Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Oak Alley, part 1

 Oak Alley Plantation has been on my list of places to visit for a long time and was one of the definite stops on my recent road trip.  It is now on my list of places to go back to visit again; I want to spend a night in one of their cottages and enjoy several meals in their restaurant!
The Big House

The Big House and its dependencies were built over a three year period between 1836-1839 almost entirely by slave labor using local materials.  The finishing touches such are marble mantles and floors were imported from Europe and no expense was spared.  Wealthy planter Jacques Telesphore Roman received the property in a plantation swap with his brother-in-law.  The house was constructed as a gift for his bride, Celina, who was 16 years younger and accustomed to the city life of New Orleans. Built in the Greek Revival style on a square, central hall plan the design is thought to have been drawn by Celina's architect father. The contractor was George Swainey.
After Jacques' untimely death in 1848 due to tuberculosis Celina tried to manage the plantation; however, as with most women of that time she had no training in managing a large sugar cane plantation. By the time their son, Henri, assumed control of the plantation in 1859 the plantation was almost bankrupt.  Despite his efforts the plantation still was not profitable, and Henri slipped heavily into debt.  The plantation was sold at auction in 1866 to John Armstrong for $32, 800, solely for its value as a sugarcane plantation and not for the house or dependencies.
These oaks pre-date the house by over a hundred years.  They were planted in the early 1700's by an unknown settler.  I have to wonder if he had actually built a house here or just planned on building.  The 28 oaks are spaced 80 feet apart and reach almost a quarter of a mile to the Mississippi River.  When the house was built the river was visible from the front veranda as the levee was significantly lower then.  When the early Capuchin Fathers arrived in 1722 to establish St. James Parish, the trees were described as being of mature size. 
Today at 300 years of age they are considered to be middle aged and are members of the Live Oak Society where each tree is registered and has its own name.  Miraculously the trees and the plantation escaped the fury of Hurricane Katrina, sustaining only minor damage.
Madame Roman had named her house Bon Sejour which means "Good Stay" (A Good Place to Stay), but as the tour guide explained it was always knows as Oak Alley because the river boat captains would tell travelers that when they saw the alley of oaks then they were half-way between Baton Rouge and New Orleans!
After a succession of owners the house had fallen into disrepair.  Fortunately, Mr. Andrew Stewart purchased the property in 1925 as a gift for his wife, Josephine.  She hired Richard Koch to perform an extensive restoration on the house that included portioning the rear rooms of the first floor and removing one of the roof dormers on the front and back of the house.  Mrs. Stewart choose the pale pink color for the exterior of the house as well as the blue green for the shutters and railings.  As is the custom of Southern houses, the ceiling of the veranda is painted a pale blue to abide by the tradition that the blue color will keep birds from building nests.
Mrs. Smith loved the out of doors, preferring to be outside gardening or riding her horse.  She was fond of the English style of gardens, particularly favoring boxwoods.  These are over 100 years old.  The building at the back of the picture is thought to have been the site of the original kitchen.  The Stewart's used this building as a garage for their cars.
to be continued...