williams Research Symposium – Perspectives on New Orleans Architecture

This weekend the Williams Research Center held its 21st annual symposium at the Hotel Monteleone. The title and focus of the seminar was: Perspectives on New Orleans Architecture: Past, Present, Future.

On Friday evening the Keynote Address was given by Gregory Free, an architectural historian and preservation specialist. His speech was entitled “American Gulf: An Architectural Story”. His fascinating research showed through photographs of various sites that the Gulf Coast from Key West to the Yucatan Peninsula had domestic buildings that shared similar qualities that were a blending of many cultures. These building styles did not arrive from France or Spain to be recreated in New Orleans but rather, were created in New Orleans through processes that relied heavily on adaptation. From this city building styles and techniques spread out along the coast as people moved. Of course this makes sense – the French arrived here and had to make adjustments relating to the materials available and the hot humid climate, so domestic building styles changed. Still, this was a new idea to me. I normally think of New Orleans as the receiver of the building patterns from European nations, not the originator and spreader of the new styles. I thoroughly enjoyed his speech and thought it was a good broad introduction to architecture in the area. At the end of the program, the audience was invited back to the Historic New Orleans Collection for a reception and viewing of their exhibit: An Architect and His City: Henry Howard’s New Orleans 1837-1884.

The next morning the symposium commenced at 9am. Over the next seven hours the audience was treated to eight incredible speakers with diverse backgrounds, educations, and career experiences that worked to shed light on topics including antebellum architects, Midcentury Modern architecture, Free People of Color and the mark they made on our architectural landscape, and a contemporary account of personal triumphs and tragedies in home remodeling. While I enjoyed each one, I would like to remark on just a few of the speakers that I found most interesting.

Jay D. Edwards’s speech entitled, “Women as Agents in Development of the Shotgun House of New Orleans” was one of my favorites. The layout of this presentation was to talk about the domestic architecture using various maps, and then explain how this type was adapted for women’s uses. This talk started by taking the listener through the history of the shotgun cottage, using a survey created by Barthélemy Lafon complete with illustrations that show how these homes were arranged on the city lots. These homes are one room wide four to five rooms deep. A double shotgun has two rooms wide by four to five rooms deep and would hold two families. The sub-segment of the shotgun section of his talk gave a very brief history of plaçage, a relationship between a free woman of color and a white man of means. These relationships flourished in the antebellum period and in these arrangements the women were typically provided with homes paid for by their mates. Many of these women rented out rooms in these homes to make money. A shotgun house could easily accommodate this arrangement: the landlady lived in the front, and their boarders could walk down a side passageway to their lodging in the back of the home.

Example of a Sanborn Fire Insurance map - loc.gov
Example of a Sanborn Fire Insurance map – loc.gov

From this point, the presentation started to focus on how shotguns became camelbacks. First Mr. Edwards used Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps to show the proliferation of shotgun homes in all neighborhoods of the city. Sanborn maps also show the layout of the lots including the double story kitchen building that would be behind the main house, at a distance of 15 feet or so as food was being cooked over an open fire. Finally, in a eureka like moment (for me anyway) he summarized how women created camelbacks: when slavery ended, the missuses of the house were now the cooks of the home and as such they were not going to the kitchen a separate two story building in the backyard, but rather the kitchen was coming to them in the form of a two story attachment to the house. Of course this wasn’t an overnight process. In the postbellum period the maps show the spaces between home and kitchen shrinking until finally a one story shotgun had a two story kitchen attached. Records indicate that in 1876 there were 176 camelbacks in town, in 1885 there were 279, and in 1909 there were a whopping 1576. He claimed that camelbacks were known as the middle class house as shotguns were for the working class and the wealthy lived in townhouses.

Proposed Riverfront Expressway - thelensnola.org
Proposed Riverfront Expressway – thelensnola.org

After lunch we heard a very funny speech about a serious topic: the previously proposed Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway. As I have been in town over a decade I have heard quiet whispers about this highway that had been planned in the late 1960s to bring an expressway along the Mississippi River in front of Jackson Square. The lecture given by William E. Borah, an attorney that helped stop the highway from coming to fruition, filled in all the gaps in my knowledge and then some. I say lecture, but his talk could be likened to a story that he was giving his friends in a bar, full of light hearted jokes and personal accounts from this very important moment in New Orleans history. His tale starts just after his graduation from Tulane Law School, when he was out for a few drinks at Napoleon House. The owner of the bar mentioned this proposed that planned to be placed along the Mississippi River running from Elysian Fields Avenue all the way Uptown to Napoleon Avenue where a bridge would take cars to the West Bank, and without a doubt would destroy the French Quarter as we know it. The story then told how he and many other concerned citizens managed to stop the federal government from building the expressway in the era when automobile was king. He gave the audience a pamphlet with pictures of the slides for his presentation. The slides were photographs of models to show what the riverfront area would have looked like and I am thankful to say that through this man’s actions locals and tourists alike do not have to look at that eyesore.

This was my first symposium, and I am so pleased that I got to go. I heard fascinating presentations, saw some old friends and met some new people who are interested in historic preservation. I am especially excited about the book list that they included in the informational packet. I can’t wait for next year’s symposium which will be focus on Storyville, a red light district that operated in New Orleans from 1897-1917.

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