The Black Architects Who Built New Orleans

Creole cottages, townhouses, and Anglo-influenced row houses all play a crucial role in the city’s architectural landscape.

New Orleans is renowned for its beautiful architecture, showcasing Creole cottages, townhouses, and Anglo-inspired row houses. These distinctive buildings, painted in soft hues like pink, yellow, blue, and lavender, adorn the city’s oldest neighborhoods, creating a charming aesthetic.

Creole cottages, a signature style in America’s Gulf Coast, are a common sight in New Orleans, characterized by stucco walls, pointed roofs, and prominent dormers.

Designed by a group of accomplished Black architects during the pre-Civil War era, many of these cottages and their grander counterparts, Creole townhouses, have shaped the city’s architectural scene.

These architects not only left a significant mark on the city’s architecture but also established a unique style that represents the multicultural essence of the region.

Few people are aware of the prosperous community of free men and women of color during the 18th and 19th centuries,” says Andrew LaMar Hopkins, a contemporary artist shedding light on the historical scenes of noble Creole life in early New Orleans.

“Louisiana, with its French and Spanish influence, had one of the largest and wealthiest Black populations, distinct from the predominantly English-speaking America.

New Orleans boasted the largest population of free people of color in the United States before the Civil War. Despite facing oppression and discrimination, this community of free people of color achieved remarkable success.

Unfortunately, the significant contributions of Black architects during that period are often overlooked in history textbooks, their legacy erased and forgotten. However, their proud legacy resurfaces as you stroll through New Orleans’s oldest neighborhoods: the French Quarter, Tremé, and Faubourg Marigny.

The influence of Spanish and French rule is evident in this part of town, located downriver from Canal Street, where enslaved people had the opportunity to buy their freedom and Black architects were able to design and construct buildings.

The exterior of a Creole cottage with Victorian trimmings on New Orleans’s Dauphine Street in the French Quarter. Photo: Getty Images/Jeff Greenberg

Some individuals among this group of ‘free people of color’ were quite affluent and held significant status in New Orleans. This aspect contributed to the city’s richness and fascination in terms of culture,” notes Danielle Del Sol, executive director of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans.

“In other parts of America during the late 1700s and 1800s, many people of color were enslaved. However, in New Orleans, there was a thriving class of free people of color from Haiti, and other Caribbean islands, and freed African slaves.

Two notable Black families, the Dollioles and the Souliés, played a pivotal role in designing, constructing, and enhancing these architectural marvels, significantly contributing to the city’s growth.

Jean-Louis Dolliole, who received education in France, emerged as one of the most prolific Black architects of his era. His family owned 36 properties across New Orleans, although not all of them were designed by him.

Norbert Soulié underwent architectural training under Henry Latrobe, whose father, Benjamin, was an architect involved in the construction of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Soulié was instrumental in designing and building various architectural styles, including Creole cottages, Creole townhouses, and Anglo-influenced row houses.

Notably, in 1831, the Soulié family designed and built the Louisiana Sugar Refinery in the Greek Revival style.

Hopkins, originally from Mobile, Alabama, reflects on his schooling, mentioning that the curriculum highlighted the struggles of Black Americans and the history of slavery. However, it overlooked the narrative of free people of color.

They didn’t teach us about free people of color,” says Hopkins. “Young people see the past, and they’re angry, and they should be. We should all be angry. But there were people who weren’t slaves; they were Black and prosperous. It’s inspiring to know about the whole other side of this culture.

 Andrew LaMar Hopkins’s painting of Jean-Louis Dolliole at his Creole cottage home. Photo: Courtesy Andrew LaMar Hopkins

Andrew LaMar Hopkins’s painting of Jean-Louis Dolliole at his Creole cottage home. Photo: Courtesy Andrew LaMar Hopkins

Some of these houses are still homes today, while a few are open for the public to explore. The Soniat House Hotel, a distinguished family-owned boutique property in New Orleans, was designed by Francois Boisdore, a free man of color.

Commissioned by a white landowner, Boisdore designed a Creole townhouse and later another one across the street. The Soniat House Hotel made up of both townhomes, has been immaculately restored. The Spanish wrought-iron balconies, graceful curved staircases, and arched paths for horse-drawn carriages remain just as they were nearly 200 years ago.

The Free People of Color Museum is a treasure trove of information about the free people of color in New Orleans, shared by their descendants.

Housed in an elegant white mansion constructed by Cuban designer Benjamin Rodriguez in 1859, the museum delves into the influence of French, Spanish, and African styles on the city’s architecture, often via the Caribbean, as stated by Del Sol.

Enslaved individuals made significant contributions to laying the foundations of New Orleans, as did free craftsmen, masons, and millworkers.

Del Sol points out that “The Black citizens who lived in New Orleans, by choice or otherwise, had an immeasurable impact on the city’s architecture. There’s substantial evidence that shotgun houses, a symbol of our city, have origins in Africa.”

Their challenges were immense. Despite being labeled “Free” people of color, they did not enjoy the same liberties as white residents of the city. Discrimination was a constant and oppressive force, and the limited freedoms they had were under constant threat.

Despite these challenges, free people of color played a vital role in the early 19th-century real estate development in the city—a legacy that continues to define New Orleans today.

However, they faced oppression and discrimination, prompting some families to leave the United States, like the Soulié family, who moved to France.

Nevertheless, Hopkins urges the public to remember the origins of the city’s architecture. “This forgotten history is something to be very proud of. They were architects, they were building owners, and we can walk through the old quarters and still see their legacy today.”

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