There are a number of images that go hand-in-hand with anyone’s idea of a antebellum plantation. Some of that has been influenced by movies like Gone With The Wind, others inspired by places that still exist and have been preserved. One of these places boasts a stunning picture of oaks lining a carriage lane up to the front of the “Big House”. I’m speaking, of course, of Oak Alley in Vacherie Louisiana.
Jacques Thélesphore (JT) Roman first purchased the estate that would become Oak Alley in 1836. The house and its acres (called arpents) were already there and ready for his use as a sugar plantation, along with fifty-seven enslaved men and women who were bound to the property. The estate was previously owned by JT’s brother, Valcour Aimé, and before that their father, Jacques Etienne Roman. By this time in Louisiana history, second and third generation sugarcane planters were taking on the lucrative business of harvesting and processing “white gold”. The Roman family was no exception. Not only did JT renovate the sugar mill and buy up more land to plant on, he built his own house and tore down the modest establishment his father had built.
The “Big House” is fashioned in a Greek Revival style, like many plantations in the antebellum south. It’s believed that JT employed the help of George Swainey, but also his father-in-law, Gilbert Joseph Pilié, a noted architect who mainly worked in New Orleans. 28 Tuscan columns encircle the structure and hold up the roof. Unlike some homes, the capital of the columns are not as ornate (think the Corinthian style), but simple and understated, towering 25 feet high. The exterior walls range from 20-25 inches thick, explaining why the home has survived so many hurricanes and the wear of time. Some remodeling had been done to the interior by later owners after the Civil War, such as moving the stairs from a back corner of the house to the center hall, closer to the common style of like homes. The parlor, once upstairs, has been brought downstairs. One of the few original pieces to the home is the punkha, a massive wooden fan suspended from the ceiling above the dining table. During meals and dinner parties, a young slave would operate the fan using an attached cord that ran to the other side of the room. He or she would stand there all night, pulling the cord to operate the fan and keep flies away from the sumptuous meals. This artifact illustrates the divide between wealth, status, and freedom that existed at Oak Alley, as well as everywhere else in the antebellum south. It’s estimated that over 100 slaves were employed in building the “Big House” and it took three years to complete, as they had to stop production to work in the fields for the appointed season in the year.
The grounds at Oak Alley are expansive and have been carefully maintained to this day. The most awe-inspiring feature is the alley of live oak trees, or “allée”. The landscaping design of the allée originated in France during the 18th century upon the grounds of Versailles. Allées could be made with just about anything from shrubs, pillars, fountains, etc. The reason JT decided on live oaks was because six pairs (12 trees) were already on the property when he took possession, but they did not extend the full length of the avenue from the front of his new house to the new road that ran along the river. To make it more visually appealing, he planted eight more pairs (making 28 total) of one-year oaks. The task of moving these massive oaks (even yearlings) was a delicate and time consuming ordeal, one which was – again – carried out by the enslaved.
Two structures that would have flanked the “Big House” were the garconierres. I detail these in other posts, but they were essentially bachelor pads for the family’s older sons. Most families had them stay in a built-on apartment to the main house or in a designated room in the attic, but after a while, the garconierres became a symbol of wealth, status, and an architectural “must have” for the wealthy. JT had one son, Henri, who never used the two garconierres at Oak Alley. Through archeological finds, it’s believed that the domestic slaves took up residence in these buildings, which made sense as they needed to be closer to the family as opposed to the field hands or other enslaved laborers on the plantation.
At the height of Oak Alley’s splendor, 20, double-family slave cabins stood on the property. Unlike some plantations, the structures were built closer to the “Big House”. This was an older setup, as newer homes had their cabins situated far and away from the main home, out of sight and out of mind from the elite and their guests. These cabins continued to be used by the 100-someodd slaves on the plantation until the end of the Civil War, when they were still inhabited, but by former slaves who were now earning a “wage” for their labor. Immigrants were also employed in the later 19th century, mostly Italian or Irish from New Orleans. In the 1930s, these cabins were demolished to make way for newer housing for the workers and their families. In 2013, six have been rebuilt to interpret the lives and struggles of the enslaved of Oak Alley.
Two gardens are situated behind the garconierres at Oak Alley. One is a recreation of a design created by JT’s gardener, an enslaved man by the name of Antoine. He would have also been in charge of the kitchen garden, the allée of oaks, and the small fruit orchard on the property. But these “pleasure gardens” were the pride of any elite family, and there was often rivalries between the planters over whose garden was the most elaborate and exotic. Plants and flowers from foreign lands were brought into New Orleans and then purchased for these plantations. Though the layout of the garden was JT’s, the maintenance and survival of them depended on Antoine. Apart from the gardens, JT also grafted the first commercially viable pecan at Oak Alley in the early 1840s. The second garden is a revival of Josephine Stewart, the last owner of Oak Alley before it was opened for tours and historical preservation. Her love of roses and historic romanticism is evident in her design.
JT Roman, his family, and Miss Josephine were not the only ones to own Oak Alley. Nor was it always called “Oak Alley”. 14 owners left their mark on the estate in the last 250 years. It began with the Roman patriarch, Jacques Etienne Roman, claiming six parcels of land in 1790, which he progressively cleared and claimed “by habitation”. It wasn’t until 1809 that he and his wife, Louise Patin finally moved to the area and transitioned from cattle ranches to sugar planters. Roman would die two years later and leave his holdings to his five sons. JT worked as an overseer for his mother’s plantation. The property later known as Oak Alley (Section 253 or Section 7) was gifted to Louise’s daughter Josephine and her new husband, Valcour Aime. This, along with a transfer of slaves to work the land, helped to get him a head start on his own sugar plantation.
In 1836, Louise died and left her massive plantation along with 144 slaves to JT who was not up to the task of managing such a large estate. Instead, he sold the estate to his brother-in-law and in turn, Valcour sold JT his starter home at Section 7 (Oak Alley). It was in those first few years that he built the Big House. As his sugar business profited, JT became increasingly ill and depended on his nephew, Edmond Trepagnier and enslaved driver, Leandre, to ensure the smooth operations of the plantation. By the mid-1840s, his conditioned had worsened and he hired Louis Tassin Jr. as overseer. By 1848, JT named his successor. His nephew, Edmond, would continue to operate the business while his brother, Andre Bienvenu, was named the guardian of his children and the executor of the estate. This measure essentially bypassed his wife, Celina, from taking any control over the property. JT Roman died of tuberculosis on April 11, 1848.
Being stripped of her privileges didn’t sit well with Celina and she worked tirelessly to earn back the right to be guardian over her children and exercised her authority over the enslaved of the plantation, while Edmond took a passive role in the affairs. It wasn’t until January of 1855 that she was made legal owner of the plantation, but the victory was short lived. Her daughter, Marie, died in New Orleans at the age of 15 that same year and Celina became withdrawn from plantation operations, handing things to Edmond’s care. When Edmond slipped on the levee and drown in the Mississippi, Celina was on her own. She called home her only son, Henri, and he was granted parental emancipation at the age of 20 (just a year shy) so he could manage the plantation himself. However, he was a minor owner in comparison to his mother and two older sisters. With counsel from Valcour, it was clear that Henri would not be able to buy out their shares and clear the monumental debt accrued by the ladies of the plantation, for at least ten years.
All that was tossed down the drain when the Civil War began in April of 1861, and a year later as Federal troops occupied New Orleans. The enslaved on the estate took their freedom in their own hands and fled Oak Alley in a trickle. Henri’s financial situation became worse. He attempted to lease the plantation, but that fell through within a month. In 1866, he finally gave in and sold the plantation to his creditors (his family). Two days later, his mother passed and the entire plantation was sold at auction to John Armstrong, an Irish immigrant and Unionist, for $32,800.
The owners that came after the Romans tried admirably and failed to make Oak Alley the sugar icon that it was in pre-war days. The only exception is in the period around the turn of the century when the plantation enterprises flourished under the Sobral family. Oak Alley didn’t become a tourist destination until it was purchased in July of 1925 by Andrew and Josephine Stewart. With no children but money to spare, the couple renovated the mansion and estate grounds to what visitors see today – including the soft pink exterior and three dormers on every side of the roof. The remodeling and restoration of the plantation was very much a couple’s project, with Josephine throwing herself into the horticultural landscape, designing lavish gardens.
When Andrew passed in 1946, Josephine realized her finite situation and took efforts to make sure that her home would be preserved after she was gone. She had already been offering tours to local schools and organizations for some time before 1966 when she created the Oak Alley Foundation. Its mission has been to preserve the estate, buildings and all, to tell the history of Louisiana and the local area. How that looked for the foundation has changed over the years, especially in the last decade or so as the story of the enslaved has been integrated into the narrative. Josephine died in 1972, but her legacy and determination have lived on at Oak Alley.
Visiting Oak Alley
Today, Oak Alley is open to the public and has diversified their enterprises, as many historic estates have done, to include a restaurant, spacious gift shop, and cottages that can be rented for a 2-night minimum. Guests are invited to tour through the six rebuilt slave cabins first to understand the struggles of the enslaved at Oak Alley, as well as across the south. Each cabin is dedicated to telling one aspect of their lives including a sick room, the average quarters, a post-emancipation cabin setup, and exhibits with artifacts.
Two gardens have been recreated alongside the mansion, one from the hard work of Antoine, and the other from the mind of Josephine Stewart. A pavilion named the “Sugar Theatre” discusses the system of sugarcane planting, harvesting, and processing, both in the 19th century and in modern times. The house gives regular tours 7 days a week between 9am and 4:30pm (arrive by 4pm to take a tour). Of course, be sure to walk down the allée to the very end for a stunning photo opportunity.
Behind the house and past the slave quarters is the gift shop, restaurant, and an exhibit that discusses the craft of blacksmithing, which was integral to the life of a plantation into the 20th century. There’s also an office where you can reserve a cottage to stay for the weekend. I’d recommend booking ahead of time on their website, though. A lounge can also be visited for a quick adult drink if you’re so inclined. The gift shop is impressive with confectionary goods, local art for sale, a section for books and apparel, and (this is my favorite) a tiny coffee stand where you can purchase Café Dumonde coffee grounds without having to step foot in New Orleans.
Oak Alley’s history and story of modern preservation and interpretation is an excellent model for understanding the society of the antebellum south. It gives a more balanced approach to telling the more uncomfortable parts of history that some plantations don’t tell. Overall, I recommend about 2-4 hours for visiting the site and a thorough experience of all that Oak Alley has to offer.
Hours: Daily, 9am-5pm
Address: 3645 Highway 18 (Great River Road), Vacherie, Louisiana USA, 70090
(Below is a slideshow of some more of my pictures, mostly of the slave quarters at Oak Alley)