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Creole Cottage

The historic Creole cottage, found primarily in the Gulf States, serves as the precedent for a home near New Orleans.

Project: Lirette Residence, Houma, LA

Architect: Charrette Design Group Architects LLC, Mandeville, LA; M.L. "Mike" Waller, principal

By Martha McDonald

Start with a gallery (front porch) and then enter into the salle (parlor). You may find chambres (bedrooms) on either side of the salle or maybe behind them and possibly cabinets (small storage rooms) in the back behind the bedrooms. A covered loggia separates the two cabinets. This is the basic layout of a Creole cottage, a modest housing type built in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and also, to some extent, in Florida and Texas, from 1790 to about 1880.

The original Creole cottages were also usually built on piers to allow cool breezes to circulate under the houses and with hipped roofs so frequent hurricane winds would blow over them. The fronts often also had symmetrical layouts, with two doors and large windows (all shuttered) to let breezes flow through the homes.

Like the Shotgun house, the Creole cottage has carved its niche in Louisiana's architectural history and has become a beloved part of the region. Examples can be found throughout New Orleans and the surrounding area, including new construction in the style. One such "cottage" is a 4,936-sq.ft. residence designed by M.L. "Mike" Waller, co-owner and principal of Charrette Design Group Architects of Mandeville, LA.

Located in Houma, LA, a town south of New Orleans, the new home features a large porch, lap siding and symmetrical windows across the front. "The owner wanted a wide verandah and a true Creole cottage," says Waller. "It has 12-ft. ceilings and wide-plank longleaf heart-pine floors. I had a good budget to work with, so we were able to build an authentic cottage, even though it is larger than most typical Creole cottages."

The first decision Waller made was to raise the house 42 in. on piers, in the tradition of the Creole cottage, and to make it a 1½-story residence with bedrooms on the ground floor. The front of the residence features a 64-ft.-long porch lined with custom-made chamfered mahogany columns. The 18-in.-wide beaded fascia below the deck was supplied by AZEK Building Products.

Although the cottage doesn't have the two front doors typical of many earlier Creole cottages, it is lined with large true-divided-lite wood windows and doors. Waller explains that he used Plantation detail instead of French doors on the front porch, with stock 7-ft. 2-in. window sash. "The bottom sash of the windows rests on two door leafs," he says. "When the bottom sash is raised and the doors are opened, you have a 6-ft.-plus opening to walk out onto the verandah. These cost about half of what French doors would have cost, so I could put the money into other places in the house."

Functional shutters were used on all windows, some board-and-batten and some louvered. On the porch, the shutters are louvered so they can be closed and still allow light and air into the house. The central front door was designed by Waller and custom fabricated.

The porch decking is tongue-and-groove clear pressure-treated pine. "We have a culture of porches here in south Louisiana," says Waller. "The millwork shop has been running this decking for years. In the past, they were made of vertical-grain red cypress, but you can't get that anymore, unless it's salvage, so we use pine now."

Waller notes that the pine is air-dried for a minimum of 90 days, so it doesn't get stressed and warp as it would in a kiln. "It is arrow-straight beautiful lumber, and it soaks up the paint because it is pretty dry," he says. "It makes an excellent porch deck."

In keeping with the Creole tradition, the exterior of the house is finished with lap siding with a 5-in. exposure; Waller used Highland cypress from North Carolina, as opposed to coastal cypress. "It is denser, has a good thick butt and it takes the paint really well," he says. "It will be 10 years before it needs a paint job."

On the roof, Waller used GAF 30-year Timberline fiberglass shingles in a slate-blend color. "The 30-year specification is important," he says, "as the lighter specification has no substance and the heavier (45 year) is too faux. I have been using that for 30 years because of the color. It has enough of a shadow line and a quiet, neutral gray color. The cost is about $65/sq.ft. compared to about $600/sq.ft. for real slate. I would rather put the money in the millwork."

The front of the house features three dormers and there is another larger one on the rear roof. All of the pilasters, frieze boards, molding and face frames were supplied by AZEK. The three fireplaces are from Isokern; the chimneys are stuccoed and feature bluestone caps and copper screens mortared over the flues to prevent chimney swifts from roosting in them.

When it comes to millwork, Waller typically does his own shop drawings. "I did all of the drawings for the windows and doors and then gave them to the shop [Acadian Millwork and Supply of Mandeville]," he says, while lamenting the fact that old-style millwork is becoming a lost art. "There are people who can do the work, but there's just not as much demand for it."

One pleasant surprise came during construction, when Waller discovered some old red cypress. "The lumber was located on the site of an old lumber mill on the bayou," he says. The mill had been torn down but the pilings were still in the ground and were being pulled out when Waller and the client arrived. "They were 12-in. square and had hand-hewn points on the ends," he says. "They had all been cut from virgin Tidewater cypress trees, and were probably 1,000 years old. They were sitting in the ground all these years, so they were perfectly preserved.

"We decided to buy all of it. I told the client that anything we don't use in the house can be sold at a profit. But we used just about all of it in the house. It is incredibly beautiful wood." The cypress was used for exposed beams throughout the first floor of the home and for the posts, soffits, beaded ceilings and rafter tails in the garage wing. "It is in most of the rooms in the house, except for the bedrooms," he notes.

The master bedroom and a guest bedroom are on the ground floor and two bedrooms and a bathroom are upstairs. Interior details include flat-panel doors made with applied molding, mahogany countertops in the kitchen and antique rim-lock hardware.

The house itself wraps around a courtyard in the back, with a breezeway leading to the garage. The garage features traditional brick-between-posts (briquette-entre-poteaux) construction, with cypress corner posts, diagonal connecting posts and brick in between.

One of the challenges, Waller says, was designing the back landing that goes to the garage: "Because the garage is on a slab and is 12 in. above grade and the house is raised 42 in., I had come up with about 36 in. on the walkway to tie the breezeway roof to the house without making it look clumsy. It was a challenge to make it attractive to the eye and still work."

After a year and a half of construction, the Creole cottage took its place among the vernacular architecture of the area. Waller has designed a similar cottage in Mandeville, and he admires the style. "Creole design is really about the millwork," he says. "In the past, they made everything by hand, using simple hand tools right on the job. It is simple and elegant millwork. That's what I love about Creole architecture – it is primitive, but it is elegant at the same time."  

 

 

 
 

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