Monday, February 03, 2014

By Anne Butler

The forty-third annual Audubon Pilgrimage March 21, 22 and 23, 2014, celebrates a southern spring in St. Francisville, the glorious garden spot of Louisiana’s English Plantation Country. The ice storms of winter may have confused the plants, but savvy pilgrims know it’s spring when the West Feliciana Historical Society throws open the doors of significant historic structures to commemorate artist-naturalist John James Audubon’s stay as he painted a number of his famous bird studies and tutored the daughter of Oakley Plantation’s Pirrie family, beautiful young Eliza. And regardless of the winter weather, the azaleas always come through with spectacular bloom just in time for the pilgrimage.

Carefully selected features this year—three antebellum homes in the countryside and one townhouse-- illustrate the grand good luck of needy historic homes fortunate enough to fall into the hands of dedicated and knowledgeable preservationists.

Live OakOverlooking Little Bayou Sara from a high bluff along the Tunica Trace, Live Oak is one of the earliest plantation homes in the Felicianas, built around 1808 on part of a 1796 Spanish land grant by Elijah Adams. A splendid two-story structure with four sturdy brick columns across the lower gallery and five slender wooden ones across the upper one, the home shows both Spanish and Anglo-American architectural influences, with steep unbroken roofline, thick brick walls that taper upwards, and exterior staircases as well as a tiny hidden indoor stair. Unlike later Greek Revival structures, the house has no central hall; instead, rooms open to the outside for ventilation. There are seven fireplaces, and the sturdy framing beams are of pit-sawn red cypress and blue poplar, notched and pegged together.

In 1824 Live Oak was acquired by Bennett Barrow, and a century later Katherine Towles LeSassier and her husband operated a post office and school for neighborhood children who arrived on horseback. By the 1960’s, Live Oak was unoccupied; cattle grazed on the grounds, the back porch had fallen off, the third-floor attic was full of rats and bats and wasps. None of which deterred dedicated preservationist Sue Turner, who with her husband purchased the house in 1975, having loved it ever since receiving as a young girl a small watercolor of it by artist Charles Reineke purchased in New Orleans. They immediately commenced a sensitive and thorough restoration under the direction of restoration architect Samuel Wilson.

Sunnyside Also now in the Weyanoke plantation community, Sunnyside was languishing abandoned in a field in Pointe Coupee until a dedicated historian trucked it across the Mississippi River bridge and reassembled it on a treeless sweet potato field. Sunnyside was built near Lettsworth in 1838 for Laura Thomas, niece of General Philemon Thomas, hero of the 1810 West Florida Rebellion and the War of 1812. She was 15 when she was married Charles Tessier, and after her death in 1852 Sunnyside was occupied by the plantation overseer and not subjected to modern improvements, remaining a veritable time capsule.

Still, only an experienced eye would have noticed the potential in the unpretentious little story-and-a-half structure with its rusted tin roof sitting abandoned in an overgrown field near Lettsworth. Fortunately, David Floyd, Rural Life Museum director and longtime preservationist, had the requisite experienced eye, recognizing immediately that this typical bluffland house type, vernacular architecture at its best, would fit in perfectly with neighboring historic homes in Weyanoke. And so the little Sunnyside house was meticulously disassembled and moved, then put back together. Its lumbering trip across the old bridge at Baton Rouge in December 1997 made the television news more than once.

Sunnyside’s lush landscaping is a tribute to Floyd’s beloved longtime mentor, the late landscape architect Steele Burden. Maturing live oaks line the drive from the Tunica Trace, a crape myrtle tunnel draws the visitor through the pieux picket fence to the patterned plantings at the entrance, and a side potager of herbs and vegetables is presided over by a traditional weathered dovecote. Eminently suited to this 19th-century home, these plantings anchor the house beautifully to its site.
nydrieNydrie is a handsome raised Creole cottage that was filled with stored hay until salvaged and relocated from Tangipahoa. Constructed in the 1850s in Tangipahoa near the Confederate training camp called Camp Moore, it was used as a hospital during the Civil War. The upper floor was the living space, while the open lower level, its walls of old brick upwards of 16” thick, was used as a rustic dirt-floored carriageway for wagons and buggies. In 1997, the upper floor of the house was cut in half and moved on two 18-wheelers to property originally part of Rosedown Plantation; the upper walls and floors, all of wood, proved to be in remarkably good condition, as were the upstairs doors. The hip roof, removed prior to the relocation, was replaced with a new gable one. The downstairs brick, some so old they had embedded animal footprints, were saved and reused.
Today spacious rooms flank a wide center hallway on the upstairs “premier etage,” and the lower floor has been enclosed as well. The house has been beautifully furnished with an eclectic collection reflecting the diverse tastes and extensive travels of the owners, Earl and Anne S. Eichins, New Orleanians who found refuge in St. Francisville after Hurricane Katrina. Now both occupants and home have been admirably settled into their new location, the old house grounded by terraces of old brick, arbors hung with climbing roses and a parterre garden.

In town, the comfortable little cottage called Ardisia has benefitted from a succession of master builders enhancing its charms through the generations. Its hilltop site provided an ideal vantage point for viewing the passage of history, adjacent to the courthouse square and overlooking the major thoroughfare traversed by cattle drives and cotton wagons en route to the Mississippi River port of Bayou Sara below the hill.

As the area struggled to recover from the Civil War, court documents seem to indicate that the property was owned by William Walter Leake, respected judge, bank president and state legislator who raised 11 children in the Barrow House on connecting property facing Royal St. When Johnson Street was carved out to connect Royal and Ferdinand Sts., it separated several lots facing Ferdinand that in 1878 had been sold to Thomas Raynham of a family of expert craftsmen, joiners and brickmasons whose skills were evident in beautiful Grace Church.

ArdisaIn 1919, widowed Mary Ann Raynham’s will left to her niece Mamie Levert “my three lots with house and all improvements thereon facing Ferdinand in the town of St. Francisville, also six silver teaspoons.” Mamie’s relative Thomas Raynham, that English-born master builder, had constructed for her a comfortable bungalow overlooking Ferdinand Street, where her husband Dr. Eloi Levert kept a medical office in a front room. On the adjacent lot Mamie inherited from her aunt was a cottage for their cook Aunt Nellie. When Mamie died in 1939, this property was sold for $3,500 to Willie Randolph Cason, whose son-in-law, Rodney Cassagne, was a master carpenter.

The house now called Ardisia, originally two front rooms, two rear cabinets or small rooms, and at least one dirt-floored room, really began to take shape as Cassagne replaced the roof, added two back rooms and stair, reframed the second floor, poured concrete for the front porch; bricks from the original fireplace formed the front walk. In 1985 Cason heirs sold the property for more than $41,000. Current owner Melissa Higgins moved to St. Francisville in 2002, found the occupants of this little hilltop cottage erecting a For Sale sign, and bought it practically the same day.

Other features of the 2014 Audubon Pilgrimage include Afton Villa Gardens, Audubon (Oakley) and Rosedown State Historic Sites, three 19th-century churches in town and beautiful St. Mary’s in the country, plus the Rural Homestead with lively demonstrations of the rustic skills of daily pioneer life. Audubon Market Hall houses the popular antique show and sale, and the Audubon Play will be performed several times daily on Saturday and Sunday in recently restored Temple Sinai. Daytime features are open 9:30 to 5; Friday evening activities are scheduled from 6 to 9 p.m., Saturday soiree begins at 7 p.m.
The Historic District around Royal Street is filled during the day with the happy sounds of costumed children singing and dancing the Maypole; in the evening as candles flicker and fireflies flit among the ancient moss-draped live oaks, there is no place more inviting for a leisurely stroll. Friday evening features old-time Hymn Singing at the United Methodist Church, Audubon Play in Temple Sinai, Graveyard Tours at Grace Episcopal cemetery (last tour begins at 8:15 p.m.), and a wine and cheese reception at Bishop Jackson Hall (7 to 9 p.m.) featuring Vintage Dancers and young ladies modeling the pilgrimage’s exquisitely detailed 1820’s evening costumes, nationally recognized for their authenticity. Light Up The Night, the Saturday evening soiree, features live music and dancing, dinner and drinks beginning at 7 p.m.

Afton Villa GardensFor tickets and tour information, contact West Feliciana Historical Society, Box 338, St. Francisville, LA 70775; phone 225-635-6330 or 225-635-4224; online, email . New this year is a package including daytime tours, evening entertainment Friday and Saturday, and a Saturday picnic lunch. Tickets can be purchased at the Historical Society Museum on Ferdinand Street.

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 restored plantation homes are open for tours daily: Cottage Plantation, Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season. 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 some weekends to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Sunday and Monday).

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and shops, many in restored historic structures, and restaurants serving everything from ethnic cuisine to 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 historic district; there are also motel accommodations for bus groups.

For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224; online visit, or (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).