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Searching for region’s historic, French vertical log homes — and preserving them

Jesse Francis has worked his whole career to preserve historic French vertical log homes.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Jesse Francis has worked his whole career to preserve historic French vertical log homes.

The St. Louis area’s storied French past is well known — but do you know much about historic French architecture in the region? On Monday, St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh discussed the hallmarks of traditional French architecture, the vertical log home, with Jesse Francis, the cultural site manager for the St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation.

Francis recently co-authored “Vanishing French Heritage: A Complete Study of the Vertical Log Homes of the Illinois Country.” He has also restored and catalogued French structures in the Midwest since 1982.

Francis first started with the Bequette-Ribault House, in Sainte Genevieve, with co-author Jack Luer, while he was a historic preservation student at Southeast Missouri State University. That house is part of the lands that the National Park Service has recommended be included in the national park system, as was announced earlier this year.

The vertical log homes are vanishing, said Francis.

Credit Vanishing French Heritage
Francis' book, "Vanishing French Heritage."

“When we look at them and try to find them, there’s not as many as there used to be,” Francis said. “St. Louis would have had 250 at one time, you won’t find one now. Most of them that are left are generally homes. We did a major search for barns but can’t find any. If you know of any, let us know.”

Francis started a massive search for structures that were at risk of being demolished or in bad shape—that list grew into what would eventually become his book. After complaining about the unfortunate situation that these log homes were in for enough time, a colleague told Francis and Luer to “do something or be quiet.” Thus, the book was born.

The homes can be quite difficult to identify — and their original vertical woodwork is often covered up by siding or additions to homes. Francis said that such homes usually have a stone foundation, have a front and back porch and look like they have been sitting in one place for quite some time.

The vertical logs themselves are a dead giveaway — it is a French style of architecture you’ll only really find along the Mississippi River. The earliest construction technique of these houses is referred to as “post in the ground,” because of the posts used to hold the structure up. There are only four such structures that have survived to today in the United States and three of them are in Sainte Genevieve.

These structures used to exist in St. Louis, but not anymore. A couple of years ago, archeologists working below the Poplar Street Bridge uncovered the first physical evidence of French homes in St. Louis dating back to the city's founding in 1764.

The historic Bequette-Ribault House in Ste. Genevieve was restored in 2014.
Credit Chaumette Winery and Vineyard
Chaumette Winery and Vineyard
The Bequette-Ribault House, in Sainte Genevieve.

“The thing that happens is progress,” Francis said. “When St. Louis was growing and developing, when the Iron Mountain railroad started bringing all the ore up to St. Louis, Sainte Genevieve slowed down. It didn’t grow. If it doesn’t grow and develop, you don’t tear down old houses and create new houses.”

After the great fire of 1848, in St. Louis, building vertical log homes was banned. Archaeological remnants and old maps alert us to the existence of such houses, however.

Today, Francis is the Cultural Site Manager for Faust Park Historic Village in St. Louis County. Listen to the full conversation, with examples and stories about the various surviving houses in the area here:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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