Southern Charmers

Grand old plantation homes near New Orleans are open for tours as well as overnight stays.


May 16, 2004|By Tom Uhlenbrock | Tom Uhlenbrock,St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Twenty years ago, Kevin Kelly ended his paid tour of Houmas House by tossing a quarter into a wishing well fashioned from a huge, sugar-cane syrup kettle.

"I wished that one day I'd own a plantation," Kelly recalled.

Wishes do come true.

Kelly, a 48-year-old bachelor from New Orleans, has done well in shipping and real estate. Last May, he returned to Houmas House and bought the 21-room Greek Revival mansion in Darrow, La.

Another of the grand old houses of the Deep South was saved.

Houmas House was built in 1840 and named for the land's original inhabitants, the Houmas Indians, who had a woman as their chief. Known as "The Sugar Palace," the plantation had 300,000 acres, making it the country's biggest.

Before the Civil War, Louisiana was said to have 140,000 slaves working on 1,600 plantations. The great houses lined both sides of the Mississippi River from Natchez, Miss., to New Orleans. This was the richest area in America.

But with their work force freed after the war, the owners no longer could afford their lavish lifestyle. Most of the columned mansions and Victorian castles fell into disrepair. Some burned, with only the columns left standing. Some were swallowed by vegetation.

Today, a drive along the River Road features the survivors, many of which, such as Houmas House, open their doors to tours or welcome overnight guests. The most famous may be Oak Alley, which has 300-year-old live oaks shading the lane out front and five bed-and-breakfast cottages out back.

With each plantation comes a story, sometimes told by the heirs of the original builders of the houses, who still live there, or by the descendants of the slaves, who still work there.

A marker at Oak Alley lists an inventory of the plantation's slaves in 1848 and their values. Prince, a 34-year-old carpenter, was worth $1,500. Marie, 69, "cook for the Negroes," was a mere $50.

Kelly became the seventh owner of Houmas House after the descendants of the doctor who owned it previously decided they no longer could afford to maintain it. They auctioned off the furniture and put the house on the market with an asking price of $2.95 million.

Kelly spent millions more restoring the eight-bedroom house and gardens amid the 35 acres. He also spent another fortune on art and antiques to furnish it.

"I went on a buying spree," he said. "What made it easy is the economy has been so bad for many of these plantation houses. I was able to go in and buy a lot from the houses in Natchez."

Back to the Old South

To start our tour, we left Interstate 55 at Jackson, Miss., to drive to the southern end of the Natchez Trace Parkway. With no billboards and no commercial traffic, just farm fields, swamps and forests filled with tall pines, shiny magnolias and moss-draped oaks, the two-lane blacktop set the mood for a visit to the Old South.

The first stop on our plantation tour was St. Francisville, La., and the Butler-Greenwood Plantation. The house was built in the 1790s, one of the earliest still standing. Eight charming cottages, including the original detached kitchen and cook's cabin, are behind the house and rented to visitors.

"Bed-and-breakfasts are going to be the salvation for a lot of these plantations," said Anne Butler, the house owner. "You cannot make it on tours alone. These old places are bottomless pits."

Our cottage had a kitchenette, two bedrooms with baths and four-poster tester beds, a room with a whirlpool tub and a sitting room with a fireplace. Rain began to fall as we sat on the back porch swing and watched geese, ducks and a peacock named Humphrey fuss around a small pond. A chill sent us inside, and we lit the wood waiting in the hearth.

"The house has never been out of the family; my children are the eighth generation to live here," Butler said at the start of a tour. "This area was settled by the English; this is English cottage-style architecture. It's not until the second or third generations that you get the big Greek Revival houses."

The formal parlor held a 12-piece set of Victorian rosewood furniture with the original upholstery, bought in 1861 at a cost of $467.50. "This house has had a lot of children raised in it, and they knew how to act around fine things," Butler said.

Butler is an author and recounts in one of her books how her estranged husband, a prison warden, shot her five times on the porch of the house. Thinking she was dead, he sat down and had a drink.

But that's another chapter in the house's colorful history.

Cotton baron's home

The state has provided the salvation for another important plantation near St. Francisville.

Daniel Turnbull was a cotton baron who was one of the richest men in America before the Civil War. He used his fortune to buy 3,455 acres and build Rosedown, a two-story, seven-bedroom mansion named for a play he and his wife, Martha, saw on their honeymoon.

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