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C & C Treasures, raised

The Cantrell House, home to C & C Treasures, built in 1820

After reblogging Suave’s Crevasse for my last post, my mind began to wander toward the modern day levee system that protects our homes, businesses and ways of life along the Mississippi River’s serpentine path to sea and how up until about 75 years ago, most buildings were built on brick piers. You can see many examples of this building type in The Cajun Village and also at The Cabin Restaurant today.

In the past, Louisiana buildings were usually built 2-5 feet off the ground, resting on several brick piers for a few key reasons. The first is obviously flooding – prior the massive levees built after the great 1927 flood, levee heights averaged 4-5 feet in the early to middle nineteenth century and 8-10 feet in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These levees generally kept the annual spring floods contained in the Mississippi’s natural course, but occasionally there would be a crevasse or the levees would be overtopped, and water would flow down the gentle grade of the river’s natural levees and back into the swamp, washing under and around the raised structures in it’s path. Having a raised home was essential to actually having a home here in Louisiana, especially out in the country where the levees might not be as protective as those that surrounded the economically essential port of New Orleans.

There was also another reason old Creole and Cajun houses were built up on piers – a house raised on piers allowed air to flow under it and up through the floorboards, helping to push the hot air up through the house and out the roof. This effectively cooling it during the sweltering summer months prior the advent of air conditioning. Natural ventilation and properly placed shade trees were the only means of cooling your house down here in the South until the late 1940s. Some houses did install large box fans in the attic that sucked air up through the floor at a faster rate than a natural breeze prior to air conditioning (my house on River Road has one and it is massive!).

So if you’re wondering why so many old houses are raised on piers in Louisiana, it was because of the ever-present threat of flooding, a lesson that seems to have been forgotten in modern building design in Louisiana today. And when we discard the architectural habits of our ancestors without paying heed to why their buildings were constructed in a specific way, then we are bound to pay a price when a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina hits. Our Louisiana ancestors designed their raised homes along the river and in the swamps to live with the water; we design our homes and buildings today because we have forgotten about it.