There are plantations — and then there is Louisiana’s Houmas House, a historic sugar plantation where history is served up with a dash of eccentricity and plenty of charm. It’s a place where Gone with the Wind is easily imagined, and where Scarlett O’Hara and her fiddle-dee-dee-ing would be right at home.
Although Houmas House, outside of Darrow, La., is open to the public, it’s also the home of businessman Kevin Kelly, who bought the place in 2003, fulfilling a lifelong dream of owning an important Louisiana plantation. In residence with Kevin are assorted herons, swans, frogs (real and as statues), Gabby the Duck (a refugee from Hurricane Katrina) and, most important, Queen Grace, Kelly’s beloved Labrador, who was “wed” in November 2003 to Kelly’s other Labrador, King Sam, in a lavish affair that many a bride would envy. Alas, Sam passed away, but Grace’s two offspring, Sugar Baby and Princess Magnolia (Maggie) are happily in residence.
My introduction to the history of this stately 19th century Greek Revival mansion south of Baton Rouge came from a brief video, shown in a small screening room off the house’s gift shop; it summarized the history of the property, which was first owned by the Houmas Indians, who sold it to Alexander Latil and Maurice Conway in the mid-18th century. Latil built a French Provincial house, which is now Houmas House’s rear wing. The present mansion was built in stages, completed in 1828 by Col. John Preston and purchased for $1 million in 1857 by Irishman John Burnside, who, by the time of the Civil War, was the largest sugar producer in the country.
Burnside saved the mansion from the Union armies by declaring himself to be a subject of the British Crown – rather than a loyal son of Dixie. In the century and a half that followed, Houmas House’s fortunes rose and fell until Kelly bought the property and embarked on an extreme makeover; stripping the mansion down to its elegant bones; working with historical documents and blueprints, he brought the antebellum palace to life.
The faux marble exterior was painted a rich ochre, the belvedere that crowns the house was restored, along with all the original features and finishes. Kelly’s next task: creating a setting to showcase the splendor of the mansion. Nature had provided the live oaks, the oldest being some 500 years old. Surrounding the mansion are 38 acres of formal gardens. Twice a year, they go through an extensive color renewal, changing out approximately 50,000 plants and flowers. Throughout the gardens are walking paths and sitting nooks, making every corner of the property accessible. The landscape dazzles with lush tropical plants, fountains, statuary, a 50-foot-wide water-lily pond that might have been painted by Monet and the impeccably restored twin garconnierre (bachelor’s quarters).
Best of all, Kelly was able to purchase many of the items relating to the Sugar Palace’s early history, including the 1847 La Tourrette map of Louisiana and the Houmas china, as well as 19th century furnishings owned by some of the South’s wealthiest families. Alas, Kelly was not able to purchase the original furniture from one of the bedrooms; it is in the White House and not for sale.
In 2012, a 21-room inn was completed, with luxurious cottages nestled among live oak trees and surrounded by tropical gardens. Each has a private porch and fine amenities. (Included in the room rate are a gourmet breakfast in the Carriage House Restaurant and mansion tour tickets.)
Since fine dining was part of a 19th century gentleman’s life of privilege, the plantation offers award-winning cuisine at Latil’s Landing, in the original 18th century wing. With its original beamed ceilings, original wood floors and wood-burning fireplaces, not to mention the French Limoges china (faithfully reproduced from the mansion’s original china), Latil’s Landing has the ambiance of a much-loved period home, rather than an impersonal restaurant. Executive Chef Joseph Dicapo creates tasting menus, changed to reflect the season.
Houmas House has two additional restaurants; breakfast lunch and dinner are available every day. Café Burnside offers a large menu of Louisiana dishes and a daily lunch buffet from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. The Carriage House, somewhat more casual than Latil’s, is open for lunch and dinner and serves Louisiana delicacies with a twist.
Houmas House is open from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. every day. Mansion tours, with guides in period costumes, begin at 9:30 a.m. and run every half hour until 7 p.m. The tours reveal a treasure trove of antique furniture, Waterford chandeliers, fine art and historical artifacts that offer a glimpse of how a 19th century sugar baron lived. There is a touch of whimsy in the central hallway, where a large mural depicts a sugar cane field; but rather than the heroic lions that are often shown in murals of the period, front and center here are Princess Grace and King Sam.
The magnificent three-story circular stairway is an architectural marvel and the Gentlemen’s Parlor is an authentic setting for men of means to discuss business over brandy and cigars. The Ladies’ Parlor, with its grand piano and crystal chandelier, has a more genteel atmosphere, suited for the polite gossip of the day. A tour favorite is the room where Bette Davis stayed during the filming of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
The movie was shot at the plantation in 1963 and also starred Joseph Cotten and Davis’s good friend, Olivia de Havilland. Since then Houmas House has been featured in a number of films, including A Woman Called Moses, starring Cicely Tyson, as well as in commercials, television shows and even the soap opera, All My Children.
For visitors who enjoy ghost stories, Houmas House, like so many historic homes, has its share – and the tour guides are happy to provide stories of sightings. One of the more interesting specters, according to guides and guests who have seen her, is a dark-eyed little girl wearing a blue dress. She appears in the hallway and on the stairs, usually in the morning or later in the afternoon. Given the history of the house, she may be the much-loved daughter of Colonel John Preston, a lively youngster who died in 1848 at the age of seven.
Given all these attractions – a historic plantation, upscale accommodations, fine dining and ghosts – a stay at Houmas House easily provides a taste of life as a sugar baron, but with luxuries as yet undreamed of in the 19th century.
Houmas House Plantation and Garden is at 40136 Highway 942 in Darrow, La., about an hour’s drive from New Orleans and 35 minutes from Baton Rouge. For more information, call 225-473-9380 or visit www.houmashouse.com.
All photos courtesy of Houmas House