The design of the buildings constructed by the French in St. Louis had evolved over two hundred years of colonization in the New World. They were a combination of French and Caribbean influences, and resulted in two distinct house forms. Except for the church, a few small barns and military structures, virtually all buildings in early St. Louis were residences.
French houses were of three distinct construction types. By far the most common was palisaded or vertical log construction, also called poteaux en terre (posts-in-ground). Vertical posts were placed directly into a deep trench and earth packed in to hold them upright. The spaces between the posts were filled with a nogging of stones, earth and plaster. Walls were then given a finished coat of plaster on interior and exterior, and whitewashed. Tall, narrow openings were filled with multi-light casement windows, and had exterior shutters. The houses had distinctive, hipped roofs, called pavilion roofs, where the front and back slope was very steep, and the two sides nearly vertical. The earliest roofs were thatched, and the pitch was required to shed rain properly. Although wood shingles soon became available, the high roof continued as a tradition in later buildings. On at least one side, often several, porches or galleries extended the length of the facade. The gallery roof sloped considerably less than that of the house itself, resulting in the characteristic French colonial roof shape. The galleries served not only to cool the house, but to protect the plaster walls from the weather. At least two-thirds of the first St. Louis buildings were of palisaded construction.
The Bienvenue House stood on the northwest corner of 3rd and Plum streets. Built in 1786, it originally had a gallery on all sides, and a pavilion roof. The house was derelict by the time it was photographed by Thomas M. Easterly in the 1850's, but it clearly shows its palisaded construction.
Another similar construction type used by the French colonists was really a frame construction, called poteaux sur sole (posts-on-sill). A heavy wood sill was placed on a high masonry foundation, and the vertical posts fastened to it. The rest of the building, including roof, walls and gallery, was identical to palisaded construction. Although this method was used in only a small percentage of St. Louis buildings, it was far more durable, and such houses were the most likely to survive to the era where they could be photographed.
A excellent example of the French vertical log frame construction was the Dodier-Sarpy house, once located at the corner of Second and Clark streets. The one-story house had a raised rubble limestone basement, with a gallery that extended on at least two sides of the house. The house had typical French casement windows and shutters. This photograph was probably taken in the mid 19th century.
Stone construction was the second most prevalent building material. Limestone was abundant in the St. Louis area, and was used throughout the colonial period for houses, foundations and chimneys. It had the advantage of being impervious to fire or rot; but its construction was more difficult, and at this period only the wealthier inhabitants used it. (Laclède's house, the first in the village, was stone.) Limestone was plentiful from the bluffs along the river; the stone was quarried and hauled to the site, where it was laid with mortar composed of lime or, if the walls were protected by galleries, of mud. Stone houses also used the pavilion roof shape and galleries, and several houses were raised on high basements, which provided an additional story. By 1804, about a quarter of the houses in St. Louis were of stone construction.
Gabriel Cerre House
Gabriel Cerre house, constructed about 1770, shown in a later drawing, was of stone, with a high raised basement, and gallery across the front facade. Entry to the main rooms of the house was from an exterior stair located at the far right. The roof seems to be a modified pavilion roof, (really a two-sloped gable), and is covered with wood shingles.