Bayou Beauty: A Southern Cottage Home

A little love and tenderness—and a lot of hard work—turn a dilapidated Creole cottage into a soulful, sustainable retreat.

| March/April 2007

When Madeleine Cenac looks out her bedroom window each morning, the view into the garden fills her with joy. Throughout the day, she’s surrounded by earthen walls, charming vistas and beautiful antiques—all the result of careful, detailed planning aimed at creating her dream home. At the end of the day, she relaxes on the porch while gazing at the nearby lake through a grove of trees. “The entire house is a record of good decisions,” Madeleine says. “We really thought everything out.”

The house, Maison Madeleine, began its life centuries ago and miles away from where it now resides in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Its rescue from a dilapidated state was a full-time labor of love.

“I really wanted a sense of place for my children to come home to—to feel,” Madeleine says. “I wanted a place that would give them roots, solidity and a sense of history.” She already owned a piece of property near Lake Martin, where a rookery attracts thousands of birds each spring. Because of her love for antiques and old things, she wanted to find a historic house that she could move onto her land to restore.

Madeleine and her partner Mark de Basile hit the jackpot when they found a small cottage built during the 1800s in the Acadian style, which blends native American and French colonial influences. No one had inhabited the deteriorated structure since the 1920s. “The house was virginal,” she says. “It had never had electricity; we were the first to turn on a light bulb there. It never had indoor plumbing. It had only been painted twice. But it was easy to see it had good bones.”

The house’s structure was a heavy timber frame called colombage, with strong, simple mortise-and-tenon joints. Exterior walls were filled in with bousillage, a type of wattle-and-daub made with local mud and cured Spanish moss. (Wattle-and-daub is a construction technique in which a woven latticework of wooden stakes is covered with a clay- or mud-based mixture to form a wall.) Interior walls were filled in with brick. The interior was finished with plaster, and lap siding protected the exterior. In accordance with the French style, a brick fireplace anchored the middle of the house, open to rooms on both sides.

In short, the cottage was a classic example of vernacular building, using indigenous building materials and techniques to keep its occupants naturally cool in southern Louisiana’s hot, humid weather. “These houses were built for the climate, so you’re not starting from scratch and trying to figure out what works,” architect Edward Cazayoux says. “It was area-appropriate, sustainable architecture to begin with. The challenge was to maintain the house’s historic charm and energy efficiency while updating it for 21st-century living.”

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