The Crown Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road


 

I love the South! Several years ago my hubby and I went to Baton Rogue, Louisiana, and 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 and New 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 crisscross 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.

       To two lucky readers who leaves a comment, I will send you your choice of an iBook of

              trade size copy of my latest Kasota Spring Romance “Out of a Texas Night”.

 

 

 
 
 
 
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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

25 thoughts on “The Crown Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road”

    • Hi Abigail. Glad to hear from you. Isn’t that interesting. As I reread my blog I realized I said “I don’t want to show my age but” then I mention can-cans! Well those who don’t know about can-cans still have no idea my age, while those who wore them know exactly what era I came from. LOL I have a granddaughter named Abigail …. love the name. Have a wonderful day and thanks for leaving a message. Hugs from Texas, Phyliss

  1. The most interesting house that I have visited was the Hyde log cabin in Grand Isle vt. A one room house that housed 8 people.

    • Hi Charlene, so good to hear from you. We’ve spent a lot of time up in Vermont, since we had friends who lived there for a lot of years, but I don’t recall ever visiting the Hyde Log Cabin, but it sounds great. I need to ask them about it. My favorite place to visit up there is the Ben and Jerry’s factory and their “flavor cemetery”. Love it. Hope you have a wonderful day. Phyliss

  2. I visited a plantation in Nottingway when I was on a paddlewheel cruise – Wish I could show a photo – the father of daughters had two staircases leading up to the doors – the men were to take one, the ladies the other, so the men couldn’t see their ankles!

    • Hi Laura, so glad to hear from you. That’s so interesting about the staircases. Oh how I wish you had pictures to share. Maybe you can do a blog down the line on your experience with this plantation and a paddlewheel cruise. I love, love, love it! Wish I could have taken a cruise. Thanks for sharing, my friend. Big hugs and I hope you have a wonderful day. Phyliss

  3. Phyliss- Wow, what an interesting blog. I’d love to go visit it sometime. You could write a book about this beautiful mansion. Love you and have a great day my sweet Texas Friend.

    • Hi my friend, pleased to have you stop by and read my way too long blog, but I wanted everyone to get the feel of a plantation besides what we remember from “Gone with the Wind”. Many, many are just like the one in that story and this plantation is. It was such a great experience and I have lots of pictures. Wouldn’t a book be great. I only wish my Grannie was still alive because she was born and raised on her daddy’s plantation in Louisiana. The last time I looked at the almanac the town was still there…Womack Louisiana. After she married my grandfather they moved here. But man. do I ever have a story for her and my grandfather. She was a daughter of a plantation owner and my grandfather was building the railroad and was 1/2 Blackfoot Indian. Nobody knew the story of how they got together. I spent every weekend with them, but in “those days” nobody talked about stuff like falling in love;, but Tanya, I have a story for them in my mind I’m gonna write. Take care of yourself and I hope to see our Kansas friend as soon as all of this madness is over. Love and hugs, Phyliss

  4. This plantation home sounds amazing. I would love to visit it one day. I visited a few of the historic homes in Galveston one time and really enjoyed learning about them.

    • Hi Janine, so glad to hear from you. Oh how I love the homes in Galveston! We used to go down there and take a ferry over to Port Bolivar with our family. We’d rent a huge home. I love the watch tower on the island and have a book outlined about a woman lighthouse keeper and a sailor who came on shore and can’t leave, so she takes him in. The beach along Galveston and the Gulf is always so busy and the island was quiet with beautiful scenery and birds on the water. Thanks for reminding me. That’s one thing about doing a blog, it’s a give and take. Hopefully, I’ve given information of interest that’ll make you want to do or see something you hadn’t before and you guys always bring back memories for me. Thanks so much for this one. It’s beautiful in my mind. Hope you have a great day. Hugs, Phyliss

      • I never thought about staying on Bolivar Island. You did open up some new ideas for me. if we ever get to take a vacation again, I will look into that. We always did like going on the ferry too.

    • Hi Estella, good to hear from you. Not everyone gets to visit a plantation, but I’m glad I did. I bet there’s a lot of homes in and around your town that holds a ton of history if all the secrets could escape. Thanks for stopping by; and I hope you have a wonderful day. Hugs, Phyliss

    • Hi Debra, glad to hear from you. Oh, if I get a chance to go back up to New England, I’ll definitely put the Gillette on my wish list. I’ve never heard of him, so I’ve got to look him up. Sounds a lot like the Winchester House in California. Mrs. Winchester did all kinds of eccentric things to the house. She had an interesting story, and yes, she’s of the Winchester Firearms. Since we’ve got kids near there, we’ve visited several times. I’ve go to read up on Gillette. Already jotted down his information. Again, thanks. Hope you have a wonderful day. Hugs, Phyliss

      • Debra, I don’t know if you come back to read what I’ve written, but if you do, I checked out the Gilette Mansion. It’s definitely on my wish list and I have a cousin in Conn, who’s been dying for me to come up there. Moved to my “must do” list now. Thanks.

  5. I enjoyed your blog so much Phyllis. There is the Glensheen Mansion in Duluth, Minnesota that I have toured. The history was incredible! The University of Minnesota maintains the property. It sits along the banks of Lake Superior. Unfortunately, it was probably made famous by a murder which occurred there.

    • Hi Kathy, so good to hear from you. Pleased you enjoyed the blog. I haven’t spent any time in Minnesota, so I’m not familiar with the Glensheen Mansion. I’ve already written the name down, so I can read about it. A murder made it famous, sends a chill down my back. So interesting and it sounds like the scenery around it is beautiful. I’m definitely going to read more about. Again, thanks for reading my blog and hope you and yours are safe and you have a wonderful day. Hugs, Phyliss

      • Kathy, I don’t know if you’ll return to read my response or not, but the Glensheen Mansion sounds so interesting. I read up on it and the history is fantastic. Gotta see it, if I ever get to visit Minn. Thanks, the history was very fascinating.

  6. When I visited our daughter’s family in Charleston SC, we visited a plantation house. I think it was called Draper, but not sure. It was not completely restored but still fabulous and the history gave me a sense of what Southern life must have been like in the mid 1800’s before the war. Of course Charleston has a lot of historic houses.

    • Hi Alice, so good to hear from you. I think I’ve heard of the Drake House but don’t recall visiting it. I bet you did get a view of what life was like before the Civil War. I’d love to spend time in Charleston and visit every mansion that I have time to see. Thanks for stopping by and hope you have a wonderful evening. Hugs, Phyliss

  7. I have been to Houmas House. My husband’s grandparents took us there when we visited in ’93. Then they gave us a coffee table book of all the plantations along River Road and in other areas of Louisiana. It was a beautiful place to visit.

    I have visited so many historical homes over the years… Mount Vernon, Monticello, du Pont mansions, Middleton Place, Victorians in Cape May, etc… each one has something special.

    denise

  8. The Swan House as it’s called in Atlanta is an interesting platation. My favorite movie is Gone with the Wind and I imagine Scarlett O’Hara flitting around the mansion.

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