Norbert Soulié was trained in architecture under Henry Latrobe, whose father, Benjamin, was an architect behind the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Soulié designed and built Creole cottages, Creole town houses, and Anglo-influenced row houses. In 1831, the Soulié family designed and built the Louisiana Sugar Refinery in Greek Revival style.
Hopkins, originally from Mobile, Alabama, says that in grade school he was taught the struggle of Black Americans and the history of slavery. “They didn’t teach us about free people of color,” Hopkins says. “Young people see the past and they’re angry, and they should be. We should all be angry. But there were people who weren’t slaves; they were Black and prosperous. It’s inspiring to know about this whole other side of this culture.”
While some of these homes remain modern-day residences, a few are open to the public. The Soniat House Hotel, one of New Orleans’s finest family-owned boutique properties, was designed by Francois Boisdore, a free man of color. The architect was commissioned by a white landowner to design a Creole town house and, later, a second one across the street. The Soniat House Hotel comprises both town homes and is pristinely restored. The Spanish wrought-iron balconies, curved, elegant staircases, and arched paths for horse-drawn carriages are just as they were nearly 200 years ago.
The Free People of Color Museum offers a wealth of information on free people of color in New Orleans, told by their descendants. The museum rests inside a grand white mansion built by the Cuban designer Benjamin Rodriguez in 1859. “The architecture designed by these Creole families and architect types had French, Spanish, and African influence, much of it by way of the Caribbean,” Del Sol says.
Enslaved people contributed greatly to the foundation of New Orleans, as did free craftsmen, masons, and millworkers. Del Sol adds, “The Black citizens who lived in New Orleans, by choice or otherwise, had immeasurable impact on the architecture of the city. There’s much evidence that shotgun houses, which are a symbol of our city, have origins in Africa.”
Hopkins adds, “This forgotten history is something to be very proud of. They were architects, they were building owners, and we can walk through the old quarters and still see their legacy today.”