Who can begin to understand the French?

Even if you didn't know the style called "Chateauesque," you'd probably recognize this as a style with European origins.

I think I just need to go to France in order to properly understand French influence on American architecture.

It just doesn’t seem quite as straightforward as British, Irish, and Scottish influence. I do think the best way to solve the problem is to take a trip and and survey the architecture of the country for myself. It would be irresponsible of me, as your guide through Montgomery architecture, not to undertake travel study so that I can better explain the French influence. Unfortunately, for the moment, we shall have to make do with discussing some obvious examples.

It would be hard to miss the 1906 Sable Mansion on Perry Street, even if you (like me) know little about French architecture. It is an example of the Chateauesque style. Buildings in this style draw from 16th century French chateau models, combining Gothic elements (pointed arches and pinnacles) with those of the Renaissance (round arches, low-relief carving). The limestone facade of the Sable Mansion doesn’t disappoint in any design effect: The porch and portecochere have slightly flattened, round arches with moulded banding that create a point. There is a carved balustrade above. Note particularly the carved ornamentation. The building then rises two stories with an attic above and Belgian gables (in this case, they may be French gables) against the tall hipped roof. The roof is crowned by a pinnacle, thriftily made of sheet metal rather than stone. When it was off the roof for a restoration several years ago, I was surprised to find it towered over me even when on the ground.

Chateauesque buildings were popularized by the architect Richard Morris Hunt, the first American graduate of the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris, the world’s first formal architecture school. Hunt returned to the U.S. after his education and spread the style among his wealthy clients, people like the Vanderbilts. One of their chateauesque mansions we are all likely to recognize is Biltmore House in North Carolina. This style was never built in large numbers outside the big cities of the 19th and early 20th century, so it’s unusual to find one here in Montgomery. Although I don’t know who designed it, several architects around the city were capable of this kind of sophisticated effort.

House plan books, the pattern books for the 20th century, also boasted houses with French influence. Here, you find houses modeled on two basic types: the French Country Chateau and the Norman. We have one of each.

Light colored shutters and blinds seldom work, but these add character to the subtle French charm. Also note the graceful little kick where the shingled upper story meets the brick and stone lower story.

On the Garden District side of Felder Avenue and the fourth house in the first block, the big box of this French Country Chateau manages to be graceful. Perhaps it is the porte-cochere or the tall hipped roof that gives it a graceful appearance, or the curved glass French doors in the center of the facade. Quoins, those short-and-long stones, highlight the brickwork on the first floor. There is some thought that this is a Victorian house later remodeled to show the French influence.

The conical tower is frequently used as an entry. The front door here is tucked around the corner under the porch.

On to Cloverdale-Idewild to scenic Lexington Road to visit the “Norman Cottage,” which could be at home in France or perhaps England’s Sussex Downs. There are plans for houses like this one with substantial towers in almost every house plan book from the 1920’s, although they were never as popular as Tudor-influenced houses. The tower on this red brick example is particularly sturdy in proportion, and the leaded glass in the tower windows always seems to twinkle in the evening light. With its half-timbering filled with brick, heavy timbered porch posts with graceful brackets and rustic stone trim, this small house is replete with detail.

Everything in moderation on this façade: The nice French windows with the shallow arches, arched dormers and quoins make this "Franch" house at home in McGee Estates.

French influence in our domestic architecture has been growing since the 1960’s. Often seen on a basic ranch house rectangular form, French influences include low-arched, often ceiling to floor, windows and a tall hipped roof that sometimes changes pitch, called a “break.” Often, classical French touches are provided by quoins on the corners and around doorways. In discussing style with a friend in Birmingham who lives in such a house, we decided they represent a style we could call “Franch.”

Volunteers learn techniques from ancient times as they assemble the wattle and daub walls of the barracks at Ft. Toulouse.

Although you have to leave Midtown to experience it, we have some actual French influence not very far away at Ft. Toulouse (Hwy. 231 between here and Wetumpka). The original fort was built in the 18th century as a French outpost designed to trade and make friends with the Indians while guarding against the territorial ambitions of the British. On the site is a replica of one of the early forts filled with accurate reconstructions of timber-framed barracks. The stucco walls are built in the traditional way, with a woven lattice of twigs (wattle) which is then covered with a combination of clay, straw, and plaster (daub). The buildings are utilitarian and lack decorative elements, but the way they are built makes a very strong statement, very French. Living history transpires on the third Saturday of every month (dog days of summer excepted), with French marines in costume demonstrating the frontier life. There’s a big French and Indian War encampment April 16th and 17th, with folks from all over. It’s fun and interesting. Even if you have no children to take, go and examine Montgomery’s real French roots.

At Fort Toulouse, reenactors playing French marines prepare for supper and a restful night in this sturdy barracks, a real step up from the tents they formerly used.

Elizabeth Ann Brown has lived in and loved Montgomery’s Garden District for more than twenty years. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture and a masters degree in Community Planning from Auburn University. Her hobbies include pursuit of the ultimate chicken salad sandwich, bicycling, and working on her old house, a 1913 bungalow.

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  1. Michael S. McCreedy says:

    I worked as a graduate student on two archaeology digs at Ft. Toulouse (French farm house complex, Ft. Toulouse I) during the summertime. If anyone ever wants to have fun, volunteer for an archaeology dig – you will not regret it. I am also a long time member of the French garrison at Ft. Toulouse, and I want to invite everyone to come to our French & Indian War event in April (The Encampment on the Coosa). We will be wearing period appropriate attire (costume are for plays), and we will be able to answer just about any question that you may have about life on the early frontier. Come join us !!!

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