Winding down the River Road just outside of New Orleans, Louisiana’s plantations offer a captivating journey back in time and have become a favorite filming spot for Hollywood South.
He stood back to look at it, in the glowing light of the afternoon sun. Yes, this was as he remembered it; only, now that he was closer to the mansion of his covetous recollection, it was even more impressive, even more splendid and desirable than he had been able to discern from afar … But it was not only this variety of embellishment that made the house before which he stood a marvel in his eyes; it was likewise the almost uncanny resemblance which it bore to the most magnificent of those floating palaces where he had founded his fortunes.” – “Steamboat Gothic” by Francis Parkinson Keyes
San Francisco Plantation was immortalized in New Orleans author Francis Parkinson Keyes’ 1952 book. In the forward, Keyes writes that she was driving from New Orleans to Baton Rouge one afternoon and an abrupt turn in the highway revealed a magnificent mansion. She had heard the term “Steamboat Gothic” and was finally able to witness its glory in person, knowing that she would someday write a novel about this house and its architectural style named after a floating palace.
Open for tours today, San Francisco Plantation is no less striking than it was in Keyes’ time. Rather than novels, it’s movies that are now keeping the intrigue and beauty of Louisiana plantations alive. Last year’s “Django Unchained” brought Evergreen Plantation to the big screen, and before that thrillers like “The Skeleton Key” and “Interview with the Vampire” showed viewers how mysterious and ethereal these homes can be. In just a few weeks, the story of Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave” will serve as a reminder of what was at stake to maintain the glory and wealth of these plantations.
In her book “Along the River Road: Past and Present on Louisiana’s Historic Byway,” Mary Ann Sternberg says she chafes at the area’s “Deep South stereotype of an antebellum plantation parade.” It’s true that driving the River Road, which covers approximately 100 miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, does present one plantation after another, some grand, others more modest and still others in ruin. But spend the night or even a few days in the area, and you’ll discover that traveling the River Road is a fascinating mix of history, culture, elegance and demise.
New Orleans Plantation Country currently consists of nine homes open to the public, with at least 10 other plantations, community churches, cotton fields and towns with names like St. Rose, Luling, Vacherie and Bayou Goula in between. Although not as visible as it once was due to the levee, the Mississippi River is still ever present here, the reason for settlement in the first place and becoming revived with steamboat traffic once again.
While most people picture a plantation home, also known as the “big house,” as having white columns, double porches and oak trees dotting the lawn, as San Francisco proves, their architecture and construction are actually much more varied. Tastes of the owners and varying degrees of wealth determined whether a plantation would be Colonial, Creole, Classical Revival, Gothic or pure antebellum in style – and whether the exterior would be pure white or much more colorful.
Revolt, Buried Treasure & Spirits
A good place to start your tour of plantation country is Destrehan, about 20 miles from New Orleans and the oldest documented plantation in the Mississippi Valley, established in 1787. Marked by an alley of oaks, Destrehan does sport a row of white columns and double porches in front but started out as a raised Creole mansion and was later remodeled in the Classical Revival style. The house is named for Jean Noel Destrehan, son of the original owner, and his extended family controlled the property until 1910.
This plantation is notable because of the slave quarters and tenant cabins on the grounds and its history as the trial site for the great slave revolt of 1811. Pirate Jean Lafitte is rumored to have been a frequent guest here and believed to have buried part of his treasure on the grounds. His shadow is said to haunt the house, along with Jean Noel’s son, Nicholas.
Destrehan’s architecture, slave history and resident spirits are all a good foundation on which to tour other homes, where slavery is certainly not forgotten and ghosts tend to linger long after their time is up.
Good Enough to Eat
Continuing down the River Road, Ormond is the oldest French West Indies style Creole plantation on the Mississippi and a great spot to spend the night among authentic antiques or just have lunch in the restaurant. Chef Richard Kiral serves up fried green tomatoes, fresh salads, seafood gumbo, turtle soup and white chocolate bread pudding for dessert. Request the Creole Stuffed Eggplant if it’s on the menu.
From Ormond, make your way down to San Francisco to witness the sight that so enthralled Francis Parkinson Keyes. This plantation’s riverboat connections are evident, but it’s also been said to resemble a giant layer cake. Handpainted ceilings, faux marble and faux bois inside are no less ornate, as a costumed guide leads you through two floors and 14 rooms filled with one of the finest antiques collections in the country.
Built by Edmond Bozonier Marmillion to provide his sons Valsin and Charles with a prestigious residence, construction on San Franciso was completed in 1845. Marmillion passed away before even getting to enjoy the home for a full year, and his son, Valsin, returned home from Europe to take over. It was Valsin’s wife, Louise von Seybold of Munich, Germany, who was responsible for the home’s lavish interiors and, inadvertently, the home’s authentic restoration in the 1970s. Letters written in German by Louise that described the home and its furnishings in great detail were found and translated so that they could be used as a guide to restore the home to what’s now called the Marmillion period.
Django Brings Slavery Back to Evergreen
Across the river lies Evergreen Plantation, the most intact plantation complex in the South with 37 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. It was this status the home shares with Mount Vernon and Gettysburg, along with Evergreen’s alley of 100 oaks and 22 slave cabins on the property, that attracted Director Quentin Tarantino last year. Parts of “Django Unchained” were filmed at Evergreen, which stands in for “Big Daddy”‘s (Don Johnson) house in the movie. Calvin Candie’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) house, Candie Land, was a model that was constructed in a back field on the property, and it was this model that Tarantino blew up for the final scene of the movie.
Tours of the charming house itself are available and reveal a modest, chintz-heavy interior and large collection of Creole paintings. Evergreen is also an example of a property that’s actually still lived in and used, serving as current owner Matilda Gray Stream’s country house outside of New Orleans. Sugarcane is still farmed on the grounds, which also include two garconnieres, two pigeonnaires and a kitchen building with original hearth and wood-fired oven.
Evergreen’s real treasure is toward the back of the property, accessible by a shell road and line of oaks, and can’t help but give you goosebumps. Archival records show that in 1835, 54 slaves resided in 12 cabins at on the plantation. After the Civil War, freed slaves continued to live in “the Quarters” until 1940, when sugar workers began to occupy them. Quarters like these that are preserved and original to a plantation are quite rare. Displayed on one of the cabins is the list of possessions original owner Pierre Clidament Becnel had in 1835 that includes his list of slaves with names like Celestin, Silvain, Appollon, Moses, Fanny and Cloe.
Tour guide Renee Natell has been at Evergreen since the home opened to the public 14 years ago and is a wealth of information. She talks about the duality of working at such a place and watching the plantation come to life again during the filming of “Django.”
“It was very emotional in a sense when everybody was dressed as slaves and you got the visual of them walking around on the grounds,” she says. “I could see what I’ve been talking about all these years. When you talk about slavery, you have to remove your heart. They never really leave the plantation.”
Creole Stories at Laura
Continuing down River Road, Laura sets itself apart as a colorful Creole plantation with a tradition of storytelling resulting from its slave cabins. Laura only becomes more impressive as you learn that four generations of women ran its sugarcane operation after owner Guillaume Duparc died, including Laura Locoul, his great-granddaughter.
With 11 structures listed on the National Register, Laura offers guests the chance to explore the Manor House, formal and kitchen gardens, Banana-Land grove (of banana trees) and authentic Creole cottages and slave cabins.Laura is also known for the West-African stories the home’s former slaves related to folklorist Alcée Fortier. Recorded at the slave cabins in the 1870s, the stories were later popularized in English and became the “Tales of Br’er Rabbit.” Fortier was friends with Joel Chandler Harris in Georgia, who adapted and recorded the “Uncle Remus” stories that remain favorites today and link Laura to Turnwold Plantation over 500 miles away.
St. Jo, Felicite & Le Petit Versailles
Much more traditional and painted a bright white, the raised Creole cottage of St. Joseph is the setting for “12 Years a Slave,” the true story of a free man of color who becomes enslaved on a Louisiana plantation, due out in theaters on October 18. Still a working sugarcane plantation, St. Joseph has remained in the same family, the Waguespacks, since 1877. Family members work at the home as tour guides, while others live in private homes on the property.
Although more modest than some other homes along the River Road, St. Joseph does feature a front gallery that measures 90 feet long and 10 feet wide and 11 slave cabins. Next door to the home is Felicite Plantation, not open to the public but recognizable from the 2005 movie “The Skeleton Key” starring Kate Hudson. The ruins and gardens of legendary property Le Petit Versailles are in the midst of a cane field near Felicite – the same field Tom Cruise landed his plane on when arriving to shoot “Interview With the Vampire.” The plantation of Valcour Aime, Le Petit Versailles was lavish and flamboyant, with its own botanical garden, private zoo, grotto with Chinese pagoda and artificial river. The house burned in 1920, but the property is denoted with a historic marker.
Famous Alley of Oaks
A little further down the road, Valcour’s brother-in-law Jacques Roman owned Oak Alley Plantation. Valcour was always trying to outdo Jacques, so it’s fitting that Oak Alley is now an attraction known around the world and Le Petit Versailles is no more. People travel just to see this property’s alley of oaks – 28 in all (a number that’s repeated in the home’s columns and doors) – and it’s this plantation that lays claim to “Interview With the Vampire.” A great spot to look down on Oak Alley is from the levee walking path that runs along the river. It’s a quarter-mile walk up the alley to the house, but this is the best way to gain the perspective of a steamboat visitor to Oak Alley in the 1850s and appreciate the almost 300-year-old oaks.
Inside, Oak Alley has been restored to its former glory but not before housing cattle during a time when the bank owned the property and longtime family the Stewarts, who retired and lived there for 47 years. Today, antique furniture from the 1830s, including a shoefly fan in the dining room that sweeps across the table to create a soft breeze while dining, original pineapple bed and bassinet that belonged to the Roman family, help restore the interior to its former elegance. The family cemetery also remains on the property, along with resident ghost Louise Roman, known as the “lady in black.”
The plantation’s new slavery exhibit, opened over the summer, completes the history of Oak Alley by detailing the individual lives of the slaves who lived and worked there through exhibits in six reconstructed quarters. “Every plantation had a different slave culture,” explains Director of Sales Hillary Loeber. “This exhibit focuses on the history of slavery at Oak Alley and those who were enslaved here rather than a general idea of slavery.” Slavery at Oak Alley will be a permanent stop on Oak Alley’s grounds tour.
Cottages near the mansion and a restaurant can extend guests’ stay at Oak Alley. The property itself closes at 5 p.m., but if you spend the night, you’ll be free to stroll the grounds when the stars come out and imagine what it was like to actually live – or make a movie – there. Brad Pitt stayed in cottage 3 during the “Interview” filming for about a week, and you can also spot Oak Alley in Beyonce’s music video for “Deja Vu,” movie “Primary Colors” and NBC’s 1985 version of “The Long Hot Summer.” Scenery, including a sugarcane field, on the property will also be featured in HBO’s “True Detective” with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in January.
Hush, Hush Houmas
Getting into Ascension Parish on the Baton Rouge side of River Road, Houmas House is a relaxing spot to wrap up a tour of plantation country. Once described as “The Sugar Palace” because of its status as the largest producer of sugar in the country, this sprawling estate includes 38 acres of lush gardens, the 16-room house, two restaurants, a bar, gift shop and 21-room inn.
Houmas House’s restored splendor is the vision of Kevin Kelly, a New Orleans entrepreneur who acquired the property in 2003. Its first owners were indigenous Houmas Indians, who sold the land to Maurice Conway and Alexander Latil, for which the restaurant Latil’s Landing is named. Owner John Burnside, a bachelor and avid sportsmen, is responsible for the property’s increased sugar production in the 1850s. In the 1940s, Dr. George B. Crozat bought the property as a summer home, eventually renovating the house and opening it to tourists. It was under his ownership that the filming of “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte,” starring Bette Davis, came to Houmas House. The room that Davis stayed in during the production is part of the plantation tour and features photos and memorabilia, along with a writing desk designed by Aaron Burr.
Following a tour of Houmas House, guests are encouraged to stroll through the many gardens, take their picture with a more than 600-year-old oak tree or grab a mint julep in the garconniere turned Turtle Bar. “The overall vision is to be a plantation destination, not just a day trip,” says Marketing Director Jesse Lambert.
And that’s true for all of plantation country. We suggest settling in, spending a night or two and giving yourself plenty of time to contemplate both the past and present in a location where the two worlds are truly intertwined. The lure of Louisiana’s plantations is almost indescribable, but Loeber, who’s worked at Oak Alley for 12 years, attempts to put it into words: “There’s something at Oak Alley that’s captivating,” she says. “I still look down the alley when I pass every day. Our trees are a big attraction, but next year we’ll be celebrating 175 years of the big house. That’s a lot of history and legacy.”
Plantation Country Map
Travel: While you could drive the River Road in a day, you’ll want to stop along the way, whether it’s to tour, have lunch, explore a roadside church or plantation ruins. Bikes are a great way to see the river along the levee, and a good spot to stop and either bike or walk is across from Oak Alley.
Keep an eye out for St. Charles Borromeo Church & Cemetery, known as the “Little Red Church,” which includes the Destrehan Family Tomb; Ashland/Belle Helene Plantation, the property of Shell Oil near Geismar, not open to the public but a filming site for several movies, including “Band of Angels” and “Fletch Lives”; St. James Parish Welcome Center in Gramercy, which has exhibits reflecting the history and culture of the parish and a replica of a bonfire structure used during the area’s popular Christmas celebration out front.
Dining: Ormond, Oak Alley and Houmas House also contain restaurants for dining whether you’re spending the night or not. Ormond Plantation Restaurant serves lunch Tuesday through Friday and dinner on Friday nights by reservation only. Oak Alley’s restaurant is open daily for breakfast and lunch. The Plantation Cafe is also open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. for snacks, ice cream, drinks and famous mint juleps. Houmas House includes several dining options, including Latil’s Landing open Wednesday through Saturday for dinner by reservation only, Le Petit Houmas Restaurant, which serves Sunday brunch, Cafe Burnside for lunch daily, and The Carriage House Restaurant and Turtle Bar, open daily for breakfast, afternoon tea and casual dinner by reservation only.
Get the recipe for Houmas House’s Bisque of Curried Pumpkin, Crawfish and Corn (pictured above) here.
There’s also Frenier Landing in LaPlace, specializing in seafood, steaks, sandwiches and oysters overlooking Lake Pontchartrain for lunch and dinner, and B&C Seafood in Vacherie for lunch with the locals. And for a sweet treat, stop by Jo’s Creole T-Cakes in Wallace for old-fashioned cookies made from a 150-year-old family recipe.
Detours: Cajun Pride Swamp Tours is a wonderful way to get on the water and see wildlife and cypress trees; Carville and the Gillis Long Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy) Center; River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville; and Nottoway Plantation if you’re headed to Baton Rouge.
Mark Your Calendar
Oak Alley Fall Arts & Crafts Fair
Destrehan Annual Fall Festival
Oak Alley Annual Christmas Bonfire Party
24th Annual Festival of the Bonfires
Lutcher Recreational Park
Oak Alley Christmas Brunch
Christmas Eve Bonfire Adventure
San Francisco Plantation
Want to learn more?
We recommend these plantation reads: “Steamboat Gothic” by Francis Parkinson Keyes, “Along the River Road: Past and Present on Louisiana’s Historic Byway” by Mary Ann Sternberg, “The Cutting Season” by Attica Locke, “Memories of the Old Plantation Home & A Creole Family Album” by Laura Locoul Gore, “12 Years a Slave,” the autobiography of Solomon Northup, and “The Haunting of Louisiana” by Barbara Sillery.
Photo Credits: San Francisco Plantation, Destrehan, Evergreen, slave cabins at Evergreen, Oak Alley and the Bette Davis Room at Houmas House courtesy of Louisiana Plantation Country; painted ceiling at San Francisco, Laura Plantation, St. Joseph porch, Houmas House, walking on the levee and swamp cruise by Deep South; Bisque of Curried Pumpkin courtesy of Houmas House.
Many thanks to New Orleans Plantation Country for hosting me for three days in May. Their hospitality was unbelievable, and Jo Banner’s cookies are truly delicious. Thanks also go to Cajun Pride Swamp Tours for providing an experience that is so much more than “Swamp People” and driver extraordinaire Terrell with Flagship Limousine.