The Couret House
I love exploring. Naturally, my absolute favorite part of starting any new preservation project is conducting the building investigation. Getting to know a structure and learning more about its development by climbing all through and under it and over it is just good dirty fun. One of my favorite building investigations involved the Couret House in Lafayette, Louisiana. While not a large structure, this investigation took some time as the house was built in two parts and was moved from the original location. Also, the Couret home remained in the same family from the time it was built in the late 1700s until 2003, which helped it to maintain much of its original integrity. My firm was hired by the developer who purchased the home and its acreage to assess the condition of the structure and recommend uses for the home as a part of the new neighborhood development called Couret Farms.
The Couret property was always a working plantation, although only three hundred and fifty of the original two thousand acres remain today. The original part of the house is actually the second story, which was constructed around 1790 near the Vermillion River by Jean Louis Bernard. The original house was a one level timber and bousillage structure built in the French Creole style. This style was very popular in the Mississippi Valley during the 18th century, and developed in response to the wet muggy climate with influences from the West Indies. Wide galleries allow for rain protection and air circulation, while the mud and moss mixture of that made up the bousillage was readily available on the banks of the river.
Many of these homes featured a hipped roof and a center fireplaces, but the Couret House is unique with its steep pitched side gable roof with chimneys on each gable end. Another unique feature of this house are the heavy, rectangular posts on the upper story. These differ from the more delicate, turned columns seen on most homes of the style, meaning they may have been added when the house was moved in the 1830s. The house was moved to its current location by Bernard’s son Gerazin in 1832 and was placed on top of a briquette-entre-poteaux (brick and post) first level. The last member of the family, Ms. Lucille Couret, lived in the home until her death in 2003, and we found many of her personal effects still in place in the home upon our investigation. These included countless notebooks from her days spent as a teacher, her first communion certificate, a silver brush on her dressing table and slippers next to her bed. The rooms had such an intimate feel, and the house was obviously well loved and the site of many family gatherings.
The first floor of the home features two main rooms with raw cypress floors (one room is varnished but we were told this was from a movie being filmed in the home), plaster walls and small mantels on the fireplaces. No hallways exist, with each room connected directly to the other and both accessible from the front porch. The downstairs also features a small rear stairhall with a pantry, a bath, a laundry room and a small kitchen building that was attached to the main structure at some point after the house was moved. The second story also has two main rooms facing the front gallery. A characteristic feature of the French Creole style is that the rear would not have been a full gallery like the front, but may have had one or two small enclosed “cabinets” with an opening between. It is obvious where the winding stair was cut into the original floor when the first level was raised, but not completely clear that the stairhall was once an open space between the bathroom and small bedroom, or the cabinets. Even though we could not find evidence that 100% supported this theory, I do believe the space that is now the rear stairhall on the second story was once open, because of the different fenestration pattern and the floor board patterns.
The two upstairs bedrooms feature beautiful mantels and overmantels which are much more intricate that the mantels on the lower levels. These rooms would have originally been used for entertaining when the home was one level, with the small cabinets on the rear serving as sleeping quarters. They feature the same raw cypress floors and french doors connecting the two bedrooms with no hallways. Ms. Couret’s bedroom was one of these rooms, and her personal touches were everywhere, right down to her silver brush on the dressing table and slippers next to the bed. Having the ability to spend time in this place before renovation was such a special feeling, and made our investigation that much more poignant. Another interesting find were a set of stairs in the upstairs bathroom leading to the attic access. These stairs obviously were used somewhere else and were cut to fit in this spot. It is possible that these stairs were once placed on the front porch and led to the attic quarters, or garconniere. Garconniere is French for “a bachelor apartment,” but in this case it meant an upstairs sleeping quarters. This was a typical feature of these homes, and while again we cannot say for certain these stairs served that purpose, we found a section of ceiling boards on the porch that did not match in pattern with the rest. This supports the theory that there once was access to the attic from the porch, and these stairs could have easily served that purpose before they were moved into the house.
Once in the attic (or sauna) we made another wonderful discovery. All of the original hand-hewn, mortise and tenon roof beams were not only still there but in amazing shape. Also (be still my heart!) all of the beams were numbered with hand-scratched roman numerals, so that when the house was deconstructed and moved from its original location, it could be reconstructed just as it was.
Overall, this house was in amazing shape for its age. Only a small amount of original material was too compromised to save, and the developer was very open to our suggestions for restorative efforts. Another section of our report focused on the use of the many outbuildings that were still in existence around the property, including an old water tower. We suggested these buildings be saved and interpreted as a part of a neighborhood park, but on our last visit some had been removed. Suggested uses for the house were to provide interpretation with information about the home and the Couret family, while keeping the house available to neighborhood residents for tours and events.
We took all of our findings and prepared a report, and restoration of this amazing home is almost complete! You can check out the some photos here and learn more about the plans for the development. While it may feel unsettling to see a new neighborhood being constructed on this decades old farm, the fact that such an important property is being preserved amidst the ever growing city of Lafayette is a victory. Several acres around the historic structure are also being preserved to retain the park-like feeling of the former plantation.
If this style of home interests you, check out these other fantastic Louisiana examples:
Acadian Village: A thirty-two acre recreation of a typical 1800s Acadian Village, this park in Lafayette will give a visitor the full Acadian experience.
Magnolia Mound Plantation: This Baton Rouge plantation home is a very vernacular example of the style. The original first floor of the Couret House may have originally resembled Magnolia Mound
Parlange Plantation House: This beauty is located in New Roads, Louisiana on False River. I adore this little city, and this house is worth the visit.