“We need the past around us for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it provides a sense of direction.” –Peter Mires, Bayou Built
Riding along River Road, I am surrounded by physical reminders of the impact place has on the built environment. I grew up in the area, along the Mississippi River near New Orleans, and this drive has been a favorite of mine for as long as I can remember. To my left is the giant levee constructed to hold back the seasonal waters of the river. To my right are thousands of acres of sugarcane that reach until the solid land slowly falls into swamp. Dotted in between are a number of structures and sites that tell the story of the region’s history.
I am on my way to visit the home of Mr. Keller, a local who has lived along the river his entire life. His home, known as Homeplace-Keller, was constructed during the late 18th century and remained relatively unchanged throughout its long history. While currently in a state somewhere between decay and preservation, the home is a built lesson in regional architecture, and, in my opinion, flat out good design.
Arriving on the property, the home is set well back from the road, striking in its simplicity with its large red roof contrasting against the green grass. I continue towards the house and am first greeted by a pair of neighborhood labs. Mr. Keller, now well into his 90’s, sees me from across the yard and invites me inside. The affects of age on the home become much more apparent as we walk in.
Mr. Keller takes a seat in an oversized rocking chair that sits in what used to be the home’s dining room, the only current hint of its original use being the heavy, grey and white marble tile underneath layers of dust and dirt. He tells me how he was born in one of the upstairs rooms, a corner room, in 1918 and recalls when the home was in much better condition. He is glad to see the recent progress on restoring the home but knows there is a lot more to be done.
We walk back outside and take another look at the exterior. The home exemplifies the great characteristics of a Louisiana French Colonial home and why such a style is so fitting for the region. While the early colonists were guided by their own traditions, the homes they constructed responded to the materials and climate of the region.
For instance, they originally brought with them a construction method known as poteaux en terre, post in earth, where vertical posts were set directly in the ground to form the structure of the homes. This, they quickly realized, would simply rot in Louisiana’s damp soil and humidity. The practice of raising the home on piers soon became commonplace.
Many such lessons occurred and a living tradition was formed in Louisiana that helped create homes like Homeplace-Keller, one that was done not simply out of custom, but out of reason. Things that did not work were avoided, and those that did were further developed, creating a unique quality of architecture fitting for its place, environment, and culture.
Walking up to the wrap-around gallery, we use the wonderful external staircase, couched under the porch. It is at this point I really notice the skill and care taken during the construction of the home. While it appears simple from afar, there are tons of small details to admire. Each beam under the porch is finished with a delicate bead, the curve of the handrail flows effortlessly, and each joint is a work of art in itself. It is obvious everything was done with both beauty and durability in mind.
The upper gallery is of course another great tool for dealing with the climate, keeping the inner rooms in shade and providing for outdoor living spaces. The delicate, turned, cypress columns stand in stark contrast to the masonry piers below. At this point, Mr. Keller decides he should finish cutting the grass before it is too hot and allows me to roam the house.
Before I enter, I notice a portion of plaster that is missing, allowing for a little peak of the bousillage construction within the walls. The colonists used what was available locally for their buildings, and this construction method adapted their traditional colombage technique, a method of wood framing with stone infill, to materials available locally. This broken plaster reveals the cypress beams infilled with a mixture of mud, Spanish moss, and horsehair that became popular in the region.
The plan of the home is only two rooms deep, and rooms flow room to room, allowing the air to circulate easily. Walking around, the layers of paint and wallpaper hint at the different stages of the home’s history.
One of the hallmarks of these early Creole homes is the wonderful fireplaces with wrap-around mantles, a design element brought with the early European colonists and later adapted to suit the tastes in the New World.
Walking back outside, I sit against a tree and find myself thinking about all of the homes and designers that could have been influenced by this place. When the home was constructed, and Louisiana was still a European colony, it would have been seen as a logical design solution to an architectural problem, something both new and familiar at the same time. As Louisiana became part of America, these early homes helped guide the development of Louisiana’s architectural heritage. The basic form of homes like Homeplace-Keller was translated into a myriad of styles from Greek Revival to Italianate, all benefiting from the basic lessons learned from utilizing local materials and respecting environmental conditions. New Orleans, as it grew, would see homes adapted to fit the urban needs of a rapidly populating city, with verandahs of light, turned-wood columns being translated as cast iron galleries of the French Quarter.
Photography and Text by Jacques Levet Jr.
Produced by Addie Chapin