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Free People of Color in Architecture (Part 1)

For Black History Month I thought I would learn a little more about contributions made by free people of color in the architecture of New Orleans. I want to share the names of some of the free people of color who built homes around the city. Sure, you might have heard about James Gallier, Henry Howard and Thomas Sully but do you know about the works of Jean-Louis Dolliole, Louis Nelson Fouché or Norbert Soulié?  

Colonial Era

To start at the beginning, Africans were brought to New Orleans as early as 1719 (a year after the city’s founding).  In 1724 the Code Noir established the rules for slaves in the Louisiana Colony. While there had already been a slave code in place pertaining to slaves of Caribbean holdings (1685), this slave code sought to reintroduce these laws. These articles did not just pertain to the actions of slaves, but also included the how they should be treated by their masters. In my opinion, one of the most important parts of the slave code is the insistence that slaves be converted to Catholicism, as no one in the colony is to have a different religion. This provision is curious because it suggests that the government wanted to protect slaves’ souls. It also set a precedent to give slaves off on Sundays to worship, going so far as to say that any slaves caught working on the Sabbath would be confiscated.  In later years, this day off would be used for a variety of things – meeting in Congo Square, tending to gardens, hiring oneself out, and selling wares in the market place. It is important to remember that the 1724 Code Noir was an edict that was published in all the way across the ocean in France, so it wasn’t followed as to the letter by local government. We have this piece of paper that tells us what the colonies should do, but you know how it is when the parents are away…..

New Orleans’ colonial periods allowed for some slaves to become free. During the French period, very few slaves were freed, and this had to be done by their master speaking up for them to the Superior Council. During the Spanish period, however, slaves were more likely to be given their freedom through a process known as coartación. Coartación means that a person could buy their own freedom. How did they get money to buy their freedom? Remember when I mentioned the Sundays off to tend gardens or work for wages? That’s how they did it. They worked on Sundays, saved their money and bought their freedom. During the Spanish period there may have been as many as 1500 people who were able to gain their freedom just from purchasing it, not to mention all of those who were manumitted by their masters for good service. This practice would end with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, but the 1810 census showed that free people of color (also referred to as gens de couleur libres) made up 10% of Louisiana’s population with a majority of them living in the city of New Orleans.

Once free, these Africans got into every industry available to them. They ran eateries and coffee shops, they owned businesses and got involved in real estate. Many of them honed their skills in trades like carpentry, sculpture, and masonry. Construction was a good business to get into as there was great need for housing in the early 1800s as the city’s population grew, due to the transplants from other parts of the United States or refugees fleeing the Haitian Revolution.

Many of the Haitian refugees and free people of color settled in the newly developing Marigny, a neighborhood just downriver from the French Quarter. The lots were small and very cheap – $300-$400 was the standard rate. Many of the homes were designed and built by free people of color.

Jean-Louis Dolliole

One of the better known architects of this era was Jean-Louis Dolliole, whose father was a French immigrant and whose mother was a free woman of color, Genevieve Laronde. Jean-Louis and his brother Joseph learned construction from their father and built many homes in the growing Marigny, some of which still stand. It is clear that his father’s techniques were well learned by Jean-Louis as Sally Reeves claims, “Using local materials like orange-red country brick and wood of cypress or pine, he drew largely on French building methods such as the triangular roof truss, half-timber construction, and the use of shingle, slate, or hook tile roofing or over lathing strips to fashion rooflines.”

He is particularly known for building creole cottages, a house type that developed after the second fire of New Orleans (1794). This time period also corresponds with the beginning of the Haitian immigration, and these house types are sometimes attributed to these refugees. These buildings are plain, but they get the job done. The outer façade typically contains two doors and two windows which from the front could suggest a multifamily residence.  Instead, they were built as single family homes that perhaps offer the family the flexibility to choose the primary door utilized by the family or the ability to take in boarders and give them their own entrance. The interior of the home is two rooms by two rooms with storage areas (known as cabinets) located towards the back. Above the main floor is an attic, which can be accessed through a spiral staircase in the cabinet, making these homes one and a half stories tall. (I do have to note here that in many cases these single family homes have been converted into multifamily condos, so while the outside still retains its original character, the interior may be completely different.)

According to New Orleans Architecture: The Creole Faubourgs, two homes built by Jean-Louis are 1455 Pauger Street and 820 Elysian Fields Avenue. Sure enough, these buildings are still standing and look to be in great shape. All the hallmarks of creole cottages are there: a roof that juts off the house to provide protection from the elements, four shuttered bays, and the absence of decoration.

1457 Pauger Street –
820 Elysian Fields Avenue-Photo taken by me.

One of Jean-Louis’s most celebrated homes is named after him: the Dolliole-Clapp House (1436 Pauger Street). This house is very unusual as it looks like a creole cottage, but due to the peculiar shape of the lot, the home itself is a pentagon instead of a square.  This home is was built using the brick between post technique, with a pan tile roof. It is worth noting that Dolliole’s houses are most recognizable due to the hipped roof with the deep overhang. More often than not, urban creole cottages were topped with a side gabled roof, which means that the shingles would be present only on the front and back of the structure. Designs that included deep overhangs on the sides of the building are less popular in urban settings due to the inefficient use of space.

Dolliole-Clapp House, Interior -Drawing provided by HABS report,
Diolle-Clapp House, Exterior- Photo provided by HABS report.

Dolliole was a pillar of the community, as his name is mentioned in wills as executor and as witness to notarial acts. Jean-Louis passed away in 1861 at the age of 82.

(Stay tuned to find out about Louis Nelson Fouché and Norbert Soulié! )