Few plantation homes in and around New Orleans have diversified and commercialized their historic site as grandly as Houmas House. Now, I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. Houmas House has maintained its historical integrity while also working overtime to meet the needs of the visitors and community as a whole.
The history of Houmas House begins in 1775 with owners Alexander Latil and Maurice Conway, who purchased a portion of land from the Native Americans in the area (the Houmas) with $150 worth of common goods like clothing and household items. The plantation was built and then improved by Daniel Clark, the first delegate from the Territory of Orleans to the US House of Representatives. It’s under Clark’s ownership that the area’s first sugar mill was constructed. In 1811, it was sold again to Revolutionary War hero General Wade Hampton, whose son would later serve in the Civil War as a cavalry commander. It’s under the Hampton family that the plantation really boomed, becoming one of the wealthiest sugar plantations along the river. There’s a reason the place was nicknamed the “Sugar Palace”. They also built onto the house between 1829 and 1830, making it into the Greek revival icon that we visit today.
Upon Hampton Sr.’s death, the estate passed to his son, but was sold again as they were looking to consolidate their holdings between Louisiana and South Carolina. John Burnside took on Houmas House by 1860 and continued to work it as a sugar plantation with his 940 slaves. Burnside can be thanked for the preservation of the plantation during the war, as he claimed British citizenship to avoid Union occupation of his land and flew a British flag from the second floor balcony. When the 13th amendment was ratified, he switched his labor force to Chinese and Irish workers while he offered plots and wages to his formerly enslaved workers. He owned Houmas until his death in 1881. It changed ownership a couple of times until it came to William Porcher Miles of Miles Planting and Manufacturing Company, who expanded not just the home, but the sugar enterprise into the industrial age. It wasn’t until 1940 that Houmas received its next major overhaul, as the rooms and floor plan were rearranged to accommodate its new owner, Dr. George Crozat. Many of the renovations were left unfinished by the time of his death in 1965, where his heirs let the estate fall into disrepair. In 2003, Houmas was put up for auction, its artifacts sold in over a thousand separate lots, scattering its history into the wind. The house was the last item to be sold, bare and empty. The once grand 300,000 acres plantation had been broken down to a mere 38.
This is where the current owner comes in. Kevin Kelly, a real estate mogul in his own right, bought the estate and has dedicated himself to restoring Houmas House and molding it into the plantation jewel that it is today. Kelly undid some of Crozat’s design, spending millions in turning back the clock to how Houmas would have looked during its golden era as a sugar plantation. He modernized it with electricity, plumbing, and air conditioning, but still more he kept original, like the dark trim that used to hide tobacco smoke stains and the doors dating back to the 1800s. Every room’s historical aesthetic was racketed up. The main hall features painted murals on the walls and ceiling to depict wild nature, a popular style in the antebellum era. A highly prized item hangs in the foyer, a 1845 map of Louisiana that was found in the attic, preserved in cypress chips. Antiques and period furniture from Kelly’s personal collection fill every room, from the dining room to the lady’s parlor to the billiard room. Kelly even managed to track down much of the original furniture, claiming about 60% of today’s furnishings to be from later centuries. A gorgeous feature of the home, built in Hampton’s era, is the spiral staircase toward the back of the house, held together by nothing more than cypress pegs. Upstairs is a unique display of some more occult artifacts and a bedroom with a special connection to Hollywood. The exterior provides a distinction between the newer construction and that of the original home built by Latil and Conway, denoted by the bright red exterior. This portion of the building used to be utilized as a storehouse. Two garconnieres flank the main house, traditionally reserved for the single bachelor sons of the family. Both can still be found on the property, one remodeled into a bar and lounge for guests.
The gardens and park around the home also underwent a revamp. Fountains, statuaries, and a uniquely designed Japanese garden provide visitors with a tranquil, visually rich experience after they’ve toured the home. One can find all manner of wildlife hanging around, including swans that like to hiss at passersby (the author of this blog included – how rude!).
The only portion of the home that he kept for himself was the expansive attic, which is closed off to visitors. While the rest of the home may have the feel of a house museum, tour guides like to remind their guests that Houmas House is still a private residence. While respectful conduct is encouraged, everyone who walks the grounds and through the halls of Houmas House are treated as guests, not customers.
This may seem surprising, when one looks at ALL the other things one can do at Houmas House. There’s not one, but TWO restaurants on site. The Carriage House and the Dixie Café are open to visitors for lunch and dinner. Depending on what sort of atmosphere you prefer depends on which restaurant you’d want to try out. For those wishing to be totally immersed in the romanticism of antebellum society and art, I recommend The Carriage House Restaurant or adjoining Turtle Bar and Wine Cellars. Sumptuously remodeled with Victorian and Edwardian sensibilities in mind, the interior drips with class and finery. For something a little more casual, the Dixie Café is perfect for those looking for a place to rest your feet and sample a typical buffet/cafeteria menu.
Right next door to Houmas House (sharing a parking lot and a wall with the gift shop) is the new Great River Road Museum, which tells the story of Louisiana along the Mississippi River from New Orleans all the way to St. Francisville. One could easily spend a few hours touring through the different exhibits that explain the various stages of Louisiana’s past from a French colony, through to the industrial era. Wall panels partitioning each section are packed with pictures and information regarding the hundreds of plantations that used to (or still) exist along the Mississippi. The sheer amount of research spent in gathering this wealth of historical records is impressive alone.
So, whether you’re looking for a traditional museum experience, a tour of a plantation home, a casual stroll through luscious gardens, or an evening of fine dining, Houmas House has a little to offer anyone looking for something to do outside of the Crescent City.
I recommend you plan on spending the entire day at Houmas House. There’s enough to keep one occupied for plenty of hours. And with restaurants on-site, there’s no need to travel back into town. If you should choose, you can even stay the night on the plantation in one of a few cottages on the property. (See website for booking information and photos)
The gift shop is an eclectic mash of many products and crafts, with a large section dedicated to books ranging in all topics having to do with Louisiana. A short video plays in a room off the gift shop giving a brief introduction to Houmas House before your tour.
See the slideshow below for just a taste of the awesomeness that awaits you!
Please check ahead if tickets needs to be purchased in advance. Restaurant hours vary from
Hours: 9am – 7pm, 7 days a week; Closed: Christmas Day and New Year’s Day
Address: 40136 Highway 942, Darrow, LA
Tickets: Range from $24 – $158 depending on how you combine your tours. – See online for more details.