Every region in the United States has it’s own particular regional customs, building habits, and local materials. Here in Louisiana, our building habits have produced a very distinct architectural style over the years. The French brought a specific architectural style over with them in the early 1700’s, and it was slowly adapted and changed over the next 100 years to better deal with Louisiana’s destructive climate. (The style also changed over time due to the influx of slaves from West Africa, the Spanish from 1763-1801, and Haitian refugees in the late 18th century).
But one constant that has held true over the course of Louisiana’s 300 year history has been the use of cypress in building construction. The bald cypress occurs mainly along riverside wetlands normally subject to periodic flooding by silt-rich ‘brownwater’ rivers. Louisiana is the perfect habitat for the bald cypress, mainly due to the annual floods of the Mississippi River.
At one time old growth cypress forests were abundant throughout the southeast, including Louisiana, and truly magnificent. The trees reached 12 to 14 feet in diameter. There were even stories of trees reaching 25 feet in diameter. Some cypress trees were over 160 feet tall and lived up to 3,000+ years
The odorless wood of bald cypress has long been valued for its water resistance, thus is called ‘wood eternal’. Still-usable prehistoric wood is often found in swamps (in fact, that’s where ‘Rock’ the Alligator at The Cabin Restaurant came from).
What makes cypress so rot resistant is an oil called cypressene located in the heartwood. Old growth contains the highest concentration of cypressene. The heartwood is extremely rot and termite resistant. The heartwood contains a sesquiterpene called cypressene, which acts as a natural preservative. It takes decades for cypressene to accumulate in the wood, so lumber taken from old-growth trees is more rot resistant than that from second-growth trees.
Bald Cypress wood was the perfect construction material for south Louisiana for 3 reasons:
1) It was virtually rot resistant. If kept either wholly above or wholly below ground – if half in or half out, it will rot very quickly, however.
2) Cypress kept termites out (people would augment it by sprinkling crushed lime around the house)
3) It was found in abundance
Thus, when you visit south Louisiana and you see all those old Acadian shacks out on the bayou or preserved at places like The Cajun Village, they all seem to be built out of the same material.
Unfortunately, those virgin forests were completely logged out between 1850 and 1930. Louisiana made it illegal to harvest old-growth cypress in 1917. Almost all the cypress you see in the state today is secondary growth, and it is no longer used as a construction material (LA Lens has GREAT photos of bald cypress). Luckily, we can still partake in it’s historic beauty due to local preservationists such as Al and Theresa Robert, who have made a life out saving Louisiana’s vernacular historic structures.