The Architecture of New Orleans

New orleans

As an architect, travelling to new cities and locales presents an opportunity to experience different types of architecture. History, climate, local culture, and available building material help shape the building type and design as you move from place to place. Last month I went to New Orleans for the Jazz Fest, and was fascinated with the city’s architecture.

The French quarter, referred to as the Crown Jewel of New Orleans was founded in 1718, and is the most historic area of the city. The original French inspired architecture of the city was destroyed in two great fires: one in 1788, the second in 1794. The great fire of 1788 destroyed 856 of the 1100 existing structures, and just 6 years later in the fire of 1794, another 212 buildings were destroyed. In 1994 the city was now under Spanish control, and new building codes and more of a Spanish style took root in the French Quarter. Post fire building codes would require roofs that were slate or tile, and exterior walls to be brick, often covered with stucco. The new buildings would be set flush to the sidewalk, with no gardens and yards surrounding them to catch fire. Interior courtyards were accessed through narrow alleyways or carriageways, and balconies held iron railings. As it turns out, New Orleans proved safer thanks to these new building codes, and the city it took on a new look, as homes were rebuilt in different styles than before.

Today, the French Quarter is primarily made up of Creole townhouses and Creole townhomes that include entresols.

The Creole townhome style began during the late colonial period (1715-1763), yet what remains today was built in the period between 1800-1840’s. It is a melding of French, Spanish and Caribbean architectural styles and influenced by the hot, humid climate. The townhomes have large window openings at the ground level, as well as a passageway that leads to a side or rear entrance. Typically, there would be no front entrance, and no interior stairs.

The Entresol townhome is a variation of the Creole style. Entresol is a French word meaning between floors. An entresol home would have a family shop on the ground floor, a hidden floor space in the middle, and an elegant residence on the upper level. The entresols have storage located above the main floor which would allow items to escape the damage of flooding.

In addition to the French Quarter, many have heard New Orleans referred to as the City of the Dead. Early settlers were struck with disease (like the prevalence of the mosquito spread yellow fever), storms, and poor sanitation. It did not take long to recognize that burying bodies under ground did not work due to the high-water table. A good rain would have coffins popping up out of the ground. Burying the dead above ground and marking their graves with beautiful and ornate monuments became the way. Cemeteries were laid out in organized patterns that resembled well maintained city streets. In 1881, Marks Twain’s book, Life on the Mississippi referenced New Orleans and its cemeteries as a “City of the Dead”. It has stuck ever since!

Every city has a history lesson and a tale to tell; the New Orleans one is both fascinating and beautiful.

-Alex Schleicher, Architectural Designer