2010
10.30

On a recent trip to Southern Louisiana, my family and I made a visit to the Oak Alley Plantation, one of the most acclaimed plantations remaining in this part of the country.  This iconic location can be found on Louisiana’s fabled Great Mississippi River Road, a corridor approximately 70 miles in length located on each side of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.  This area includes the river, levees, and their adjacent lands on which remain the state’s most famous and recognizable group of monumental plantation houses, most built by wealthy sugar planters in the Greek Revival style.

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As early as 1827, one traveler along Louisiana’s River Road described the region as follows: “Everywhere thickly peopled by sugar planters, whose showy houses, gay piazzas, trim gardens, and numerous slave-villages, all clean and neat, gave an exceedingly thriving air to the river scenery.” More than half a century later Mark Twain journeyed down the river to revisit some of his old haunts. He records: “From Baton Rouge to New Orleans, the great sugar plantations border both sides of the river all the way, . . . Plenty of dwellings . . . standing so close together, for long distances, that the broad river lying between two rows, becomes a sort of spacious street. A most home-like andhappy-looking region.”*

The grand homes described by these observers were built by immensely wealthy sugar planters during the 30 years prior to the Civil War. They epitomize the conspicuous consumption lifestyle characteristic of the so-called Gold Coast during that period and were the absolute apex of the Greek Revival style in Louisiana. Although the Greek Revival dominates, visitors to the River Road can see plantation houses in other styles as well, including a limited number of Creole houses.  The entire River Road was once Creole, but one by one these early buildings were either modified or replaced. And, while it never even began to challenge the Greek Revival in popularity, the Italianate style 20101022_OakAlleyPlantation_061is also represented among the region’s majestic plantation homes.*

Among those homes built in Greek Revival style, there are few that capture viewer’s attention like the Oak Alley Plantation.  This could be attributed to the foreward thinking of an unknown settler who claimed land along the Mississippi River in the early 1700s from an original royal grant and defined its entrance with an alley of live oaks in two rows leading to the river.  This quarter-mile canopy of giant oak trees, believed to be nearly 300 years old, forms an unforgettable avenue leading from the river to a gorgeous classic Greek Revival-style antebellum home.

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Oak Alley’s adaptive restoration in 1925 by her new owners, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Stewart, was the first example of antebellum restoration along the River Road. Through the years, Oak Alley was the scene of many events affecting those who had given her a second chance at survival in the struggle against time and the elements. Josephine Stewart outlived her husband by 26 years and, shortly before her death on October 3, 1972, created a non-profit foundation, which would be known as the Oak Alley Foundation, in order that the home and 25 acres of ground would remain open for all to share.**

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*Excerpt from The River Road website – http://www.nps.gov/history/nr/travel/louisiana/riverroad.htm

** Excerpt from Oak Alley Plantation website – http://www.oakalleyplantation.com/

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