Earlier this week I wrote a post that talked aboutOphélie, the fictional plantation I designed for The House of Crimson and Clover series. Ophélie was based on not one, but many plantations, some of which I’ve visited. In this post, I will introduce you to some of the plantations of the Great River Road in Louisiana.
The River Road refers to the stretch of road, about 20 miles outside of New Orleans, that runs along the Mississippi River toward Baton Rouge. The land was settled in the early 1800s as a popular location for plantations, due to the fertile land (great for sugar) and the location to the river. In its heyday, the River Road contained some of the best and most successful plantations in the entire nation, and today is one of the most popular tourist destinations for plantation sightseeing.
When we picture a plantation, we are often envisioning that grand Greek Revival mansion, with the columns and lined balconies. We picture women in sweeping skirts, and men drinking mint juleps on the porch. In fact, the Big House, as it was called, was only one piece. A plantation might as well have been called a village, for the property was often entirely self-sufficient. You’d find kitchens, blacksmith shops, sugar mills, stores, and anything else they needed to keep daily life running on the plantation. And, of course, there were rows of slave cabins on the property that housed the many men and women who kept the plantation running through the involuntary servitude of the time.
Almost all commerce was conducted via the river, in an era where steamboats were king. Whatever could not be produced on the plantation could be ordered and delivered.
Although the river was, quite literally, at the end of their driveways, the levee was built to protect their plantations from ruin, and over the years it was built taller and taller. Most of the plantations, therefore, no longer had views of the river that lay less than a football field away.
Eventually, in the 20th century, disease killed off many of the sugar crops, and much of the once-fertile land was sold off to oil refineries and other interested parties. Those that were not sold fell into disrepair. In the 1920s, interest grew in restoring many of these properties to their former glory, and this resulted in a good dozen or so plantations being saved and restored. While some are for private use only, several- such as the famous Oak Alley, Laura, and Destrehan plantations- are open to the public for tours.
The pictures in this post are all from my private collection.
Laura is one of the oldest Creole-style plantations left on River Road, and it can be spotted by the bright Creole colors. Two things make this property remarkable for us today: the first is how much of the plantation was maintained and restored; the second is that we have significant insight into what life was like on Laura, as Laura Locoul’s vivid diaries are left as a statement to its history. In fact, the tours of Laura are structured around the information contained in her diaries.
When you envision the quintessential plantation, Oak Alley is what comes to mind. Its hard to believe the 28 trees that line the driveway leading up to Oak Alley’s Big House were designed without that glorious house in mind, but in fact they date back to the 1700s. The house was built in 1829, in the Greek Revival style, but was also heavily influenced by the French Creole architecture of the Caribbean plantations. As with other plantations of the time, the home was abandoned but later purchased and restored, and is now open to the public for tours as well as overnight stays.
Destrehan is the oldest remaining plantation on River Road (and possibly the entire Mississippi Valley), dating back to 1787. The house was built in the popular Greek Revival style. Like many of their neighbors, Destrehan found their success in sugar farming. Although the house fell into disrepair like many others, restoration efforts commenced and they were able to save the Big House and a few outbuildings. Tours are available. You might recognize the house as the one used in Interview with the Vampire.
There are many great plantations not featured here- such as Nottoway, the Houma House, and San Francisco- but they are among those great homes that have been restored to their former glory.
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.
The Deschanels are the family that 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.
The family was originally from France. In 1844, Charles Deschanel, a moderately successful French businessman, decided to try his luck in the Americas and purchased 30 acres of land outside of New Orleans, along the great River Road. He found immediate success in both the sugar and cotton trade, in a land that endlessly produced. Continue reading →