While in New Orleans, I saw more than just the abandoned Charity Hospital and Harper manhole covers. In fact, I toured for the first time a few properties on the famed River Road, once lined with grand plantation houses all the way to Natchez. Many houses remain, showing the change over time from the relatively simple raised Creole cottages of the late 18th century and early 19th century to the more ornate center-hall mansions of the decades when the wealth of the cotton and sugar kingdoms exploded, and the American influence rose in the region.
Our group toured three distinct plantations (and all were at one time working plantations, unlike most of our Natchez mansions, which were more often suburban estates). We started with Destrehan, an interesting Creole house with its original double-pitched hip roof (1790), that expanded with “garconnieres” in 1805, and was remodeled in the Greek Revival style around 1840. In the 20th century, it became the offices of an oil and gas company, which did some modernization, but was eventually acquired by the then new River Road Historical Society and has been undergoing continual restoration since 1978. One room has been left without the plaster, so you can see the structure (I don’t usually like this, but in this case I think the plaster had already been removed, or mostly so), and in that room, they had one of the original columns from before the “Big Column” remodeling of the 1840s, and a nicely done scale model of the house and its structural timbers. In addition to the main house, Destrehan has a number of outbuildings, although I believe the two slave quarter buildings were moved to the site more recently. (As usual, I was concentrating too much on taking pictures and not enough on what was being said.)
We crossed the Mississippi River to spend some time at the famous Oak Alley plantation, where the oaks, which pre-date the house by almost a century, are as much a part of the show as the mansion. The house itself (completed 1839) seemed very Mississippian to me, with its wide center hall and robust Greek Revival style throughout. Although it didn’t have the double parlor like many of our Natchez houses do, it doesn’t need it, since its double gallery extends on all four sides–why be in the parlor when you could be out there looking at the trees? We weren’t allowed to take interior photos at Oak Alley, which, as you know, always annoys me, especially when the interior is as interesting as this one is.
To finish out our River Road tour, we stopped at Laura Plantation, which suffered a terrible fire only a few years ago. Looking at this house with just a glance, you might assume it’s a Victorian house from after the Civil War; in fact, that’s just what Eugene Cizek, restoration architect and our guide, believed until he had his preservation class from Tulane take a look at it for their studies. What he found was a very early (1805) Creole house which had been fancied up with a Victorian porch in the 1880s. Today, many of the architectural features of the 1st floor are reproductions based on extensive photographic documentation and measured drawings completed before the fire. One mantle on that floor was saved, and you can see the scars from the fire. Interestingly, this property is run by a for-profit group, which is unusual for historic house museums. Perhaps not coincidentally, they also had the best gift shop of the three, in my opinion. The tour here is focused on the Creole heritage of Louisiana, carrying us through several generations of the Duparc family. Although I normally eschew genealogical accounts, I found this tour combined the story-telling method well with the house itself, and went into enough detail about the architecture to keep me interested.
On a separate tour led by Mississippi native Lake Douglas of LSU’s School of Landscape Architecture, I saw the Pitot House in New Orleans along Bayou St. John, so I think I have a good idea of how the Creole house forms differ from my more familiar Mississippi examples, and now whenever someone says something is “Creole” just because it’s really old, I’ll be able to correct them. It’s so nice to be able to correct people in the middle of polite conversation, isn’t it?