Happy Birthday William Freret! (1833)
William Freret, Jr. was born on this day in 1833 to New Orleans mayor William Freret and Fanny Salkeld. He studied engineering in England, and soon after his return to the United States, he started practicing architecture. His architectural career spanned over 40 years and culminated in an appointment to a Federal position as Head of the Office of the Supervising Architect. Let’s take a look at a few of his most celebrated buildings.
New Orleans Buildings
In this wealthy American neighborhood, William created some of the finest mansions still admired by visitors today. A row of speculation houses on Coliseum Street in the Garden District designed by him still bear his name. Known as Freret’s Folly, these homes were built in 1861, in anticipation of wealthy buyers. Due to the hardships caused by the Civil War, buyers were hard to locate, leaving Freret in financial ruin. These narrow double gallery homes were all identical upon completion, but have been extensively modified by their owners in the past century and a half. Some of the special characteristics of these homes include Tower of the Winds capitals on the columns, bracketed cornices, and highly decorative doors.
One block away from the failed speculation project, visitors are treated to a sight not often seen in a humid tropical climate. On the corner of Fourth and Coliseum Street, William designed a Swiss Chalet style house. Built in 1876, owners James and Ellen Eustis wanted their home to resemble recent designs by Henry Hudson Holly who had published Holly’s Country Seats in 1863. These homes were all the rage in the Northeast’s snowy landscapes, where the steep pitch of the roof was designed so that the snow could slide right off it. This style did not catch on in New Orleans, but for a few houses. With its carved wood embellishments, this home designed by William Freret is particularly eye-catching.
In 1858, William built a home located at 2504 Prytania Street for Edward Davis. When Edward Davis was unable to pay for the home an auction was held and William bought the house. At this point, this home was smaller – just the Greek Revival styled left side of the building with Ionic columns on the bottom level, Corinthians on the top. Under new owners, in the 1880s the right side of the building was altered and a Queen Anne style tower was added. This home was donated to the New Orleans Women’s Opera Guild in 1965.
In 1859, William Freret used new techniques to create the Merchant’s Mutual Building, located at 622 Canal Street. At this point, buildings were staring to include cast iron, which was being created in a large scale due to mass production. This building material was also fire resistant and its strength allowed for increased building height. On the second story, the columns are twisted in what is known as Solomonic style. This building also has bull’s eye attic windows and the parapet had carvings of various insurance symbols: hose, cotton, bales, barrels, anchor, fire plug, roof of a house, and sails of a boat. All of these decorative features were able to be added to the building due to the lighter weight achieved through use of cast iron. Learn more about this building here.
In 1887, William Freret designed the four story building on Canal Street now occupied by the Palace Café but well-known to New Orleanians as the Werlein’s music store. That same year he designed the Mercier building, an ornate Baroque Revival style building. The Mercier building was replaced with the current Maison Blanche Building.
Louisiana State Buildings
When the Louisiana Capital moved from New Orleans to Baton Rouge in 1847, the new building was designed by James Dakin. This building was designed to look like an old Gothic castle, with crenelated towers and arched windows. During occupation by Union forces, a few fires broke out, destroying the building. William Freret was tasked with complete reconstruction of the building. While rebuilding, he left his mark by changing the original staircase and adding a magnificent stained glass dome.
From 1884-1888, William was appointed the Head of the Office of the Supervising Architect, a sub-office of the United States Treasury that was in charge of building government buildings from 1852-1939. From this position he (and his office) designed many United States Post Offices such as Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Charlotte, North Carolina, Wilmington, North Carolina (demolished), Statesville, North Carolina (now the City Hall), Charleston, South Carolina, and Aberdeen Mississippi. All of these buildings are very similar in that they all have characteristics of the Romanesque Style: grand arch openings for main entrance and some windows, use of brick or rough cut stone for exterior, use of decorative finials and towers.
After four years in Washington D. C., William Freret came home to New Orleans. He passed away on the 5th of December, 1911 at the age of 78, and was buried in the Confederate Veteran Association of the Army of the Tennessee tomb located in Metairie Cemetery.
- “Colonel William Freret.” The Western Architect 18, no. 03 (March 1912): 1. Accessed January 15, 2018. Digitized by google.
- Bishir, Catherine W. “Freret, William A. (1833- 1911).” North Carolina Architects and Builders – A Biographical Dictionary. Accessed January 15, 2018. http://ncarchitects.lib.ncsu.edu/people/P000417.
- Bruno, Stephanie R. “Portrait of Donor back on display in Historic Opera Women’s Guild Home.” The Advocate. November 12, 2015. Accessed January 15, 2018. http://www.theadvocate.com/new_orleans/entertainment_life/home_garden/article_86384261-9519-5348-86b2-bea87e751215.html.
- Christovich, Mary Louise., Samuel Wilson, Bernard Lemann, and Betsy Swanson. New Orleans Architecture, Volume II: the American Sector (Faubourg St. Mary); Howard Avenue to Iberville Street, Mississippi River to Claiborne Avenue. Gretna, LA: Pelican, 1998.
- “Dictionary of Louisiana Biography – F.” Louisiana Historical Association. Accessed January 15, 2018. https://www.lahistory.org/resources/dictionary-louisiana-biography/dictionary-louisiana-biography-f/.
- Starr, S. Frederick. Southern Comfort: The Garden District of New Orleans. New York, N.Y: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005.
- Photo by author.