Our first few days south of the Mason-Dixon were spent touring Creole Plantations, one accessed by air-boat via the bayou. Alligators tried to climb in for a free ride and a red-blooded meal, making for interesting travel!
Bayou’s were dug by hand, both by slaves and by Napoleon’s army as a way to access the cypress forest interior. Once the logs were culled, they were floated either up or down river to their destination.
Interestingly, Louisiana had an “Enslaved People’s Bill of Rights” thanks to the Napoleonic Code. Slaves worked from sun-up until 3 p.m. After that they had to be paid! Sunday’s were a day of rest, but if a slave chose to work, or to rent his/her services out, they would be paid for that time as well. If a slave saved enough of their earnings to buy their freedom, their owners had to accept the payment and set them free.
Cypress was the wood of choice for floors and construction because it didn’t warp in the humid climate.
Creoles (as opposed to Cajuns, who were actually Canadians) were the European whites and local free people of color who settled the Vieux Carre or French Quarter of New Orleans.
They built their plantations up and down the Mississippi, 350 between New Orleans and Nachez. Creole construction determined that hallways and stairwells were places where bad air, “ill humors” and ghosts collected and they therefore did away with them. All staircases were outside the dwelling and all rooms interconnected in an enfilade (some of the homes on our tour were added to over the years and stairways were enclosed with the house).
All homes faced the river and had an allee of Cypress or Oak trees (think Twelve Oaks from Gone with the Wind) along the path from the door to the water’s edge.
Inside, the ground floor, usually brick, was used for storage or sometimes as a convertible formal dining room/ballroom. General living was conducted on the 2nd floor to catch the breezes from the multiple French doors that opened to verandas encircling the house.
Cielings were often 11-15 feet high, carrying the heat aloft. Attics could have a 25 foot pitch, drawing heat up and away from the inhabitants. Almost unbelievably for homes built between the 1820’s and the 1850’s, there was cold, running water! Cisterns were mounted on roofs and in towers near the house which piped water to the kitchen (if it was in the main house) and to water closets tucked into bedroom corners. In one house there was even an early shower!!
Materials and supplies were shipped down river, arriving literally at the front door. Louisiana plantations were completely self-sufficient raising their own fruit, livestock and vegetables. Cash crops included indigo and rice, but not cotton, as the climate is too wet.
Our tours included visits to San Francisco Plantation, Houmas House (named after the local, indigenous people NOT crushed chick peas!) and Destrehan Plantation. Pop up your parasol and come out in the mid-day sun with us as we tour these aging, but hardly faded beauties.
SAN FRANCISCO PLANTATION
Bette Davis and Olivia de Haviland used these stairs in the 1964 film “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte.” Miss Davis actually lived at the house during filming and stayed in one of the bedrooms!
HOUMAS HOUSE PLANTATION
At age 14 young men were separated from the main house and billeted in their own “bachelor” cottages. Thought of as adults, they were treated as such and smoked, drank, had their own servants and took a role in the running of the estates. Here’s an example of one below…
Destrehan was the only property we visited that had intact slave quarters and out-buildings. Unfortunately, they were not original to the house but brought and re-settled from other properties.
And while all the houses were beautiful, you couldn’t help but feeling a bit sad…knowing their history…and the fates of so many now Gone with the Wind!
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