Ownership, engagement, and entrepreneurship : the gens de couleur libres and the architecture of antebellum New Orleans, 1820-1850

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2012-12

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Dudley, Tara Ann

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"Ownership, Engagement, and Entrepreneurship: the gens de couleur libres and the Architecture of Antebellum New Orleans, 1820-1850" examines the architectural activities of New Orleans' gens de couleur libres, or free people of color, and the historical, cultural, and economic implications of their contributions to nineteenth-century American architecture. Specifically, this dissertation explores the histories of two black Creole families engaged in the building trades and real estate in the antebellum New Orleans, emphasizing their activities as a process of building culture that created and supported ethnic and architectural identity on individual and communal levels. The years from 1820 to 1850 saw New Orleans become an important American metropolis and industrialized commercial center. Changes in architecture included the introduction of East Coast urban forms, the introduction of Federal and Greek Revival styles, and professionalization of the building trades and the role of the architect. The antebellum period provides a challenging framework in which to the view the architecture-related accomplishments of New Orleans' gens de couleur libres. They faced a paradoxical situation where the stability of New Orleans' economy and racial hierarchies could positively or negatively affect their success in building as well as owning and developing property. Still the gens de couleur libres' investments thrived as racial separation was becoming increasingly strict and enabled the gens de couleur libres to retain black and Creole control in the city. The members of the Dolliole and Soulié families were key players as builders, owners, and speculators. The gens de couleur libres contact with the built environment created a process of ownership, engagement, and entrepreneurship through which they established, maintained, and underscored their individual and community identities. This process forms the foundation for the organization of the dissertation and invites analysis of the meaning of the gens de couleur libres' influence on New Orleans' antebellum architecture on several levels: social meaning as architecture affected the welfare and relations of the community of free people of color; cultural meaning as architecture pertained to, and was derived from, the artistic and intellectual pursuits of the gens de couleur libres and transmitted from one generation to the next; and socio-economic meaning as architecture affected the production, distribution, and use of wealth for individuals and in the gens de couleur libres community at large. Approaching the study of architecture through a set of diverse lenses including social networks and real estate speculation alongside building design and construction, this dissertation interjects the legacy of the gens de couleur libres into American architectural history.

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