Houmas House Plantation … “The Sugar Palace”

I love the South! During a recent visit to Baton Rogue, Louisiana, I visited the South’s oldest and most beautiful plantation estates the renowned “The Sugar Palace” Crown Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road the Houmas House Plantation and Gardens situated between Baton Rogue andNew Orleans. Although I was familiar with the Southern Plantations of yesteryear, I was astonished at the beauty and mystic of this now thirty-two acre estate with it’s five hundred year old oaks, scenic bridges, and pathways that criss-cross the former sugar plantation. Some of my blog today will be facts as I interpreted them during our tour.

Warning:  This is a bit longer blog than I usual do, but there’s just too much to tell you all and I want you to enjoy my adventure.

French Explorer LaSalle first landed at this site in 1682 and described The Houmas Indians and the great herds of bison on the river banks surrounding the Houmas Village.  By the 1720’s, French settlers acquired a Spanish Land Grant and were living there amongst the indigenous Indians, in the fertile plain between the Mississippi and Lake Maurepas to the north.

The Houmas sold the land to Alexander Latil in the mid 1700’s and he immediately began construction of the two story brick dwelling (now the rear wing of the mansion).  Wade Hampton, the largest sugar producer in Louisiana and the largest slave holder in the South, built the present mansion in the late 1820’s, making Houmas House one of the first great columned mansions on the Mississippi River.

The original French Provincial house erected by Latil is situated directly behind the “Mansion”, adjoined by a carriageway to the grand home described during its antebellum heyday as “The Sugar Palace.”  The original home was later used as living quarters for the staff that served the great house.  The day we were there, they were having a wedding, so we had lunch in the beautiful Café Burnside overlooking the beautiful fountain and gardens.

In 1810, Revolutionary War hero General Wade Hampton of Virginia purchased the property and shortly thereafter began construction on the Mansion. It wasn’t until 1825 when Hampton’s daughter, Caroline, and her husband, Col. John Preston, took over the property that the grand house truly began to take shape.

Irishman John Burnside, assumed ownership of the plantation in the mid-1850’s for a whopping $1 million. After purchasing the property, he began accumulating sugar cane plantations and became the largest sugar planter in America, boasting over 300,000 acres giving him the title “The Sugar Prince of Louisiana”.  A businessman and a character, Burnside increased production of sugar until Houmas House was the largest producer in the country, actively working the crop on 98,000 acres. During the Civil War, Burnside saved the Mansion from destruction at the hands of advancing Union forces by declaring immunity as a subject of the British Crown. In addition to building a railway to carry his products to market —“The Sugar Cane Train (1862)” — Burnside, a bachelor, is also said to have offered payment to any parents in the parish who would name their sons “John.”

An avid sportsman who wagered heavily in horse races, Burnside once secretly purchased a champion thoroughbred back East with the intent of defeating the steeds of fellow local businessmen in a big race. He quietly slipped the racehorse into the billiard room of the Mansion where it was “stabled” until Burnside’s surprise was unveiled at the starting line and hailed in the winner’s circle.

Houmas House flourished under Burnside’s ownership, but it was under a successor, Col. Williams Porcher Miles that the plantation grew to its apex in the late 1800’s when it was producing a monumental 20 millions pounds of sugar each year.

In 1927, the Mississippi roared out of its banks in the epic “great flood.”  While Houmas House was spared, the surrounding areas were inundated. I learned on the tour that there was originally a tunnel of ancient trees that rose from the banks of the Mississippi up to the Houmas House, thus creating a wind tunnel and kept the house cool.  After the flood, many of these trees were destroyed and a levee was built to protect the property.

The plantation then withered away, fell into disrepair, and closed. It remained that way until 1940 when Dr. George B. Crozat purchased it to be a summer home away from his native New Orleans. He renovated the property with the intent to give it a more “Federal” look than the stately Greek Revival style in which it was conceived. The structure was painted white inside and out. Crown moldings and ceiling medallions were removed and both interior and exterior forms and finishes were simplified.

Eventually, the Crozat heirs opened the property to tourists. In 1963, the defining Bette Davis film Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was shot on the property. The room in which Ms. Davis stayed while filming is preserved as part of today’s Houmas House tour.

When New Orleans businessman and preservationist Kevin Kelly fulfilled a lifelong dream by purchasing the home in early summer, 2003, he set about recreating the experience of encountering Houmas House circa 1840. He still resides on the property.

There were a few things I’ll never forget and one would have to see to visualize. The mansion’s faux marble exterior is painted in rich ochre which reflects the influence of Mediterranean villas owned by the wealthy Europeans that the southern planters emulated. The belvedere that crowns the house has been restored, and interior features and finishes have been reinstalled in their original form. The twin Garconierre that distinguish the property have been renovated, and the central hallway of the grand house bears a room-size mural with a sugar cane motif that characterizes the original entryway artwork common in many plantation homes along the Mississippi.

But, the most interesting of all to me from a writer’s view point is Col. John Preston’s 1847 Louisiana Census Map by LaTourette that was found in the attic in the 1980’s.  Yes, 1980’s!  It was preserved because it was stored in native cypress, which is totally unaffected by moisture, varmints, including termites, and other elements that would have destroyed it.  According to our tour guide, if this map had gotten into the hands of the Union they would have known the location of every plantation in Louisiana, but without it all they could do was guess and roam around the bayous and swamps. It’s my opinion, with my writer’s imagination, that very likely this is the reason the Civil War didn’t reach Texas until a month after the war was over.

Oh by the way, I learned from our tour guide that the men were not being rude when they ascended the stairs ahead of the women, but were being gentlemen, as it would be inappropriate for them to view the ankles of the women as they had to lift their skirts to go up the stairs. Very inappropriate.  Also, if a Southern Belle’s petticoats were showing, they were told “It’s snowing down South”.  I don’t want to tell my age, but I can remember being told that when we wore can-can petticoats.

I wonder in this picture, if Miss Scarlett knew it was snowing down South?

I’d love to hear about the most interesting house you’ve ever visited.

I’m giving away your choice of an autographed copy of any one of my anthologies to one lucky winner today!  Just leave a comment.  All six of our anthologies are available through BN.com and Amazon.com.

Phyliss
A native Texan, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Phyliss Miranda still believes in the Code of the Old West and loves to share her love for antiques, the lost art of quilting, and the Wild West.

Visit her at phylissmiranda.com
Updated: June 11, 2012 — 10:23 am

27 Comments

  1. On a HS trip to Washington DC and NYC we stopped to see Thomas Jefferson’s house. Oh the views were gorgeous! Felt the history

    Frank Lloyd Wright’s House On The Rock is amazing!
    Spring Green, Wisconsin The views, the perch, the design!!

    I’ve also seen two historical homes in Wisconsin The Old Wade House -Older home that was a stop over home as people traveled from place to place and The Maison in Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin fancy home of a wealthy logger? On the Mississippi River.

  2. Fascinating, stuff, Phyliss. I would love to see this house. My mind goes blank this morning when I try to remember houses I’ve visited (although I remember touring the White House with a two-year-old who was so rambunctuous that we were asked to leave).
    Wish I could spend more time in the South than I have. Such lush atmosphere and intriguing history. Thanks for a great blog.

  3. Phyliss, I love this blog–I remember watching that movie Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, and the theme song from it (my sister went around singing it constantly trying to sound like the singer–was it Patti Page?) Anyhow, this was a very interesting blog, and I’m so glad it’s been restored and you can go inside and tour. Probably the most interesting house I can remember going to was The Hermitage when I was about 10 or so. My dad planned for us to stop there ou the way out to Cherry Point to see my sister and brother-in-law on vacation. But the one I’m really looking forward to is Carnton, which is, if I’m not mistaken, the scene of the only major Civil War cemetery that is not owned by the government. I read a book several years ago called THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH by Robert Hicks, I think his name is, and it’s the story of this battlefield in Franklin TN and the old plantation (Carnton) nearby that was used as a field hospital. At the time the book was written, the museum in the plantation and the grounds were operated strictly on donations with no federal funding. That book was so fascinating that I have wanted to see that place ever since, so hubby promised on the way out to WV to his family reunion we will go there. I’m really excited about that! Thanks for a wonderful post–so interesting!
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  4. Laurie, all of your experiences sound wonderful. We actually have a Frank Lloyd Wright house here in Amarillo, which probably surprises most folks. But, of course, it overlooks prairie! I visited the Jefferson house once, but didn’t do a tour or anything. Thanks for stopping by and sharing with us. So interesting! Hugs, P

  5. Hi Elizabeth, how funny about being asked to leave the White House. I lost a daughter in the Smithsonian once, many years ago. I bet you have plenty of tales to tell.I can’t believe that I didn’t know that they used fruit, particularly pineapples and lemons as air freshners in Southern Plantations. The tour guide said that when a visitor came, a fresh pineapple was placed beside their bed and when it had to be replaced, it was time to leave. I think she was just joking, but I didn’t know about the significance of the pineapple. Needless to say, in the Panhandle of Texas, a pineapple would have never survived the trip north! I don’t think a yucca plant holds the same mystique! Thanks for stopping by, Fellow Filly. Hugs, P

  6. Phyliss, I’d have given anything to be with you when you toured this plantation. Wow! It’s something. I love those grand old plantations but it makes me a little sad. It’s a by-gone era of grandeur and grace and when proper etiquette ruled the day. Those people really knew how to live in style. It’s sad to see those plantations fall into ruin with often no care taken to preserve that bit of history at all. Makes me wonder what’ll be left for our great grandchildren of our generation seeing how quick we are to tear things down to make room for parking lots and things.

    I think the most interesting house I visited was in Jefferson, TX. They’ve done an excellent job of preserving those wonderful old houses of which ghosts are said to haunt. Clint and I stayed in an old hotel there called the Excelsior. I felt history all around me. But didn’t see any ghosts.

    See you tomorrow, lady. Looking forward to it.

  7. Enjoyed reading about Houmas House since I visited it back in the 80’s. I was amazed to learn that the woman of the house was only 14 years old when she married and moved there and the 4 poster bed was so tall, she had to have a step stool by it to get into bed. It was very interesting touring that plantation.
    I have also visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s house-Taliesin West here in Scottsdale, AZ

  8. Hi Cheryl, I’ve never visited The Hermitage, so I can only imagine how grand it is. No doubt if it’s something that still sticks in your mind after all these years (since you said you were 10 LOL), it has to be a very special place; particularly, visiting it with your family. I can also hear the tune to “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte” in my head; and it was WOW standing in the bedroom where part of it was filmed. You know how much I love the Civil War and cemeteries, so I bet I’d surely be fascinated by Carnton. I’ve got to order the book you recommended. Thanks, sister Filly, for stopping by and visiting today. Hope you have a fantastic day. Big hugs, P

  9. Since I live in the South, I have visited quite a few old historical homes. My favorites have been in Savannah and Charleston.

  10. Hi Linda B, I know you’re planning a plantation tour soon, so take lots of pictures and I can guarantee you that you’ll have plenty to blog about. One of the reasons my blog was longer than I’d like was really in an attempt to tell the whole story about how the grounds had gone into disrepair, but survived because of the current owner who still lives there. One of my biggest disappointments this year was when we visited Dodge City Kansas and how so much of the old town was torn down and there’s a parking lot in its place. An historical marker just doesn’t do the same as seeing the original buildings, but I’m sure the people behind the renovation of the area did what they thought necessary. The storefronts just don’t have that original feel. Or at least that’s the way I felt about it. And, so much history to be told, if only the original buildings were still around. It was a fun visit. I love Jefferson, Texas, too. Have any of you been to Pulpwood Queen’s down there? I don’t know if Kathy still has it going on or not, but RC Cola and Moon Pies are in the offering with lots of history. Thanks, sister filly and best friend for dropping by. Hugs, P

  11. I went in 1995 to Boone Hall Plantation outside of Charleston, South Carolina which was used for “North and South” and for “Queenie”. When I was in high school, I went with a class to Monticello. However, last Fall, I went to Malabar Farm in Lucas, Ohio which I thought was very, very nice. Bogey and Bacall were married there. It was was the country home of author Louis Bromfield.

  12. Loved the tour of Houmas House, Phyliss. I can just see your mind stirring with all the writing possibilities from your research. It reminded me of the plantations I researched in my historical, BECKONING SHORE. The rich scent of black Mississippi soil blending with the fragrance of magnolias, azaleas, and sweet gum tress that surrounded peach-colored marble mansions then traipsed down lane to the shoreline. Local folks call it “Millionaires’s Row.” Haunting beautiful with the trees covered in moss that looks like antique shawls. Certainly inspiring to a long time romance writer. Thanks for reminding me how beautiful how plantations are.

    –DeWanna Pace

  13. I never heard that line before about it snowing down south… It has been years since I went to any historical locations… it is amazing the sights one can see and all of the things one can learn… thanks for sharing!

  14. Oh, I forgot to tell you that was in Biloxi, Mississippi. –DeWanna

  15. Hi Phyliss, what a wonderful post. I’ve never been South other than Disneyworld area but going there definitely on my bucket list.

    Oooh, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte was one movie that scared me to death. That severed head rolling down the stairs. Still gives me shivers. And I too remember snowing down south. These days most of my slips are black, though, if I wear one at all LOL.

    Thanks for making me wanna get South sooner. xoxox

  16. Hi Joye, I missed the fourteen year old age, but the guide did talk about how high the beds were and the steps they had to use to get in bed. As I get older, the higher my bed is! My visit was with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law who lived in Baton Rogue 30’ish years ago, and they were surprised just how improved the property is today over what it was then. It is a lovely place to visit, but the humidity is a tad too much for me to want to live there; although I could force myself to live in the beautiful house!!!! Have a great day. Hugs, P

  17. Hi Lori, your trips sound wonderful. I’ve not heard of Malabar Farm in Lucas, Ohio, and my daddy was raised in Ohio. Interesting information. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for stopping by, Lori. Hugs, P

  18. Hi Cheryl C. I haven’t had the opportunity to visit the historical homes in Savannah and Charleston but it’s sure an area I’d like to visit more. I’m gonna put them in my bucket list. Thanks for stopping by today. Hugs, P

  19. Hi DeWanna, good to hear from you. Isn’t BECKONING SHORE one of your new rerelease as an Amazon e-book? Now, I’ve got to go back and reread it. You sure described the feel of the old southern plantations perfectly! Biloxi is another place I’ve been to, but never spent any time except at a casino. Oops, my bad for telling my secret. Thanks for stopping by friend. Big hugs, Phyliss

  20. Hi Colleen. Good to hear from you again. You’re probably much younger than I am, if you haven’t heard the phrase. LOL I was amused when I found the pix of Miss Scarlett with her petticoats showing. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. Hugs, P

  21. Tanya, sister Filly, you made me laugh. I have a whole drawer filled with slips…full mostly and some have some really fancy hems on them. I don’t remember when I’ve worn a full slip; not even a half one. But, I’m fixin’ to have to wear one next Monday evening because I’m gonna wear a dress for a skit at the WTAMU Writer’s Academy. Let’s pray it doesn’t “snow down south” on me! Hugs, P

  22. I would have loved touring the plantation. I love things like that. I don’t even own a slip. lol I can’t remember ever having a full one. I live in NY and that’s and I’ve never been anywhere South from here.

  23. Hi Cathy, maybe you’ll have an opportunity to visit a plantation some day. It is truly a treat, but then I love N.Y., too! You’ve got to be much younger than I am, if you’ve never owned a slip! You probably never worn a can-can either!! LOL Thanks for stopping by, and frankly, I hope you never have to wear a slip … they aren’t worth the trouble, because it means you have to wear a dress, something I haven’t done in years. Have a great evening. Hugs, Phyliss

  24. This trip through time was so interesting. I’ve always wanted to ride the boat that goes down the Mississippi and you can see many Mansions. Just know that would be great. I had a chance to visit a Mansion in Orange, Tx. , don’t remember the name, But, was after my knees were to bad for the climbing they said we’d need to do. I did visit an old mansion in Bartlesville, OK. once, with the Original furniture. Was so neat! Had the rooms roped off so people wouldn’t handle things. I have never been able to travel. Too broke. LOL I live in Houston Tx. area now. I’ve had Gardenias grow by a window and perfume the whole house. Neat to just pick a few for the baths and bedrooms. Didn’t need these room deodorizers like now. But, will get to see mansions in Heaven with my Lord one day! 🙂 Good visiting ladies.

  25. Hi Maxie, my sister-in-law who went on the tour with me lived in Baton Rogue 30’ish years ago, but now reside in Bartlesville! I’ll have to ask her about the mansion there. Very interesting. Thanks for the info. I love gardenias. I can relate to the bad knees and climbing, as we took the elevator to the second floor but walked down the stairs. Down seems a whole lot easier than up now days. Maxie, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Take care and a big Texas hug, Phyliss

  26. I can’t remember a time when I ever visited an old house of any kind. Guess I don’t get around much. Although I guess I did visit one in Danville but can’t remember the name of it. Will have to check it out.

  27. Phyliss, Thanks for an interesting post. This is a good week for history lessons at P&P. Visiting historic homes is a favorite of ours and we always try to fit it in on trips. Our last trip to New Orleans we visited Laura and Oak Alley Plantations. Had my first Mint Julep at Oak Alley. Much stronger than I expected, but good. Very different from each other and both interesting in their own way. My list of all the others I want to visit just grows. Houmus House is on the list and hopefully we will be down that way again so I can visit a few more of these grand plantations.

    A few years ago we visited the LBJ Ranch National Park. It was a bit of a surprise. It is a nice house, but just a nice family home. No pretense and nothing special except the lovely location and former tenets. It was obviously a home that was lived in and for the family, not the public. We enjoyed the settler farm park and Civil War era home nearby that we also toured. Best of all, we learned something at all of them.

    Thanks again for another place to put on my To Visit list.

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