Dale Pierrottie has helped restore the mud walls in four homes from the 1840s and four built in the 1790s, he said, but none as old as the LaPointe-Krebs House in Pascagoula.
It’s a rarity, the 1757 house, and he said he was excited to be working on it. Pierrottie is an expert in a very special type of mud-and-moss construction, called bousillage (BOO-see-ahsh), used by the Acadians and native Americans in the region more than 250 years ago.
J.O. Collins Contractor brought him in on the LaPointe-Krebs project this week to train the five-person crew so they can rebuild the walls of the oldest documented structure in this region. It’s also the oldest between the Appalachians and the Rockies and definitely the oldest still standing in Mississippi.
The house is unique because of its age and because of its construction: heavy timber frame similar to that built in England in the 1400s, with walls of bousillage and tabby — a special oyster-shell concrete.
But Pierrottie is a bit of a treasure himself. He’s a self-taught bousillage expert, an Acadian from Lafayette, Louisiana, who started working with the mud and Spanish moss mixture to fix a prop on the set of the 1986 movie “Belizaire the Cajun.”
A natural air conditioner
He researched the mixture, and kept researching. He has since learned from the oldest and best Acadians.
“He’s pretty much a one of a kind,” project foreman Maria Katsimanis said. “We’re lucky to have him.”
He knows the moss has to be cured or rotted before it goes into the mud. The mud can’t be too sandy. The moss strands have to be long to help the mud loaves hold together as they fold over the stays in the walls. These stays are slanted pieces between the huge timbers that support the roof.
He knows how to do it right. Drying is tricky; the mud mixture and texture is tricky; making holes so the plaster will adhere is essential. He knows it all and taught the team.
Bousillage walls are their own type of natural air conditioning in the Deep South. They absorb moisture from the night air, then in the day, when a breeze comes through, they cool the house, he said.
J.O. Collins had to coax Pierrottie out of Louisiana, and he stayed only two days.
Mixing mud and moss
On Friday, three of the contractor’s workers were in kiddie pools mixing blackened Spanish moss into red mud they were squishing with their feet.
Bradford Lawson, an expert himself in heavy timber construction, was in a pool with the best of them, making bousillage.
“It feels like when you were a kid in the river walking, and you feel the river bed,” he said of the technique.
Oddly enough, most of the work will be covered with plaster. But because the house is already becoming a study site, there will be patches of exposed bousillage for visitors to see, years from now.
The multimillion-dollar restoration is as authentic as possible. Every step is vetted by a panel of experts. And it’s moving forward.