The Biloxi Cottage: An American Vernacular House

Architecture tells us about ourselves. Whether it is academic architecture guided by refined aesthetic traditions or vernacular architecture designed and constructed by the layperson, it can reveal aspects of our history, our culture, or a particular place and time.

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Study of the Biloxi cottage type by Christine G. H. Franck, pen and ink on paper, 2006.

All architecture reflects its place, but vernacular architecture is inseparable from it because it relies on regional materials, simple forms, and local labor. For example, a building design will respond to the area’s climate: porches, large windows, and high ceiling are common in the hot and humid South, whereas small windows and low ceilings are typical in the cold and windy North. Because vernacular architecture speaks of its place and people, it allows us to experience diversity that, in turn, enriches us.

Biloxi cottages, many of which were destroyed along the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina, are an example of vernacular architecture. From Pascagoula to Waveland, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi is home to vernacular traditions–including the shotgun house and the Biloxi cottage.

The Biloxi cottage floor plan is simple. It consists of four rooms, two wide and two deep, with no hallways. Rooms open directly onto a gallery or porch. Being two rooms wide, with each opening directly to the outside, the Biloxi cottage has the peculiar aspect of being four bays wide, with two doors in the center. This gives these cottages the mistaken appearance of being duplexes.

The massing is also simple: four rooms under a hipped, gable-on-hip, or gable roof. Raised a few feet off the ground, the cottage employs a front gallery or porch for outdoor living. Because this type of cottage has been built during many periods, it varies in character with the time in which it was built. For example, some Biloxi cottages show Greek Revival influences while others reflect Victorian styles.

In the Biloxi cottage we hear distant echoes of France, Africa, and Haiti. We are reminded of swaying branches of nearby trees. We feel the sultry air of a summer day and see a gentle people. Architecture has a tale to tell if we listen.

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This cottage, which dates from the 1830s to 1870s, serves today as the home of the Dusti Bongé Art Foundation. It once held the first free public library in Mississippi and also served as a private school operated by the Kings’ Daughters of Biloxi.

NB: For more on the architecture of Biloxi, as well as the Biloxi cottage, the best resource is The Buildings of Biloxi: An Architectural Survey undertaken by the City of Biloxi in 1976 and, fortunately, updated in 2000. Also of interest may be the National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form for Biloxi, which includes the following description of its vernacular domestic architecture: “Most of Biloxi’s vernacular buildings fall into one of three categories: the locally popular Creole, Biloxi, and American Cottage types. The Creole Cottage, introduced in the mid-nineteenth century, is typified by its gable roof, undercut gallery and four-bay facade with doors in the two central bays. The larger Biloxi Cottage is generally characterized by a hip or gable-on-hip roof, which, on the facade, extends outward from the building to create an undercut gallery. Like the Creole Cottage, the Biloxi Cottage features a four-bay facade, most often pierced with two central doorways. The so-called American Cottage is larger than the other dwelling types and was popular among the city’s more prosperous residents. Like its New Orleans counterparts, these houses are constructed with a hip roof, an undercut gallery and a symmetrical five-bay facade with a central entrance often surmounted by a transom. The decorative millwork applied to the porches and galleries of these homes was most likely purchased from a Biloxi sash, door and blind company, the T. J. Resell Manufacturing Company (Guice, p. 28).

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