The great plantation Ophėlie is the family seat and house of the venerable Deschanel family, who make up the “Crimson” half of The House of Crimson and Clover series. The Deschanels are amongst the wealthiest and oldest of New Orleans, and their residence for the past couple hundred years has been the dark and beautiful plantation Ophėlie.
In 1844, Charles Deschanel emigrated from France to Louisiana and purchased thirty acres of land. There, the family met with immediate success in both cotton and sugar crops.
In order to please his child bride of twelve years old, young even for that time, he built the Big House, a forty-five room Greek Revival affair, second only to Nottoway in size.
The house sat back about an eighth of a mile from the road, and large parterre gardens flanking either side of the dirt road served as a driveway (partial brick was added later). It was one of the few to upgrade to modern innovations such as indoor plumbing and running hot and cold water, although the original privy house still remains intact. The galleries ran the entire circumference of the Big House with two-story columns of Ionic capitals and un-fluted columns. The balconies were adorned with wrought iron lacework imported from Spain, and a belvedere was added to the roof just after it was
finished. Italianate bay windows lined the back and left wing of the house. Although the floorboards were built from cypress, most of the building materials were imported from New England and Europe. It was complete by the time their first daughter Ophélie was born the following year, and it was after her that the plantation was named and is still called today.
Similar to the other great plantations of the time, the farm was almost completely self-sufficient, with over two hundred buildings behind the Big House that kept daily life in the antebellum south smooth and efficient. Among them were kitchens, a chapel for family prayer and a cemetery to the back, a sugarhouse and sugar mill, a
plantation store, a blacksmith shop, pigeonniers, an overseer’s cottage, cisterns, storage sheds, curing huts, a carriage house, horse and livestock barns, silversmiths, and along the back, several neat rows of slave cabins, followed in back by acres of undeveloped cypress swamp. The home enjoyed privacy due to its position off the road as well as the numerous live oaks, magnolias, and banana trees that provided shade and shelter to the entire plantation. In the fifteen or so years preceding the Civil War, an extra wing was added as well as a garçonierre for their sons Jean and Fitz. For Brigitte, Charles contracted a botanist from Italy to come design a romantic and ornate garden to the rear of the house. Her diary suggests she spent many long hours roaming these paths.
During the Civil War, their home and most of the outbuildings were spared due to the size and ability to accommodate an entire company of the Union army. Added to that the fact that New Orleans was captured early, and Charles’ brother was a doctor whose services saved many of the Union lives in the house, the family was able to retain most of their valuables, many of which are still in the Big House today.
Following the war, the plantation saw only a few decades of its once fertile and plentiful crops. Though the farming ceased and the slaves were freed (or, in the cases of the most loyal, paid to remain, as was the way of life in the post-bellum South), the Deschanels continued to live in the splendid mansion by the river and during Reconstruction profited from the boom in shipping and textiles.
Ophélie was passed down through the men of the family from one generation to the next in strict tradition. Over the years, many of the buildings were torn down and at least half of the acres sold off to various oil refineries or other interested parties. Currently, all that remains is the Big House, still as glorious as ever, a handful of out-buildings, and half of the original sugar crops.
Learn more about The House of Crimson and Clover series here.