Published Sep/Oct 2006

Louisiana’s Great River Road reveals plantation homes
that remember the Antebellum South.
Story and Photos By John Handley

They are like time machines, lining the Mississippi River in Louisiana, waiting to transport visitors back to yesteryear. They are the rambling plantation homes that were built in the glory days of the Old South before the Civil War.

Walk through their doors and you enter another era, when sugar cane and cotton were king, and when a third of the nation’s millionaires were Southern planters.

These 19th-century beauties can be viewed between New Orleans and Baton Rouge along the Great River Road, the collection of federal, state and local roads that follow the Mississippi River. Guides in hoop skirts tell stories of those that lived there, and each house reveals fascinating glimpses of the lifestyles of that time.

As New Orleans and Louisiana continue to rebuild tourism after last year’s devastating hurricanes, today’s less-crowded conditions may make this an ideal time to drive down memory lane on the Great River Road. The plantations are open for tours and they are gorgeous.

Nottoway Plantation

Overlooking the Mississippi, this magnificent mansion (30970 state Highway 405) was completed in 1859 in White Castle, La., some 60 miles west of New Orleans, by one of the richest men in the South, John Hampden Randolph.

His impressive white palace has 64 rooms in 53,000 square feet of living area, 200 windows and 165 doors. It even had two rare features–indoor plumbing and hot and cold running water.

The home survived the Civil War, thanks to the pluck and determination of Emily Jane Randolph, John’s wife. In 1862, when her husband was away, a Union gunboat fired in the direction of the house and Union soldiers camped on the front lawn. But Emily Jane refused to allow soldiers to take over her home, protecting her children and a few slaves with only a dagger tucked into her belt.

This home, open for tours, also operates as a bed-and-breakfast, and guests can experience Nottoway’s historic ambience by staying in one of its lovely rooms. For example, the Randolph Suite on the third floor of the mansion, overlooks the river and has a four-poster bed and wicker morning room.

Nottoway’s restaurant, Randolph Hall, is open for lunch and dinner. In December, a candlelight tour and champagne dinner will be offered.

Madewood Plantation House

Another stately mansion that has been converted into a bed-and-breakfast is Madewood Plantation House (4250 state Highway 308) in Napoleonville, La. Located about 45 minutes south of Baton Rouge, Madewood is 15 miles from the river, built on the banks of Bayou Lafourche.

Overnight guests can sleep in a canopied bed in a room decorated with antiques. The bathrooms are modern, but reminders of the past–such as chamber pots, a tin antique tub and 1840s wooden towel pegs–can be found. The 19th-century mood is enhanced by the lack of telephones and televisions in the rooms.

The white Greek Revival mansion was built in 1846 by Thomas Pugh, a sugar cane planter. It was bought and renovated in 1964 by Naomi and Harold Marshall. Their son, Keith, is the present owner.

“I consider it my home and every evening is like a house party,” Marshall says. Guests gather at 6 p.m. for wine and cheese, which is followed at 7 p.m. by a dinner of Southern specialties. Special event dinners, food, art and lifestyle seminars dot Madewood’s social calendar, and the Christmas Heritage Banquet is the second Saturday in December.

And like many of the other plantation homes, it has been used as a movie set. Brad Pitt rented a room to study his lines for an afternoon while filming “An Interview with a Vampire,” and guests today can ask for the Brad Pitt Suite.

Houmas House

Another mansion with star power is Houmas House (40136 state Highway 942) in Darrow, La. The 1964 horror movie, “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte,” with Bette Davis was filmed here. On tours of the Greek Revival house, guides always point out the Bette Davis bedroom.

Houmas House, located 30 minutes south of Baton Rouge, prides itself on its lush gardens and its dining options, including elegant Southern cuisine served at Latril’s Landing.

“I want to re-create the luxury side of the Old South, how the sugar barons lived,” says Kevin Kelly, the New Orleans businessman who bought and rehabbed Houmas House in 2003.

Kelly has plans to build a bed-and-breakfast near Houmas House. The plantation home would act as an anchor for the luxury resort, which “would be historic looking with antique furnishings,” he adds.

Named after the first inhabitants of the land, the Houmas Indians, the estate evolved from its beginnings in the 1770s. The existing house started to take shape in 1825. One special feature is a three-story spiral staircase.

John Burnside purchased the Houmas plantation in 1857 for $1 million, and it became known as “The Sugar Palace.” Burnside, a bachelor, was known for throwing lavish parties.

San Francisco plantation

Despite its name, the plantation has no link with the California city.

Unlike the Greek Revival architecture of many other antebellum mansions, San Francisco (2646 state Highway 44), built in 1856 by Edmond Bozonier Marmillion, is in Steamboat Gothic style. Blue cistern towers stand at both sides of the ornate house. In stark contrast to the elegance of the mansion is the 1830s rustic slave cabin on the property.

San Francisco Plantation is located in Garyville, La., less than an hour’s drive from New Orleans. It will celebrate 150 years on Oct. 22 with a blessing of the home and jazz brunch. Other events include the annual Friscofest March 10 and 11, and a performance by the Louisiana Philharmonic on April 14.

Destrehan plantation

The oldest documented plantation house remaining in the lower Mississippi Valley, Destrehan Plantation (13034 River Road) dates from 1787. Originally built by members of a noble French family in French Colonial style, it was remodeled in 1840 in Greek Revival style.

The house is richly furnished, including some items belonging to the Destrehan family. The Jefferson Room contains an original document signed by President Thomas Jefferson in 1804 that named Jean Noel Destrehan as a member of the Orleans Territorial Council.

There are slave cabins to the rear of the property. The house was abandoned and decayed for 12 years before it was restored in 1971. It is owned by the River Road Historical Society.

Special events include historic demonstrations by costumed artisans, and the Destrehan Fall Festival, Nov. 11 and 12, with 175 arts and crafts vendors, food and re-enactments.

Located in Destrehan, La., it is eight miles from the New Orleans airport.

Oak alley plantation

This is one of the South’s most-photographed plantation homes because of its dramatic setting. Movies filmed on location here include “Primary Colors.”

Framed by a quarter-mile-long canopy of giant live oak trees, the house was completed in 1839 by a wealthy French Creole planter. The first example of antebellum restoration along the River Road, work on Oak Alley began in 1925 by then owners Andrew and Josephine Stewart. Before her death in 1972, Josephine Stewart created Oak Alley Foundation so the house and 25 acres could be available for people to see.

Century-old plantation cottages, fitted to provide modern comforts, are available for overnight guests. Special events at Oak Alley include its first Fall Arts and Crafts Festival, Oct. 28 and 29, featuring 150 artists and vendors, pony rides, food and music.

Oak Alley (3645 state Highway 18) is located in Vacherie, La., an hour’s drive from New Orleans.

Warm autumn days, scenic and colorful drives plus plantation homes dripping in history make touring Louisiana’s Great River Road a worthy autumnal adventure.

John Handley is a contributor from Northbrook, Ill.

Above: Nottoway Plantation, which dates to 1859, has beautiful rooms to accommodate overnight guests.

Below: One of the romantic guest rooms waiting at Madewood Plantation.

Before You Go
For more information about these and other historic plantations along the River Road, contact the Louisiana Office of Tourism at 1-800-334-8626, www.louisianatravel.com. For tour prices, hours of operation and special event information, contact the plantations directly:
• Nottoway Plantation, (AAA discount), 1-877-688-4376, www.nottoway.com;
• Madewood Plantation House, (AAA discount), 1-800-375-7151, www.madewood.com;
• Houmas House, (AAA discount), (225) 473-7841, www.houmashouse.com;
• San Francisco Plantation, (AAA discount), 1-888-322-1756, www.sanfranciscoplantation.org.
• Destrehan Plantation, (AAA discount), 1-877-453-2095, www.destrehanplantation.org.
• Oak Alley Plantation, (AAA discount), 1-800- 442-5539, www.oakalleyplantation.com.

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