Once flooded by seasonal waters and sugar profits, today the stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rough is awash with architectural contradictions. Here on the River Road, abandoned plantations crumble amidst live oaks; rotted slave huts cringe behind capes of Spanish moss; and factories churn pollutants into the humid air. From meteoric rise to slow decline, the River Road and its Victorian neighborhoods represent a unique microcosm of Southern architecture. In his photographic monograph Vestiges of Grandeur: The Plantations of Louisiana’s River Road, Richard Sexton exposes the architectural contrasts wrought by the region’s history, crafting a provocative narrative of innovation, adaptation, exploitation, destruction and preservation.
The Eighteenth Century: The Birth of Creole Architecture
The River Road’s grand homes are rooted in their natural environment, their architectural hallmarks derived from indigenous structures. When the French first arrived in Louisiana, they found the Native American city of Tabiscania one thousand inhabitants strong. Built with local materials to withstand the local heat, wet and wind, the Colapissa Indians’ homes taught the French settlers new architectural forms: thick poles stuck into the soft earth for structural strength, galleries that allowed for cross-ventilation, rectilinear communities clinging to high ground.
In the early 1700s, the French began building in earnest–and in imitation of indigenous architecture. Villages were square, as they were in the mother country, but the houses were rectangular, with palisades, galleries and raised foundations. In 1734, engineer Bernard de Verges designed a timber house with a raised brick foundation, broad front gallery, Norman-truss roof and casement windows. It wasn’t a chateaux forced upon a semi-tropical landscape, but a true fusion: it was Creole architecture.
The Nineteenth Century: The First Anglo-American Invasion
For the Creole culture, the early 1800s were years of change. In quick succession, the Louisiana Purchase, the War of 1812, and the Mississippi steamboat transformed their relatively isolated community into an international economic powerhouse. Sugar brought tremendous wealth–enough to tempt Americans of British decent south and send the River Road’s nouveau riche across the Atlantic on European tours.
During the Victorian era, the Creoles invested their new fortunes and international perspectives into grand plantation houses. Those already built were remade in the classical image: for example, an 1832 remodel morphed the 1800 Evergreen Plantation’s wooden colonettes (the direct descendant of the Colapissa Indians’ homes’ thick poles) into two-story Doric columns. All along the River Road, Victorian neighborhoods of Greek Revival, Italianate and Gothic Revival-style structures appeared left and right, evidence that most of America’s millionaires lived here and that the adaptable Creoles had happily absorbed the Anglo-American aesthetic.
At least, until war came.
Discover the fate of the River Road’s grand Victorian neighborhoods in our next post…
Written by Elaine K. Phillips
Photography by Richard Sexton and previously published in Vestiges of Grandeur: The Plantations of Louisiana’s River Road by Chronicle Books.
Source: Vestiges of Grandeur: The Plantations of Louisiana’s River Road by Richard Sexton, published by Chronicle Books.