What Is French Colonial Architecture?

A plantation house from the 1800s.

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Known for their symmetrical styling, steeply pitched roofs, and expansive, wrap-around porches on both lower and upper levels, French Colonial homes are extremely prevalent in the American southeast—especially Louisiana. The style, which is sometimes referred to as Cajun cottage, Creole architecture, plantation architecture, or raised houses, has become an iconic building style of the American southeast. Although French Colonial style has evolved and adapted over the last several centuries, today's French Colonial homes have held onto many of the traditional elements and features.

The History of French Colonial Architecture

Dating back to the early- to mid-1600s—when French colonists began to arrive in the United States—French Colonial homes are commonly found in areas that were once ruled by France, including sections of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Louisiana, however, has the greatest concentration of French Colonial homes in the United States.

Typically, architectural styles are informed by the environment, surroundings, and tools and materials available for building. Early Spanish Colonial style, for example, utilized adobe (made from clay and straw) and clay roof tiles because the materials were readily available across the southeastern and southwestern United States. When French colonists arrived in the Louisiana Territory, however, their surroundings did not inform their building styles, nor did it inform the materials they used. Rather, early French settlers built homes that were more suitable for temperate climates—not the hot, humid conditions found in the southeast.

Accordingly, early French Colonial homes were built with timber frames that were inserted directly into soil; steep roofs made from thatch, stone, or tile; and smaller rooms that were typically separated by a stone fireplace.

Over time, French Colonial building adapted to protect the homes against heat, humidity, rain, flooding, and hurricanes:

  • The iconic wrap-around porches—called galéries—were built to protect the homes from strong sunlight, heat, and rain
  • Homes were propped up by a raised basement to protect living quarters from flooding
  • Ceilings were raised and vaulted to alleviate the extreme heat that accumulated inside the house

Although French Colonial homes were once small, symmetrical structures that typically measured one room deep by two rooms wide, the average size changed over time, too. To reduce construction, however, new rooms were often attached to existing rooms, and were not separated by a hallway. This building technique—which you'll find in many of New Orleans' shotgun-style houses—had the added benefit of creating a cross-ventilation system that allowed cool air to permeate all of the rooms in the house.

Today, it's rare to find a new French Colonial-style home. Unlike Spanish Colonial architecture, French Colonial hasn't had a major resurgence among homebuilders in the United States.

Must-Have Elements of French Colonial Architecture

Although it's rare to find a new French Colonial home in the United States, there are several identifying characteristics you'll see in the French Colonial homes in Louisiana, Mississippi, and along the Ohio River:

A square, symmetrical exterior: Most French Colonial homes are square, wooden structures with a centered front door that's flanked by two windows. Most interior rooms have access to the outdoors via—you guessed it—French double doors.

A raised basement: In order to protect the home's living quarters from flooding during the rainy season or hurricanes, French Colonial homes were often propped up on first-level basements. These basements offered protection from the elements, as well as additional storage space for the family.

High ceilings: Tall ceilings were built to alleviate the hot, humid conditions in French Colonial homes, so you'll often see tall, skinny windows and doors on the homes' exteriors.

A large, wrap-around porch: Known as a galérie, a wrap-around porch is a key element to French Colonial architecture. Most French Colonial homes featured a lower porch, off of the servants' quarters, and an upper porch, surrounding the owners' rooms. Although these porches were originally built to protect the home from heat and rain, they were stylized with wrought iron fixtures sometime during the 1800s. Adding iron elements to a home isn't a traditional French technique, so the iron porches and balconies you see today are unique to America's French Colonial structures.

Maison coloniale in New Orleans.
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Exterior stairs and hallways: In order to cross-ventilate the home, many French Colonial houses were built with exterior staircases and hallways.

Where to Find French Colonial Homes

As previously mentioned, the largest concentration of French Colonial structures can be found in urban and rural Louisiana. The Garden District of New Orleans boasts hundreds of beautiful, traditional French Colonial homes, while rural Louisiana offers expansive plantation homes built in the French Colonial style.

It's rare to see a newly built French Colonial home, but a vacation to Louisiana can offer insight to the traditional building techniques of America's first French settlers.