Friday, July 29, 2011

Fabulous Historic Furnishings

St. Francisville area’s fabulous historic furnishings being inventoried

by Anne Butler

The sofa did it.

It was the sofa that actually kicked off this unrelenting quest for historical truth. One single sofa from historic Wakefield Plantation near St. Francisville started the ball rolling and instigated a very exacting and detailed inventory of all of the significant material culture of the Lower South, an ambitious project expected to eventually encompass all of Louisiana as well as Mississippi and Alabama.

Adam Erby rehangs pre-Civil War portrait after measuring and examining it.
It is hardly surprising that the project started in the St. Francisville area, for the historic plantations in this section of the South, called English Louisiana for the origins of its earliest settlers, contained a wealth of fine furnishings, silver and china, books and musical instruments---all the accoutrements of the cultured and refined lifestyle of the wealthy cotton planters. The first settlers came down from the East Coast in the late 1700s with trunks and crates and wagonloads of belongings to furnish the simple early plantation houses---The Cottage, Butler Greenwood, The Myrtles, Oakley. As the planter-families prospered, the homes the second generations built in the 1830s—Rosedown Plantation, Greenwood Plantation--were grand Greek Revival ones requiring even more elaborate furnishings, and so the owners went on Grand Tours of Europe or lengthy purchasing excursions Up East. The fact that so much evidence of this early material culture still survives has astounded and delighted the experts cataloguing the individual pieces.

But to get back to the sofa. A decade ago, New Orleans attorney Paul Haygood, who from time to time took some of his leisure time to indulge his passion for historical research, was notified that a sofa was for sale by a New Orleans antiques dealer that might—or might not—have come from Wakefield Plantation just north of St. Francisville. Having family ties to the Stirlings of Wakefield, Haygood purchased the classical piece, probably made in the 1830s with lots of curves, and began trying to document its provenance.

He knew that Lewis Stirling and his wife Sarah Turnbull had taken a lengthy trip to New York in 1836 to conduct business, socialize, enjoy the cultural scene, and most especially to purchase furnishings suitable for the extravagant new house they were building, a grand columned Greek Revival. In the Stirling papers preserved at LSU, he found an invoice for a Grecian sofa purchased in 1836 from Edwards and Baldwin in New York; the firm had just come into prominence by furnishing mahogany seating for the fancy new Astor House hotel.

Further exploration led to photographs of other Wakefield furnishings being shown to experts in New York, where they generated great excitement. Delving into preserved family and factor receipts revealed that the Stirlings had not only purchased a number of chairs and sofas from chairmakers Oliver Edwards and Cyrus Baldwin, but had also commissioned a large number of four-poster beds and tables from eminent New York City cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe, 28 crates in all. The bill was a grand total of $1900, and the purchase is one of only three major documented sales of Phyfe’s late Grecian-style work. Quite a few of these pieces remain in the Wakefield Plantation house today.

Richie Garrison, head of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, has come down from Delaware to check the progress of his students and explains to them the virtues of a rosewood piano stool.
With Matthew A. Thurlow, Installations Coordinator in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Haygood wrote a detailed article for The Magazine Antiques on his fabulous findings. Encouraged by museum experts to do something more, he arranged to hold a symposium on the classical period of the 1830s in this area. Still not satisfied, insatiable experts encouraged him to see that a professionally done inventory was taken, and that was the impetus for the founding of the Classical Institute of the South to take the lead in the project, an umbrella non-profit organization of important state museums and collections—the Historic New Orleans Collection, the Louisiana State Museum, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the LSU Museum—plus a board of advisors made up of outstanding experts in the field.

Funds were raised for competitive fellowships to allow a summer of research in St. Francisville conducted by several scholars from the Winterthur Program in Decorative Arts at the University of Delaware. Winterthur, premier museum of American decorative arts and sponsor of a number of preeminent research programs, was the home of wealthy collector and horticulturist Henry Francis du Pont; its 175 rooms contain over 90,000 documented objects, plus exhibit galleries. The two interns began their work in New Orleans with several days of orientation with experts on Louisiana history and decorative arts.

 With plans to expand the program next summer, the interns are concentrating this year on the furnishings of four historic sites in West Feliciana—Wakefield Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, Catalpa Plantation and Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site, plus historic items from Wakefield in a more contemporary family home called Woodhill Farm.

Says Haygood enthusiastically, “They have found wonderful things. This will make people all over the country aware of the material culture we have in Louisiana and the Deep South, which has not always been appreciated. The interns have been thrilled to find enormous collections that help to complete the picture of the classical environment in this area, from stunning original parlor furnishings to the Phyfe furniture, early Meeks pieces, wonderful portraits and magnificent silver. It’s amazing to see their excitement and especially to see it percolating up to the great classical experts at Winterthur, who are thrilled as well. The findings will be featured at the Winterthur Symposium next spring, and will be online for use by scholars (with locations and ownership confidential); perhaps there will even be a book, and almost certainly magazine articles.  We are so in hopes that this will help promote cultural tourism in the St. Francisville area especially.”

The two interns working in St. Francisville this summer are Alice Carboni, originally from Rhode Island, and Adam Erby of Lunenburg County, Virginia. Called the “Lois F. McNeil Fellows,” the two bring a passion for historic culture to the project. Alice has spent the past 8 years in New Orleans, attending Tulane and working as the associate collections manager at the New Orleans Museum of Art, while Adam came straight from the University of Virginia with a major in American Studies with emphasis on architectural history.
Alice Carboni examines an antebellum armoir, cataloging primary and secondary woods.

Both say their findings have greatly exceeded their expectations. Says Adam, “There are phenomenal things for such a tight geographic area, bespeaking the amazing wealth here and the high quality of furnishings people were purchasing.” Alice adds that she had not previously studied or visited the southern plantations and was not sure what she would find, and has been “blown away by the survival of so much material culture, still in original families with so much knowledge of the provenance. The quality of the pieces, exceptional examples from all parts of the country, is just phenomenal and exciting.” The two have worked on material culture in the Upper South and have found that pieces there have not survived in such quantities as in the Lower South.

“The St. Francisville community has been so welcoming and gracious, and it has been fun to meet the locals as well as see the objects and houses,” says Alice. “This has enhanced our understanding of this area, these objects and these houses. It’s such a different sort of landscape, and it’s great to be able to study it in situ. We don’t always get to bring it all together in our scholarship requiring so much library research.”

Paul Haygood takes inventory of extensive library of rare books.
A number of years back when St. Francisville’s local historical society hosted a fundraiser like Antiques Roadshow and imported several appraisers from Sotheby’s, the New Yorkers placed advance disclaimers in the newspapers reminding residents that the South had been primarily an agrarian society and early settlers put their money into land rather than furniture, so participants should not be disappointed if items they brought for appraisal were not as valuable as they might hope. Of course the Lower Mississippi River corridor in antebellum days was inhabited by an enormous number of the country’s wealthiest and most cultured families, and their plantation mansions were furnished with some of the finest pieces money could buy. People who would have brought in insignificant little oddities instead brought their finest treasures and knocked the socks off the New York appraisers, who in future years were careful not to be so condescending.

This material culture inventory should do much the same for the entire under-appreciated Lower South. From the classical sofa at Wakefield that launched this whole project to the magnificent silver services, the original upholstery with trim detail and the exceedingly rare slave livery and other treasures found in all the historic houses, the fascinating material culture that remains extant in the St. Francisville area enriches our understanding and expands our picture of early life in the Lower South, and promises to knock the socks off antiques enthusiasts across the country.

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination.  A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours daily: the Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, the Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations most weekends to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

Rosedown Plantation
Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site in St. Francisville, La.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from soul food to Chinese and Mexican cuisine, seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities, including the lively monthly third Saturday morning Community Market Day in Parker Park and a Farmers’ Market every Thursday and Saturday morning) or