Skip to main content

The River Houses

May 2024
3min read

Along the Mississippi the spirit of vanished culture lingers in the ruined columns of the great plantations

In southern Louisiana, along the misty, turbulent lower Mississippi, can be found some of the most evocative relics of the American past. These plantation houses—a few preserved, but most in ruins now, nearly hidden by the humid lushness of cypress and hanging moss—are what remain of the last great non-urban culture in the United States.

This was a culture that reached its apogee in the 1840’s and 50’s, a culture that rested on a triangular base formed of slavery, sugar, and cotton. The affluent planters, employing sometimes hundreds of slaves, carved out great fields of cane and cotton from the wilderness along the Mississippi. The great houses they raised helped create an undying legend of the antebellum South.

Now only the legend and the poetry are left. The culture began to crumble with the Civil War. First to fall was the vital structure of slavery. In the next twenty years both the sugar and cotton markets sagged in the face of international competition. Finally, industrialism wrought its great changes in the social structure, in land ownership, in wealth. Most of the planters floundered, and then failed. The plantations were broken up, the mighty houses fell into disrepair. The heavy hand of weather, verdant nature, and fire did the rest. In less than a century this culture was born, flourished, and died.

The plantation houses, architecturally speaking, fall roughly into two periods. The first. Colonial, nourished in the Eighteenth Century and up to about 1820. The style, as befitted the nationality of the early Louisiana settlers, was based on French Provincial. Usually two stories high with a covered gallery the houses had walls of cement-covered brick, with columns up to the second story. The upper level had cypress beams and handcarved colonettes, with a long-sloping shingle roof.

By the 1820’s, however, fortunes were being made. Out of Colonial grew a new and more magnificent architecture called Louisiana or Creole Classic. This great style had undeniable Greek Revival and Georgian influences, but was shaped by the peculiar environment. By the 1840’s buildings appeared that were entirely indigenous, dominated by Louisiana characteristics, and built on a Louisiana plan with Louisiana materials. In many ways they embodied the most original architecture evolved anywhere in this country during the Nineteenth Century.

Such a house was roughly square in form, with a tremendous hipped rool and a great attic for insulation against the heat of the sun. Melow were two floors with walls of brick, and huge central halls running straight through the house. All the rooms—large, high-ceilinged, usually four to a floor—opened onto the central halls and also onto the deep galleries that encircled the house. Maximum cross ventilation, so vital in the semitropical climate, was thus insured, since the deep galleries meant that only in the early morning and late afternoon could the fierce sunlight enter the rooms. They were deep enough, too, to allow the jalousies to be kept open during the heavy Louisiana rains.

No useless ornamentation appeared on the exteriors of most of these houses; the entablatures and galleries stressed the stark, pure quality of the cypress wood, while the simple walls and columns heightened the massive and monumental quality of brick. The great columns were often left to weather to an almost luminous soft white. Sometimes the plaster, both exterior and interior, was tinted in exquisitely subtle colors—pale pink or green or buff.

Since Louisiana had no stone quarries, the builders turned to the swamps and the inexhaustible clay of the Mississippi’s banks. Thanks to the cheap slave labor, bricks were made by the thousands from this clay, often right on the construction site, and held together by a particularly tenacious mortar. From the swamps came the funereal cypress, easily worked and—most important—damp-resistant, for the great beams.

In meeting and solving the peculiar conditions of available building materials, the climate, and the economic and psychological needs of the people of that age, these poetically beautiful classic houses were probably as functional as anything being built today.

Not all of the Louisiana plantation houses of this Classic period were of the indigenous type, however. There were some of a more purely Greek Revival character, similar to those in Mississippi or along the Atlantic Coast. There was also the unique Palladian magnificence of Belle Grove Plantation (pages 60-61). Finally, there were some which cannot be fitted into any particular category: San Francisco Plantation, a fantasia on a steamboat theme with Gothic overtones; or Afton Villa, a flamboyant, turreted combination of Victorian and Gothic that is in reality a forty-room house built around a smaller house complete even to the roof, which the owner would not tear down because of its memories of his first wife.

The great Classic plantations were nearly all laid out on the same pattern. In front of the house, at eitherside, were the garçonnières, used as guest houses; at the rear were the plantation office on one side, and the kitchen on the other. Directly behind the house were the gardens, flanked by pigeonniers and the carriage houses. Usually at the rear of the gardens were the privy, often in itself a marvel of architecture, and the rows of slave cabins. Then came the fields of cane or cotton. Last was the cotton gin or the sugar mill. It was practically a self-sufficient community.

The main house, symbolically, faced the waterway, which often was the Mississippi itself. This was the primary route to the outside world and its markets, in that day a way around the impassable swamps and often useless roads. From the landing to the house there commonly led an allée —in one case, at Pine Oak Plantation near St. Martinville, three miles long—framed by magnificent old trees, usually oak, entwined overhead to form a veritable tunnel and interspersed with pieces of classical statuary.

Here the imagination and the poetry take over: a great puffing steamboat discharging its passengers at the landing, and the equally great house, softly lighted, its tall columns luminous in the moonlight, to be seen through the cathedral-like tunnel of trees—this is the stuff that legends are made of.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.