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Free People of Color in Architecture (Part 2)

Today we continue with the second part of post about free people of color and their contributions to architecture in New Orleans. If you missed Part One, please see: Free People of Color in Architecture (Part 1)

Louis Nelson Fouché

Another prominent home builder of African descent, Louis Nelson Fouché, was an immigrant from Jamaica. He had been trained in architecture and mathematics. He taught mathematics to students at the Bernard Couvent Institution, also referred to as the Institute Catholique, a school dedicated to the education of orphans in the area.

One of his buildings that is still standing is located at 2340 Chartres Street, in the Marigny neighborhood. Unlike the smaller creole cottages we have spoken of previously, this home is a towering three story brick building, similar to the creole townhouses in the French Quarter. The bottom floor features tall arched doors, whereas the second story contains heavy linteled doors and windows, rectangular in shape. The third story windows are tiny, but the room would be generously lit by the dormers in the hipped roof. There is very little decoration on this building, but for a pattern of dentils created out of brick along the roofline. The wrought iron balconies were designed with a Gothic arch motif, that is charming in its simplicity. The austerity of the white paint stands out in a neighborhood known for bright colors of the Caribbean.

2340 Chartres Street – photo by me.

It would appear that Louis Nelson Fouché’s motto would have been a “rolling stone gathers no moss”. As Louisiana state laws concerning free people of color became stricter in the 1850s, he and his family moved to Mexico and created a colony called Eureka, with many other families from the city. Unfortunately this colony burned down a few years later forcing many of the inhabitants to move to nearby Tampico. Nelson must have returned to New Orleans as he published his 1882 work, Nouveau Recueil de Pensees, Opinions, Sentences et Maximes de Differents Ecrivains, Philosophes et Orateurs, Anciens, Modernes et Contemporains in the city. That’s quite a title, which translates out to: “New collection of thoughts, opinions, sentences and maxims of different writers, philosophers and speakers, ancient, modern and contemporary”. Thanks Google Translate!  Louis Nelson Fouché died at the age of 62 in 1884.

Norbert Soulié

Our last architect is Norbert Soulié who was the son of a white Creole father, Juan Soulié and a free woman of color, Eulalie Vivant. Eulalie’s sister was Constance Vivant, mother of Norbert Rillieux, free man of color and the inventor of the vacuum pan sugar evaporator, a piece of machinery that revolutionized the way that sugar was processed.

Norbert Soulié was trained in architecture and became an apprentice to Henry Latrobe, son of the Benjamin Latrobe, the elder being the architect in charge of rebuilding U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. after the War of 1812. When Henry passed away due to yellow fever in 1817, Soulie sent Benjamin a note expressing his grief adding that, “he owed his knowledge of the arts to Latrobe.” This is clear as much of Soulie’s work bears appreciation of neoclassical elements that the Latrobes were known for. His education in the application of neoclassical elements into contemporary architecture was further developed in the major renovation of Evergreen Plantation under John Carver and Francois Correjolles.

In 1830, he built a house located at 509 Burgundy Street that combines a typical Creole Cottage with French elements such as a hipped roof and a dormer, and newer neoclassical elements such as Greek Key door surrounds, and dentils along a deep cornice.  The house was owned by his Aunt Constance, and is now broken up into condos. When I went to take get a picture of this house, the wonderful owner invited me and my friends inside for a little look around. (I know, I couldn’t believe it either!) The home is situated at the front of the lot with a small courtyard right behind it and a two story dependency at the rear of the property. To the right of the dependency was an oval shaped saltwater pool that must be lovely in the summer time. I have to admit even though I know what the typical layout of these buildings and courtyards should look like, I am always surprised at the private spaces that are just hiding behind all these homes. Pools, tropical plants, furniture, fountains…. I love to see how each family uses its space. Our lovely hostess then allowed us inside her home, and it was an incredible one bedroom pied-à-terre decorated with New Orleans themed artwork. Fantastic!!

509 Burgundy Street. Photo by me.

Just a few years later, Norbert created the Soulié Rowhouses in the 200 block of North Rampart Street. The Soulié Rowhouses were a collection of four three story brick buildings that were identical, styled in the Greek Revival style Norbert loved. The most characteristic features of this style of course are the dentils along the cornice, the heavy linteled square windows, and the Greek Key door surround. Time has not been kind to these buildings and only one remains. The home at 231 North Rampart Street has been modified and has lost many of its original features such as wrought and cast balconies. According to New Orleans Architecture this house has special status as the last townhouse remaining from an era when this street was mainly residential, not a commercial thoroughfare that it is today.

200 block of North Rampart Street. Photo by me.

After this project was completed, Norbert and his cousin Edmond Rillieux got the bid to work on the Sugar Refinery plant to be located downriver form the French Quarter. Plans had to be shelved when Edmond left town. An argument between the an investor named Forstall and Vincent Rillieux (which may have led ultimately to the death of Vincent who died under suspicious causes) caused Norbert to drop the project and leave New Orleans in 1833. He passed away in 1872 in Paris.


New Orleans’ history is an onion with many layers. To share stories of architecture without mentioning the accomplishments of free people of color serve to give an incomplete picture of what was truly happening. I learned an awful lot while researching this topic and am glad I tackled it. Thanks Grete Viddal for the suggestion!

Sources Consulted (for both parts):

  • Bell, Caryn Cossé. Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana: 1718-1868. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.
  • Benfey, Christopher. Degas in New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1999.
  • Collins C. Diboll Vieux Carré Survey, Historic New Orleans Collection, accessed 2/10/17
  • Gehman, Mary. “A Scholar Researches Descendants of Creole Émigrés who Fled Racial Prejudice.” Louisiana Cultural Vistas Winter 2001-2002.
  • Lewis, Richard Anthony. Robert W. Tebbs, Photographer to Architects: Louisiana Plantations in 1926. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2011.
  • “Primary Document: Louisiana’s Code Noir (1724).” University of Washington: Department of History. Accessed February 10, 2017.
  • Reeves, Sally. “French Speaking ‘Hommes de Couleur Libre’ Left Indelible Mark on the Culture and Development of the French Quarter.” French Accessed February 09, 2017.
  • Schweninger, Loren “Free People of Color.” In org Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published April 28, 2011.
  • Toledano, Roulhac, Mary Louise. Christovich, and Betsy Swanson. New Orleans Architecture: Faubourg Treme and the Bayou Road. VI. Gretna, LA: Pelican Pub. Co., 2003.
  • Wilson, Samuel, Mary Louise Christovich, Roulhac Toledano, and Sally Kittredge Evans. New Orleans Architecture: The Creole Faubourgs. Vol. IV. Gretna, LA: Pelican Pub. Co., 2006.