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.|
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.|
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.|
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 State Historic Site in St. Francisville, La.|
For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisville.us (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 www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com.