Louisiana is known for its rich history, its mixture of cultures, its waterways and the Mississippi River. Shifts in the path of this meandering, mighty river have created a unique landscape of streams and bayous. The varied individuals who settled in Louisiana blended their traditions into the food, art, music, language and architecture. That is what makes Louisiana so special. A unique people, Creole, rose from the mix of French, African, Spanish and Native American ancestors born in colonial America or in the West Indies.Their traditions too had a huge impact on the food and architecture that we experience in Louisiana today.
“Antebellum” means “before the war,” that is before the Civil War (1861-1865). From approximately 1830 to 1860, opulent antebellum houses or plantations were built by the planters society in the South. The war destroyed many, but some remain intact here to this day. These stylish homes are of mostly neoclassical design and reflect a mix of Spanish, French, and Creole styles. Also influencing the designs was the hot, humid climate, which required cross ventilation and protection from the elements.
As a young man, Mark Twain worked as a pilot on Mississippi riverboats. He described stretches of the river like a spacious street lined with many manor houses and estates. Soaring antebellum homes are set in fields of moss swathed oak trees. Even today you can imagine what Twain once saw on the riverfront many years before.
Life on the Mississippi was idyllic for some, difficult for others, and for the slaves who worked the plantation fields, it was even more challenging.
Louisiana’s Mississippi River Road runs about 70 miles on each side of the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. River parishes (no counties in Louisiana, only parishes) along the road are home to some of the state’s extraordinary plantation complexes. Not all fine antebellum homes are on the Mississippi: this article also includes beautiful homes in Saint Francisville, a town a bit north of the capital, Baton Rouge, and ruins in Thibodaux, southwest of New Orleans.
In 1792, Pierre C. Becnel, a grandson of some of the first German settlers in the area, constructed a cottage near Edgard that would one day be known as Evergreen Plantation. The design is unusual with curving double exterior stairs, which mount to the portico on the second floor. It is a Greek Revival style plantation on River Road, and it includes one of the most complete and comprehensive groups of slave cabins in the nation. Its 37 buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today it is a privately owned sugar plantation and is not open for tours. If you enjoy Tarintino films parts of the mansion can be seen the 2012 film Django Unchained.
Close to Evergreen Plantation is the Whitney Plantation, one of the oldest and best-preserved on River Road. Opened to the public in December 2014, the Whitney offers visitors a unique view of plantation life through the eyes of slaves who labored there. The tours seek to describe the history of slavery in Louisiana. The property contains an overseer’s house, a rare French Creole main house, a plantation store, a two-story pigeon house, and slave quarters. The Whitney appears in Django Unchained and 2013’s 12 Years a Slave.
This antebellum home on this plantation was built in 1830 by Louisiana Creoles of French descent. It is constructed in the raised Creole style which precedes some of the nearby Greek Revival style plantations. Today, it is a working sugar plantation, owned and operated by the descendants of families who have purchased the home many years ago. Visitors can take guided tours surrounded by live oaks and gardens (some of the oaks are as old as 300 years!) on the grounds are slave quarters, ironsmith shop, schoolhouse and the main house.
The 28-acre Oak Alley Plantation features a quarter-mile avenue of 300-year-old oak trees leading to an antebellum dream house, built in 1839. The mansion is surrounded by 28 Doric-style columns, each two and a half feet across. There are rooms to spend the night, a fine restaurant, and scenic gardens to enjoy. Oak Alley offers a 40-minute tour given by costumed guides which describe the history of the ornate mansion. Also, to be seen are the blacksmith shop and the schoolhouse. The visitor’s center offers books, cards and handmade gifts, many of them made by descendants of those who once lived at the nearby St. Joseph Plantation. Interview with a Vampire, the 1994 Brad Pitt-Tom Cruise movie, was filmed here.
Downriver from Oak Alley on the west bank of the Mississippi sits the Laura Plantation near Vacherie. Formerly known as the Duparc Sugar Plantation, it is significant in that it is a 19th century raised Creole style home. This brightly painted house is much different from the more sedate white Greek revival plantation homes. The site also includes surviving outbuildings and slave cabins. On the tour you can learn the first-hand accounts of four generations of planters and from those who were enslaved here.
Nottoway Plantation, is the largest remaining antebellum mansion. It was completed in 1859. This opulent, three story, 53,000 square foot mansion is a mix of Greek Revival and Italianate styles. You might feel dwarfed approaching its large Italian marble fireplace beneath 15-foot-high ceilings and walking through 11-foot-tall doors. Sitting gracefully alongside the river road’s scenic byway, it boasts 40 rooms—some available for bed & breakfast stays, an appealing restaurant, an outdoor pool provided for overnight guests. Guided and self-guided audio tours are available. Located on River Road in Whitecastle.
Located in in the beautiful rolling hills and pines of Saint Francisville, this grand antebellum home was built in 1796. Notoriously known as one of the most haunted homes in America due to the alleged large number of gruesome deaths and murders which have occurred there. It is also—so goes the legend—built above a Native American burial ground. The home is surrounded by centuries-old live oak trees and gardens. The interiors of the home are lush with Carrara marble fireplace mantles, a Baccarat crystal chandelier, and gold leafed French furnishings. A gift shop features locally crafted items. The 1796 Restaurant is renowned for its fresh farm-to-table ingredients and delicious Southern style cuisine. You can also choose from 18 different accommodations to stay overnight.
No place in Louisiana has a closer association to artist-naturalist John James Audubon than Oakley Plantation. He completed dozens of illustrations and paintings here in 1821. Audubon also tutored for the plantation owner’s child. He received a salary, lived on the plantation for four months, and roamed the woods looking for his birdlife as inspiration for his work. The plantation is now the Audubon State Historic Site. Built around 1806, the Oakley House is a West Indies style home. The raised floors above a brick basement provided excellent ventilation for the warm, humid climate. The furnishings in the home are from the late Federal Period. It is located on a 100-acre woodland site. Located in Saint Francisville
Built between 1840 and 1848 and designed by noted architect Henry Howard the house is considered one of the most pure examples of Greek Revival Architecture. The name Madewood comes from the cyprees timbers and handcrafted wood from the 3,000 acre plantation. The dramatic interior entrance contains Corinthian style columns with soaring 24 foot ceilings. There is a forty-eight foot wide ballroom. Madewood Plantation is a National Historic Landmark but is not currently open to the public at this time. Located in Napoleonville.
In Thibodaux the Laurel Valley Plantation complex sits along Bayou Lafourche. At one time it was a huge sugar plantation which is still active today. Though the grounds are not open to the public you can see the slave cabins all lined up by the road in front of the bayou. It has a good museum/store open several days a week. For film buffs scenes from “Angel Heart” as well as a number of other movies were filmed here. The historic downtown area of Thibodaux is well worth a visit.
There are so many other antebellum/plantation homes to visit in Louisiana. I am including a list. For more information, there is a great “Pelican Guide to the Plantation Homes of Louisiana”. The ones which appear in this article are for me some of the most significant examples of that period.
Louisiana Plantations List