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Characteristics of Colonial Architecture: Spanish & French

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Colonial styles of architecture form the basic aesthetic of many American towns. In this lesson, we'll talk about French and Spanish colonial architecture and find out how to identify characteristics of each.

Colonial Architecture

American history is a history of colonies. This shouldn't be much of a surprise to anybody who knows anything about our national past. We talk a lot about the British colonies, what it meant to be a colonial settler, and how the colonists came to define themselves as Americans. What we don't always talk about is the influence of the other colonists. Along with the British, French and Spanish colonists also built settlements in the Americas. These colonists brought their own customs with them, and over time they developed their own styles of colonial architecture. Now, it's important to remember that all colonial architecture is fluid in terms of styles. Colonists were generally more concerned with survival than strict stylistic rules, but nevertheless there are some major trends we can see. Through their architecture, French and Spanish colonists each left their own stamp on American history.

French Colonial Architecture

Let's start by looking at French colonial styles. The French were primarily focused on what is now Canada, parts of the Caribbean, and of course, New Orleans. This Southern port city is where we see most surviving French colonial styles to this day.

So, what defines French colonial architecture? French buildings tended to be made of a wood frame and brick or bousillage, a compound made of mud, moss, and animal hair. The buildings themselves were generally rectangular, and sometimes built on a slightly elevated platform. This was especially common in Louisiana and was meant to counteract the swampy soils. These buildings were also interesting in their design because most French colonial buildings did not have interior hallways. Rooms connected to each other by outside walkways around the building, not through it.

Defining Traits

In terms of the visual elements, French colonial architecture is really noticeable by the roof and porch. French colonial roofs tend to be hipped, or shaped like a pyramid, with very large overhanging eaves. These eaves covered a sizeable porch that often wrapped around the building, called the gallery. This was how people got around the house without interior hallways. You'd leave your room and walk along the gallery to whichever room you needed. In the warm climate of Louisiana, a brief stroll around the gallery was a pleasantry.

French colonial house in Missouri
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Besides the hipped roof, dominant eaves, and gallery, there are a few other common traits we may see in French colonial architecture. The eaves were often supported by thin wooden columns, exterior stairs were common as many buildings had two stories, and most rooms had French doors, or doors with windows made of multiple small panes. Put all of this together and you've got a nice piece of French colonial architecture.

French colonial house
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Spanish Colonial Architecture

Of course, the French weren't alone in the Gulf of Mexico. From the coasts of Florida through California, Spanish settlers built the oldest European settlements in what is now the United States. They brought with them their own distinct styles of colonial architecture.

Spanish colonists, like the French, very often made their buildings out of materials that were most readily available to settlers. For the Spanish, this meant making homes out of adobe, or sun-dried mud/clay. Adobe insulates well, keeping cool air trapped inside the home. This was useful in the hot deserts of what is now the American Southwest. To compound this effect, walls were made extra thick and covered in a plaster called stucco. Small windows were often built into the walls. The entire building would often take a courtyard form, with rooms opening into a central, uncovered space.

The Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe is a prime example of colonial adobe construction
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Defining Traits

The Spanish colonial period lasted much longer than the French (ranging from the mid-16th through early 19th centuries) and so there is a wider degree of stylistic change. For the most part however, Spanish colonial buildings also featured notable porches, covered by exposed wooden beams and often featuring smooth arches. These buildings are less likely to be multiple stories than French colonial structures and are topped with either flat adobe roofs or sloping roofs covered in red tiles. Today, the red tiles are among the most recognizable features of Spanish colonial revival styles, but historically they were only used in some locations, like California.

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