Gulf Coast Architecture Before Hurricane Katrina

Architecture along the Mississippi Gulf Coast can be divided into four categories, folk, vernacular, popular, and polite. The distinctions between these classifications sometimes are blurry, but they adequately differentiate Gulf Coast architecture. The history of building along the Mississippi Gulf Coast reflects the influences of climate, outside practice, and historical events. The influence of New Orleans can be seen throughout the coast, as can the imprint of cities such as Chicago.

Folk buildings usually were owner-built and reflected the builder’s cultural heritage, not outside sources. As colonial powers assumed control during various eras, engineers designed forts, not habitations. An important drawing from 10 December 1720 shows some of the earliest constructed folk types. Temporary gable-roofed huts were of colombage (half-timber and thatch). Mississippi’s coastal architecture often shared elements with Louisiana architecture because of the cultural and colonial history. Folk houses also had bousillage (mud-and-moss walls and hewn frames). The fronts of these structures often were plastered and whitewashed under galleries. Needing to adapt to the tropical climate along the coast, Creole folk types’ construction contained architectural elements that helped keep the structure cool. Galleries, high roofs, and provisions for cross-ventilation, such as outside entrances to each room, allowed air circulation. This style had a number of distinguishing characteristics, including a gable roof parallel to the front, an undercut gallery, a central chimney, either a two- or a five-room floor plan, and often either two or four openings across the main facade. Natural disasters such as hurricanes, fire and other human-induced calamities, and the march of progress mean that folk types from the eighteenth century are now rare.

Vernacular buildings were indigenous to the Gulf Coast area but constructed by professional builders. These builders often worked from standard plans but adjusted the overall form and decorative detail according to the owners’ wishes or financial situation. Biloxi census records from the mid-nineteenth century list builders.

The vernacular Creole Cottage, similar to the folk variety, featured a particular roof form, undercut gallery, and four-bay front. The basic plan nearly always had four rooms, square or almost so, and usually contained a four-bay front with doors in the central two bays. Chimneys and fireplaces had no standard position. Creole Cottages occasionally contained stock ornaments on galleries.

Another vernacular type, the Biloxi Cottage, had a hip roof and appeared in Natchez, Port Gibson, and other towns along the coast in the 1880s and 1890s but were especially concentrated in Biloxi. The Biloxi Cottage could have either a hip roof or a gabled roof but always had a four-bay front, with the main roof extending to cover a gallery. The plan was basically four rooms, as in the Creole Cottage.

Another vernacular house type is the shotgun, which had three basic variations—the straight shotgun, the lateral-wing shotgun, and the three-bay shotgun—all of which were found on the Gulf Coast. The shotgun house may have originated in Haiti and Africa, but the shotguns in Mississippi dated from the late nineteenth century and resulted from New Orleans influences. The main characteristic of the shotgun was narrowness—many were only one room wide. The roof extended to cover a small gallery or porch across the main facade. The roof could be hip, gable-on-hip, or gable, but the hip form predominated. Shotgun homes were single-family dwellings along the coast, but construction stopped around the middle of the twentieth century.

Popular building types reflected national trends rather than local tradition, gaining widespread acceptance and popularity. Sources for popular types included outside builders, nearby examples, pattern books, periodicals, and newspaper articles.

An early popular type, the American Cottage, was a house with a symmetrical facade with an uneven number of bays—usually three or five—and a central door. Symmetry was the outstanding characteristic. American Cottages often were bayed, with a projecting semioctagonal bay constituting the most prominent element of some main facades.

The bungalow type appeared in the late nineteenth century and with Craftsman styling became a dominant form of new construction along the coast by 1920. The orientation of the roof determined its variation. Along the coast, the roof was always gabled and ran perpendicular to the main facade. The gable-fronted type always had a gabled porch, sometimes centered and sometimes off to one side. The treatment of the porch gable was the same as the main gable. One side of the porch often featured a pergola. The gable-sided version often had a shed-roofed porch across the main facade and a larger dormer on the front slope of the roof. Features adapted for Craftsman style included shallow roof pitch; gabled porches with wide overhangs fronted with rafters supported on extended purlins; visible rafter ends in a stylized pattern; multiple windows; massive porch posts, often tapering upward; and brick bases.

Polite architecture was the domain of the architect and professional designer who built with attention to both function and aesthetics while heeding national trends of style and technique. Several polite types of houses appeared along the coast.

The oldest polite examples were in the Greek Revival style. Decorative Greek detail often was applied to older building types with elements such as Ionic columns. Inside moldings, mantles, and doorways also reflected Greek detail. New Orleans businessmen constructed many antebellum Greek Revival homes along the coast.

As downtown areas developed, particularly 1890s Biloxi, architects constructed buildings in Commercial Romanesque style. The massive solidity of the style gave the buildings a secure, almost invincible appearance, particularly popular for banks.

However, the Queen Anne style was most popular for 1890s houses, with multiple galleries and stock detail. The style appeared irregular in composition. The gallery detail used on these houses included turned posts, sawn brackets, spindle bands, and sometimes balustrade railings.

Reacting to the irregular composition, the Colonial Revival created a more formal facade with columned and porticoed houses appearing along the Gulf Coast in the late 1890s. Chicago businessmen lured by the Gulf breezes constructed two-story houses with Corinthian porticos, elliptical fanlights, and Federal-style decorations.

The Colonial Revival style was not suited to smaller houses, so the Mission style became popular for those homes at the turn of the twentieth century. Based on Spanish influence, universal Mission style featured stucco walls; tile roofs (if the roof was visible); often flat roofs; flat projecting bands; and extensive use of arches. Spanish Colonial style differed from Mission by including more decorative Spanish details such as twisted columns and iron grills.

From 1910 to 1930, the Tudor Revival style was popular. Its most common characteristics were the jettied upper floor, high-pitched gabled roofs, and half-timber construction with stucco infill. Windows had small multilights, usually in diamond patterns in the upper sash of double-hung windows. Bay windows were also very common.

After the late 1930s, Minimal Traditional emerged as a popular national style. Simplicity and lack of traditional detail characterized this style used for one-story, low-roofed homes. These homes also featured at least one large front-facing gable. This style lasted until approximately the 1950s, when the rapid urbanization of the Mississippi coast resulted in large subdivisions of ranch-style homes.

Coastal architecture reflected historical movements and aesthetics while maintaining optimal climate adaptation prior to widespread air-conditioning.

Further Reading

  • A. J. Bicknell and William T. Comstock, Victorian Architecture: Two Pattern Books (1975)
  • Clay Lancaster, Art Bulletin (September 1958); Virginia and Lee McAlester, A Field Guide to American Houses (1996)
  • Milton B. Newton Jr., Melanges (27 September 1971)
  • John Michael Vlach, “Sources of the Shotgun House: African and Caribbean Antecedents for Afro-American Architecture” (PhD dissertation, Indiana University, 1975)
  • Eugene M. Wilson, Alabama Folk Houses (1975)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Gulf Coast Architecture Before Hurricane Katrina
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 7, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 25, 2018