Examining the German influence on Louisiana’s Creole vernacular architecture

This story appeared in the November issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door nine times a year? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!

by Nicole Hobson-Morris, Executive Director, Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation

For several years, LSU Professor Emeritus Jay D. Edwards has been researching the early architecture of Louisiana, first tracing the “introduction of French Canadian and West Indian architectural building traditions into the Gulf Coast of Alabama-Louisiana beginning with Iberville’s settlements in 1699.”

Now, Edwards’ second chapter in the rich story of Louisiana’s early architecture is out, with his latest research paper, Contributions of the Early German Settlers to the Creole Vernacular Architecture of Southern Louisiana.

Over many decades, the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation has benefited from a valued relationship with Edwards, by way of the research he has produced for scholarly purposes in part via the Division’s National Park Service Historic Preservation Fund (HPF) grant program. The most recent document, where he examines the contributions of early German settlers, came out of our fiscal year 2019-2020 HPS Survey & Planning Grant.

In this latest work, Edwards explores the little-recognized influence of some 350 German settlers who began arriving in Louisiana in 1721 as part of John Law’s attempts to establish a productive French colony in the lower Mississippi Valley. The settlers’ contributions to Louisiana’s material culture have remained relatively unappreciated by historians.

“Despite an almost complete scholarly disinterest in the subject, the vernacular architecture of the early 18th-century German settlers in Louisiana has much to tell us about the interrelationships between a people and its material culture,” he writes.

“A knowledge of the early vernacular architecture of the Germans is essential to an assessment of the development of Louisiana’s vernacular architecture,” Edwards continues. “Acadians from Acadie (Nova Scotia) settled next to the Germans on the First Acadian Coast, and soon amalgamated the two European folk cultures there on the banks of the Mississippi. The small houses of the Acadians are taken as foundational to the folk architecture of southern Louisiana, but it was perhaps the Germans who provided the most specific models, to which the Acadians adapted after ca. 1765. It was this interblended German/Swiss/Acadian population that distributed a distinctive architectural tradition throughout southern Louisiana. Many hundreds of Creole or Acadian cabins were built across the state in the 18th and 19th centuries. They stood as a dominant symbol of Cajun identity.”

Edwards’ research shows that most German settlers to Louisiana “derived from southwestern German states. These included Alsatians, Rhinelanders, Würtembergers, Swabians and Swiss,” he writes.

Those settlers brought their own building traditions, but other influences also were at play. “Most of the early houses of the German immigrants in Louisiana were one- or two-room cabins. They did not evolve into larger houses in the same ways that occurred in the Middle Atlantic. Rather, they followed more of a French Caribbean Creole pattern,” Edwards writes.

In the 19th century, sugar production brought a consolidation of land holdings in Louisiana. Wealthy businessmen “bought out all of the small holders along the Côte des Alemands and converted the area to large sugar plantations. West Indian-style raised Creole plantation houses and slave cabins replaced the former homes of the German farmers who were forced to relocate either upriver or onto the back bruslies. These were lands beyond the rear of the forty arpent line which marked the rear boundaries of the long lots of the sugar plantations. Many Germans, by now speaking Cajun French and intermarried with Cajun families, moved down Bayou Lafourche. Elements of their German heritage were preserved selectively in their new homes. The most common form appears to have been a one- or two-room-wide cabin with a broad front gallery and, perhaps, a cabinet-loggia range of smaller rooms at the rear. Non-domestic functions of the farm were housed in separate free-standing structures, such as stables and grain-storage buildings.”

Edwards’ research presents a fascinating assessment of the ways German houses impacted the landscapes of North America in places where they settled as early as the 17th century, including Pennsylvania, Virginia, and westward into Ohio and Indiana. Closer to home, he looks at the intersection of German and Acadian cultures during the 18th and early 19th centuries that descended on Louisiana, particularly in the River Parishes, with an eye on façade geometry or fenestration patterns employed by German settlers on the facades of their small houses.

Noting how their houses evolved as the Cajun culture settled in similar spaces is important as we continue to look at the subtle yet rich impacts the German heritage has on our vernacular architecture and cultural landscapes.

Read Edwards’ full research paper here.