A Barge Board Creole Cottage

With the house in such a raw state, we’d like to share some information about the Creole Cottage style and how this house and many others like it were built in New Orleans during the 1800’s.

A creole cottage is a vernacular housing type found along the Gulf Coast.  There are many variations on this type and what features tend to be constant.  A lot of what we have read and seen suggests that a four bay creole cottage is the most common, the original versions constructed from heavy timbers infilled with masonry and coated with plaster.  These can be found all over the French Quarter as the first settled neighborhood of the city.  The gabled roof pitches towards the street facade (ridge line parallel to the street) and many have dormer windows.

a traditional creole cottage

a traditional creole cottage

We believe that our creole cottage was built sometime in the mid 1800’s with the oldest record being an act of sale around 1880.   The structure is made out of barge board, which was a typical building material for houses in New Orleans during that time. Barge boards are thick pieces of wood most likely poplar and pine species typical to  the northern region upriver. Usually over a foot wide (sometimes up to 30″!), about 2 inches thick and in some cases over 20′-0″ long.  This material was used to build flatboat barges in the North which floated down the Mississippi River by current carrying various goods and people inexpensively.  At the end of the trip, the flatboats were dismantled and the barge boards were sold for lumber.  One of the defining characteristics of true barge boards is the presence of holes through which rope was tied to lash the boards together. Abraham Lincoln travelled to New Orleans on a flatboat twice, once in 1828 and again in 1831 and I think we can safely assume that one of those boats was dismantled to build our house.  The house Daniel spent the most time working on while with the PRC’s Operation Comeback program was a small barge board house in the lower 9th ward.

The material is a hot commodity these days – people use it for furniture and flooring.  We plan to use some extra pieces as vanities in our bathrooms.  While barge board presents some unique challenges to contemporary construction practices, the fact that the wood floated down the Mississippi River and lasted nearly 150+ years exposed to the elements says a lot about the integrity of the old growth wood.  The main issue with barge board construction is that you don’t have a wall cavity because the barge board is thick enough to take the place of both the studs (usually either 2×4 or 2×6 wood framing) and the sheathing (usually 3/4″ plywood or OSB).  This was okay in the 1800’s when there was no indoor plumbing, electricity or air conditioning – but wall cavities are a must in modern construction.  2″x2″ batten or furring strips were used at each barge board joint to attach the lath and apply plaster.

The barge board sits directly on an 8″x8″ sill at the perimeter of the house and the sill sits directly on a continuous masonry chain wall.  There is also a sill and masonry chain wall running down the middle wall of the house that ties in with the masonry of the two fireplaces. 3″x10″ wood joists are notched to sit directly on the sill and we were surprised to see that the joists were continuous from one side of the house to the other, notched in the middle to rest on the central sill. About half of the joists have termite damage and while they appear in tact, the center has been completely ravaged by termites and they can easily be crushed by hand.  The ceiling joists are 2″x6″, along with the rafters supporting the roof.  These are all in excellent condition.  The barge board is continuous from the bottom sill to the roof and attached to the outermost ceiling joist and rafters.  A lot of the termite damage to the barge board is at the base where the loads of the house should bear on the sill and there are many cases of floating boards that are being held in place only by the ceiling joists.
detail shot of the outer sill

detail shot of the outer sill

detail shot of the center sill

detail shot of the center sill

We met with the Contractor and framer to strategize about restoration work based on their experiences with similar structures.  The framer’s grandfather was a home builder in the area and he described finding many different methods for construction centered around what the builder had on hand at that time.  It takes gutting the house and removing the floors to really see what are you up against.
A view of the existing floor joists continuous from wall to wall.

A view of the existing floor joists continuous from wall to wall.

bare bones

bare bones

Framing efforts are beginning this week and here are the solutions we came up with:
  • All exterior walls will have added 2×4 studs that sister onto the existing batten boards, giving us a wall cavity and hopefully a straighter wall.  The 2x4s act as a substructure to the barge board and allow us to keep the barge board as sheathing, regardless of whether deteriorated at the base.
  • All interior walls to remain will have the termite damaged bottoms removed (where required) and we will frame below the boards with 2x4s on flat to reestablish the connection to the floor framing system.
  • All floor joists will be replaced with new 2×10 material at 16″oc.  This allows us to better control the level of the new floors and adjust the notching in the beams as needed to account for height fluctuations in the masonry chain wall and sill.  We will use the salvaged 3″x10″ joists elsewhere in the house – TBD.
  • A plywood subfloor will be installed over the floor joists to help tie everything together.  Since the house is only 24″ off the ground and has a continuous brick chain wall, we’ve decided not to insulate below the floors as the temperature in the crawl space is pretty consistent.
  • The sills will be replaced as needed.  Once the floors are leveled and walls framed, the masonry chain wall will be rebuilt or repaired and tuck-pointed.
Needless to say, it looks like framing may be more work than we anticipated.  But overall we just continue to be impressed by this house, the old materials and basic construction methods.
The main treasure in the crawl space were these old bottles.

The main treasure in the crawl space were these old bottles.

Flooring removed and neatly stacked.

Flooring removed and neatly stacked.

Daniel made a storage rack using the door frames - perfect for storage of the picture railing and other trim items.

Daniel made a storage rack using the door frames – perfect for storage of the picture railing and other trim items.

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2 thoughts on “A Barge Board Creole Cottage

  1. Ditto to that. This is so much fun to read and so interesting! It also makes me think, “goodness gracious, better them than me!” However, I would love to get my hands dirty for a week or so!

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