Louisiana's Most Glorious Antebellum Mansions
As historical sites, these homes have few equals in American history. Yes, they have some roots in a dark chapter of our past, but they have existed another 150 years beyond those painful days, well after the economic system that built them had collapsed. Hundreds of similar examples were lost to neglect. The story of how these survived until today carries new lessons about the preservation efforts of subsequent generations who made sure that evidence of our origins was not erased. Seeing these mansions helps visitors connect with the realities of American history in a way no history book can do, making them worthy of inspection on their historical merits. But even taken on face value, they remain, as they were then, idealized fantasies of what people have always imagined Deep South living to be.
Oak Alley Plantation, Vacherie
Oak Alley Plantation, Vacherie
Madewood Plantation, Napoleonville
Located near the banks of Bayou Lafourche in Napoleonville, Madewood is a prototypical Greek Revival mansion, completed in 1846. Materials and woodwork (like the curving walnut staircase in the foyer, pictured) came from the property, hence the its name. Back then, its master was Col. Thomas Pugh, a wealthy sugar cane planter, who owned a string of plantations in the area. He died of yellow fever before he could live in it, and his widow saved it from destruction in the Civil War by using its lawns as a military hospital. Today, other historic buildings have been moved to the grounds, and it's attached to Charlet House, the home of an early-19th century riverboat captain. Now it's an upscale B&B with a literary bent. Anne Rice's "The Wolves of Midwinter" was inspired by a Christmas celebration she attended there, and for a half century, it has belonged to Keith Marshall, a Rhodes Scholar and erstwhile philosopher who writes "How's Bayou?", a regular column about life in Madewood.
Evergreen Plantation, Edgard
Evergreen Plantation, midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, is the most intact plantation complex in the South, comprising 37 buildings. Astonishingly, 22 of them are slave cabins (pictured), which were usually the first to disintegrate and disappear. On countless properties, historians often aren't even positive exactly where slave cabins stood, but here, there are nearly two dozen examples. You can also see such rarities as a "pigeonnier" (an outbuilding where pigeons were reared) and the "garconière", where bachelors would stay. The complex is on the National Register of Historic Places, and it also has landmark status for its agricultural importance, and yet it's still a working sugar cane plantation. 90-minute tours are offered three times a day from Mondays through Saturdays.
Bocage Plantation, Darrow
This prim jewel box of a house outside New Orleans, a novel mix of Créole and Greek Revival architectural styles, was a gift from a French-born indigo and cotton planter to his 14-year-old daughter upon her wedding to a man who had escaped the guillotine in the French Revolution. That this house survives at all is astonishing, since it shuffled owners or stood derelict for nearly 70 years while most of its neighbors near the banks of the Mississippi River were torn down to make way for factories and levees. Now the 110-acre property serves as a bed and breakfast (you can sleep in the Blue Room, pictured) and as a wedding locale, and it's owned by a Houston pathologist, who bought it furnishings and all. It also stood in for the home of Alfre Woodard's character in "12 Years a Slave" (2013). You don't have to be a guest to see it, since it also grants tours.
Oak Alley Plantation, Vacherie
The majestic "tree tunnel" is an icon of antebellum mansions, and Oak Alley's has two of the best. Those oaks, which approach both the front and the back (pictured) of the manor, probably predate the house by nearly a century. If it seems impossibly gentle and beautiful, that makes sense, because Oak Alley itself was in many ways a mirage that crumpled under its own weight. Its French-speaking, Louisiana-born owners, the Romans, (who called it "Bon Sejour") had trouble keeping up with its extravagance. Marie Thérese Celina Roman drove the plantation into the red in the 1850s, and when slaves were released from its bondage in the 1860s, it couldn't balance the books in the new economy. Celina's son Henry had to sell it at auction. Tellingly, it was bought by an industrialist, and then by a string of investors who lived elsewhere while the "Big House" fell apart. Nobody could make such an unrealistic property work; in 1924, the owners lost it when one of their cows caused a train to derail and they lost the ensuing lawsuit. Since 1966, it has been restored and preserved by a non-profit foundation. Now, the property stays financially afloat with a blend of history and tourism: Christmas events (featuring elaborate, period-appropriate decorations made of fruit), craft fairs, a restaurant, ghost walks, and cottage stays draw visitors to a sort of postcard-perfect theme park of antebellum fantasy.
Nottoway Plantation, White Castle
Once the nerve center for John Hampden Randolph's sugar empire, the 64-room Nottoway, completed just two years before the Civil War broke out, has reinvented itself as a luxury complex for weddings, meetings, and luxury B&B stays. Randolph wanted nothing less than to own the best "castle" on the Mississippi, with every detail of its 53,000 square feet designed for boasting, and today it's the largest antebellum mansion in the South. The facade is a forest of 22 tall columns, doors are 11 feet high, ceilings are adorned with 4,200 yards of ornate frieze plaster, and there's even a bowling alley. The oval White Ballroom (pictured) is done in pure white as a symbol of absolute power. The message is hard to miss; its haughty purity was not meant for the people who toiled in muddy fields and actually made Nottoway run. Of course, they're the ones who built this room in the first place.
Shadows-On-The-Teche, New Iberia
Shadows-on-the-Teche is a Louisiana Colonial-style house museum and the first National Trust for Historic Preservation site anywhere on the Gulf Coast. Located in the town of New Iberia, this white-columned brick building was constructed between 1831 and 1834 by a sugar planter who died before he set foot in it, leaving it to his widow Mary and their six young children. During the Civil War, it served a split role: A Federal general occupied the first floor as a command center while Mary and her three remaining slaves, Louisa, Charity, and Sidney, cowered together upstairs (the other slaves had been rushed to Texas, where it was hoped the United States government wouldn't seize them). Mary died there before the war ended, and she's buried in the garden. The Shadows is rare in that it possesses some 17,000 pages of documents about the lives of the people who have lived in it over the years, including the identities of the "moveable property" and "servants" (i.e. slaves), who were there.
Houmas House, Burnside
The Houmas House was started by a Revolutionary War hero, General Wade Hampton, but it was completed in 1828 by his daughter, the wife of a major sugar planter. An Irishman named John Burnside bought it in 1857 for $1 million and made it into the largest sugar production outfit in the country, which at its peak measured 300,000 acres. Now just 38 exquisitely gardened acres are left, but the current owner, blustery Kevin Kelly, lavishes it with a similar, modern-day version of extravagance. He bought it for $3 million in 2003—in adjusted dollars, that was cheaper than what Burnside paid 150 years earlier (and Kelly never misses a chance to remind guests about what a steal he got). The Lost Cause is now Kelly's gain. He turned his investment into a cottage industry of genteel antebellum kitsch, encouraging plenty of gift shop sales, cottage stays, and mint juleps-and-hoop skirts theatricals for the benefit of visitors, some of whom are whisked up from New Orleans, 60 miles east.
Laura Plantation, Vacherie
Laura Plantation was built smack on the Mississippi, 50 miles west of New Orleans, in 1805. The name was originally Duparc Plantation, after the Frenchman who ran it during the slave years, and the low-slung Creole-styled mansion was built more out of practicality than out of a desire to impress peers. After emancipation, it was run as a sugar business with paid employees by the hardy Laura Locoul Gore, who was more salt-of-the-earth Créole than will-o'-the-wisp Scarlett O'Hara. Gore eventually published a book, "The Memoirs of Laura," about her years there, but it's not the only literature that has roots at the plantation that now takes her name. It's said the African-American folkloric yarns about Brer Rabbit were first set down to paper after being heard here. Unlike in some other idealized Greek Revival Big Houses elsewhere on Louisiana's plantation road, Laura Plantation's curation shows a clear interest in telling the uglier truths about racism and the hard bargain of being atop the antebellum agrarian system. The Big House was badly damaged in a fire and restored, but six of the 69 original slave cabins remain (pictured).
Melrose Plantation, Melrose
Some plantations, like Melrose, were built by free black men. In 1832, Louis Metoyer, an African-American who was born free, built Melrose, then called Yucca Plantation, and he employed both free blacks and freed slaves in his farming business. Not all plantations fed off of slavery, but all of them did run on grueling work. The many curious surviving outbuildings are testament to rough industry. The African House, made similarly to a Congolese hut, is said by some architects to owe its form to the people who constructed it. Eventually, Metoyer went broke, and the land of his dominion came to be dominated by Jim Crow laws. Everything unexpected and momentous about Southern history can be contained under this roof in north central Louisiana. One-hour tours are conducted Tuesday to Sunday.
Rosedown Plantation, St. Francisville
How's this for extravagant: Rosedown Plantation was named after a play the owners saw on their honeymoon, when they sailed abroad for a Grand Tour of Europe. At its peak of cotton production, it commanded approximately 3,455 acres, a tenth of which remain today, and kept 450 enslaved people. They kept the owners, Daniel and Martha Turnbull, in the comfort to which they were accustomed. That made the Turnbulls one of the richest couples in the country by the time of the War Between the States. The home they left behind was restored in the mid-20th century by an oil heiress, and today it's prized for being a remarkably intact, well-documented specimen from those days. As a consequence, the state of Louisiana controls and protects it. The 18 acres of pleasure gardens were groomed to rival Versailles, and the beauty of the imposing, 660-foot-long alley of oak trees belies the suppression that created it: It was made when Martha forced her slaves to walk in front of her, digging trenches, while she walked behind, dropping acorns where she wanted a tree to grow.
San Francisco Plantation, Garyville
In the old days, Louisiana was malaria country, and yellow fever and tuberculosis also lurked under the steamy Spanish moss, waiting to steal people regardless of their social class. Today, an oil refinery sits where San Francisco's sugar fields used to be, looming as if it's about to steal this peculiar structure. In fact, that encroaching oil company now owns and protects the property, a National Historic Site. This pastel-hued amalgam, built by a man who died almost as soon as it was finished, definitely isn't your stereotypical Big House. Inside are 14 rooms filled with a truly exceptional collection of antiques, plus gorgeously intricate paintwork of faux marble, faux wood, and eye-popping hand-painted ceilings. The costumed docents are passionate about the story, but the looming presence of the oil works, plus the modern levee that has devoured the once-expansive lawn, reminds you how imperiled our history can be in the face of progress. It's a 45-minute drive west of New Orleans.