2017: New Orleans

Houmas House

April 9


Today was plantation day. There are several surviving antebellum plantation houses along the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. I'd done some web research and picked two that I thought would be the most interesting to us.

Houmas House and bell.

It was about a 45-minute drive to Houmas House, which was supposed to have the best gardens of the various houses. We got our tickets just as they were ringing the bell out front to start a tour, but I decided to check out the gardens first and take the next tour on the hour.

The press for this place was not wrong. Every few steps through the gardens and around the perimeter brought another breathtaking vista of the quintessential southern plantation house. Naturally I had to photograph it from every angle through the massive oak alley with its hanging garden of Spanish moss.

The garden had other delights besides the stunning views of the main house. Behind the house was a pair of interesting octagonal buildings. We would later learn that these were garçonnières, the French term for "bachelor apartment". It seems that in the antebellum south, once a boy reached his teens, he would move into separate quarters where he could be "manly" and not be tempted by any unmarried females!

Finally the bell rang and it was time for the next tour to begin. We made our way to the porch where we met our tour guide Elizabeth. She was appropriately dressed in a big hoop skirt, but Mike got a glimpse of the blue jeans she had on underneath.

1847 Louisiana map.

Our guide Elizabeth was knowledgeable and funny. She made the point that she grew up playing around and on this property; her family lived nearby. She led us through the various rooms, giving us details on the furnishings and the history of the house. Too many details, unfortunately; I should have recorded her because it's all flown out of my Swiss-cheese brain.

Houmas House was a sugar-cane plantation, as were all the plantations in Louisiana; this area is much too wet for the cotton that is grown away from the humid coast. In its heyday during the late 1800's, the plantation produced a jaw-dropping 20 million pounds of sugar per year.

One surprising face I hear is that the house is the primary residence of the current owner, and yet he opens it up to public tours every single day. Can you imagine doing that? Yikes.

Our guide pointed out the unique circular staircase, and the photographic perspective looking directly up. We dutifully complied by taking the picture.

Houmas House was the filming site for much of the movie Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Bette Davis stayed in this bedroom during filming and it is maintained today in her honor.

Our guide really enjoyed educating us on what plantation life was like in the early 1800's. The purpose of the interesting little piece of furniture at her feet should be pretty obvious. Not quite as obvious when the lid is closed, it doubles as a step-stool to get into the high beds of the time. Sometimes these porta-potties would slide underneath the bed. But every now and then, in the middle of the night, the user would forget to close the lid or slide it back under, and then the next morning...thus the origin of the expression, getting up on the wrong side of the bed.

This odd-looking round item is a bathtub, or perhaps more correctly a shower. A person sits on the little shelf with his feet in the basin, and a servant pours water over him. This sounded eminently preferable to the classic bathtub, which would be filled with water once a week and all the family members would cycle through it, from eldest to youngest. That's why they would say, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The most interesting piece in the house is this 68-pound solid silver statue of Lincoln, an interesting find in an antebellum plantation mansion. The status is a miniature replica of the life-sized "Sitting Lincoln" statue outside the Newark, NJ courthouse. Both were sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, the artist who carved Mount Rushmore.

This is a Hedges chair, a combination chair-and-desk where the chair folds in underneath the desk, leaving only a side table that takes up half the space. According to the associated placard, Aaron Burr was the designer of a precursor to this piece of furniture.

The views of the oaks and the garden from the second-floor veranda were truly exquisite.

As with all large houses of this time period, the kitchen was separate from the main house, a defense against fire. This kitchen was filled with interesting antiques. There's a plate warmer sitting in front of the fireplace, and a large bellows to stoke the fire. The long wooden piece with cup-shaped holes sitting on the table is a sugar mold, used to crystallize sugar. The small hand-cranked roller at right is a fluting iron; it was heated and used to crimp ruffles into shirt cuffs and lacy collars.

Spurned lover.

We'd been hearing a peacock screech since we pulled into the parking lot, and finally we got a look at him. He was perched up on a back porch roof, trying mightily to woo that other bird he saw in the window panes.

We spent some time in the rear garden, admiring the fountain and the elaborate Japanese-style pond, bridge, and structure up a small steep hill. I suspect many a wedding has been held here.

Levee. Faux-wheeler.

As we left the house, I chose to go out through the magnificent oaks to the front gate, where once the owners would have had a full view of the Mississippi. We climbed the levee to see what that would have been like, and wouldn't you know it, passing by was one of the fake paddle-wheelers that give tourists a view from the middle of the river.

While I'd originally planned to take in a second plantation house called Oak Alley, we'd spent so long at Houmas House and seen so much that I was too tired. But I didn't really feel the need; I think we got the best of everything with this one visit.