Recently my sister came to visit us at our new place in Louisiana, giving us a perfect excuse to play tourist ourselves! Since we only recently moved here, and we have been in the midst of unpacking, working, and life, we haven’t had much of a chance to get out and explore our new area, which is a shame. Long before we moved here, plantation visits were on my radar. Some have been converted into B&Bs that you can stay in (many of which are haunted!), others you can visit for a small fee, but some are still privately owned. Turns out, Baton Rouge, on the east bank of the Mississippi River, is right in the heart of plantation country. After some brief internet research, we chose Houmas House to visit. It’s only 30 minutes from our house and had tours on the day we wanted to go.
We decided to take the “scenic” route to get to the plantation. We headed towards River Road, which runs along both banks of the Mississippi River. It sounds like it would be this peaceful, meandering roading, offering views of the MIghty Mississippi flanked by majestic oak trees. In reality, it is winding, but the view of the river in many parts is blocked by levees and while stretches of it are flanked by towering oaks trees, it is also flanked by chemical plants and oil refineries. Just as the river offered an easy way to transport goods hundreds of years ago (the reason many plantations are located on it’s banks), it offers a way to transport goods today and is an important part of the Louisiana economy.
Our visit started with uncerimonously parking the car, getting the girls out, and buying our tickets. However, once tickets were purchased, we entered the gardens and they were beautiful! Even on a slightly chilly (for the Gulf Coast) day, that was overcast and quite breezy, the gardens were full of life. We meandered along a paved path leading from the gift shop entrance, along some gardens dotted with ponds, and right under some of the most magnificant oaks I think I have ever seen. These things were massive, some estimated to be 500-700 years olf, with branches gracefully swooping from the main trunk, down to the ground, and then back up. They were wild and the angles and directions the branches took only added to their wildness. In years past, there were oaks lining a path, dubbed the avenue of oaks, leading from the Mississippi River - the view of which is now blocked by levees to protect from flood waters - to the front of the house. While many of the trees have been lost over the years, many still remain and those that do still convey a sense of grandeure. I can only imagine what it must have been like when all the trees were still standing.
We continued around to nearly the back of the main house where even more, smaller gardens were found. These appeared to be kitchen gardens filled with edible plants - brussle sprouts, lettuces, edible flowers, herbs. It is here that our guide, dressed in a period costume consisting of a tightfitting corset, blouse, and skirt that bellowed out around her feet, rang a bell to signal the start of the the tour. We gathered and listened to her share the story of the Houmas House in a delicate southern drawl.
We climbed the side steps of the giant, wrap-around porch that was decorated with hanging ferns, and walked around to the front door. From a distance, the door looks relatively ordinary, but stepping through it, you realize how wide it actually is: wide enough to allow a woman in a hooped skirt and her escort to easily enter side by side. Beyond the front door was a long entrance hallway leading to a gathering room. Along the walls were handpainted murals and an old map of Louisiana, found under the floorboards wrapped in cyprus shavings that prevented it from molding and rotting away over the years. From there, we toured the dining room, which was ornately set with low chairs. Odd, but then our guide shared with us that the average height for men in the 1800s was only 5’2”, so shorter chairs were the norm. On one end, a credenza held with a large silver platter topped with an almost-gaudy lobster serving as the handle. I can’t imagine being served off of it; or how many people it took to hold it!
From there we headed into the ladies keeping room, and then the men’s parlor. Both were painted a dark color - a symbol of wealth at the time - and furnished with antiques. The men’s parlor held a 68 pound statue of President Lincoln sitting on a bench, cast in pure silver with Gutzon Borglum, the presumed artist most famous for designing Mount Rushmore, scrawled on the surface of the bench. The tour the heads into the game room - complete with apothecary jars meant to house all sorts of “remedies” - and finally a reception hall in the back of the house.
A freestanding spiral staircase leading to the second and third floors is housed here. Our guide shared with us some historical trivia at this point. In the 1800s, seeing a woman’s ankle was considered scandolous (I can’t imagine wearing a floor length dress during the hot and humid Louisiana summers), so men would ascend stairs before women so as not to risk catching a glimpse of that sensuous part of a woman’s body. I briefly pondered what the men would have thought of all the women in our group, most of us wearing shorts that exposed not only our ankles, but our even-more-scandalous knees….
On the second floor, we toured the various bedrooms. Housed in one of them was a display on vampire hunting tools from the 1800s. If True Blood, and just about every other vampire show I have ever seen, is to be belived, vampires have made this area their home for hundreds of years.
To my surprise, the current owner of the house and property actually lives in the house, and allows the tours to enter his private study and bedroom. I’m not sure I’d want all those strangers walking through my bedroom every day, but I guess a house that large and old requires significant funding to stay standing. But my favorite part of the house? The giant porch on the second floor. From here, one can almost see over the levee to the river; but despite the presence of the levees, the view of the expansive front lawn, marked by a pond created from an oak that had been struck by lightening and the avenue of the oaks extending down to the road, is still beautiful.
Leaving the bedrooms, we passed through a library housed over the carriage way below and down the back staircase, into the kitchen. It’s unusal that the kitchen was so close to the main house; they posed a significant fire danger and were often located a distance away in order to spare the main house should an unfortunate accident occur. The kitchen was small, with a very low ceiling and windows looking out over the kitchen gardens in the back. Even with no fire lit on a cool spring day, the place was stuffy. On display were old kitchen gadgets, some more recognizable than others: a sugar mold, coffee grinder and bean roaster, massive bellows used to stoke the fire. The kitchen also displayed an old painting of what the original house on the property looked like; the plain white building is depicts was much simplier than the yellow antebellum style plantation that’s there now.
The tour ends in the kitchen. From there, guests are free to explore the gardens - of which there are many - have lunch the restaurant, share a drink in one of the former Garconierre that’s still standing, or take a stroll and enjoy the day. As we had two toddlers that were getting tired and hungry, we didn’t linger long, exploring the gardens a bit before heading out to find some cajun cuisine for lunch.
Visit Houmas House
The Houmas House plantation is one of many plantations open to the public along the River Road not far outside of New Orleans. They offer tours in both English and French, and even offer transportation to and from New Orleans. Admission is $24 per adult, children under 5 are free. The tour focuses primarily on the architecture of the house and what life was like for the plantation owners and their families.