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  • Belle Grove Plantation: Attempts to Preserve

    a Doomed American Landmark

    Jonathan Sargent ARHA364 J. Siry May 15, 2009

  • 1

    In 1948, Clarence John Laughlins images of Belle Grove plantation appeared in

    his book, Ghosts Along the Mississippi; timeless photographs of a porticoed mansion

    battered under the effects of time and the harsh Louisiana climate. As the greatest

    ruined house in the entire Mississippi valley, the plantation stood as a doomed entity

    haunted by misfortune yet tragically beautiful. Through his nine images of the

    building, Laughlin presented to the world a marvel of the Old South desperately in need

    of help [Fig. 1]. It was certainly not the first time attention had been drawn to the site but

    it would be one of the last since the effects of nature and fire would turn the building into

    a mere pile of bricks within four years of the books publication.

    Frequently, Belle Grove has served as a symbol of the post-war South, a remnant

    of a past and distant culture. However, the building more accurately tells the story of

    economic collapse and a nations undying pursuit of progress instead of preservation.

    The collapse of the Louisiana sugar industry in the 1920s sent the house into a period of

    neglect in turn exposing structural flaws in the building that led to its steady

    deterioration. Despite the rise of the preservation movement in America, the houses

    impractically large size, its precarious location near the river, and the inability to gain

    funding or public support during a period marred by economic struggles and world wars

    doomed the building.

    The hulking mass of Belle Grove provides an intriguing glance into the

    extravagant lifestyle of the sugar plantation owners who composed one of the most elite

    communities in America prior to the Civil War. The mansion, positioned on a plantation

    of seven thousand acres at is peak, was home to the family of John Andrews who had

    made a fortune in Virginia and moved to Louisiana to try his hand in the sugar cane

  • 2

    industry. Andrews curiously commissioned Henry Howard, a relatively young and

    inexperienced architect working out of New Orleans to construct the seventy five room

    house in 1857.1 Composed primarily of elements in the Greek Revival style, a style

    popular in Louisiana and across the entire South at this time, the house also utilized

    Gothic and Italianate elements to create a truly unique design. The two story structure

    was mounted atop high foundations with two huge colonnades along two sides of the

    main block and two additional wings extending out from the central rectangular block

    [Fig. 2]. The structures asymmetrical layout works to provide the illusion that the

    building is even more immense than it truly is since it dominates ones view both

    vertically and horizontally.

    Andrews was clearly not satisfied with building himself a mansion; he wanted his

    to be a display of wealth and technology unparalleled in the United States. Atop the

    thirty foot columns on the exterior were capitals consisting of six foot blocks of

    intricately carved cypress wood, the size of which was unprecedented in Louisiana.2

    Descriptions and photos of the homes interior further reveal why the house was

    constructed at the astronomical cost of seventy-five thousand dollars. Twelve onyx

    mantels imported from Europe were installed in the house along with silver keyhole

    guards and doorknobs in each room, and elaborate plasterwork carried out by expert

    European craftsmen.3 For dining purposes, there was a great dumbwaiter in the house

    which some believed to be one of, if not the largest, in the South.4 However, the

    crowning technological accomplishment of the design was what has been said to have

    been the first bathtub in the South, made possible by two water cisterns in the attic

    capable of capturing up to ten thousand gallons of rainwater.5

  • 3

    The houses splendor soon made it a renowned location for lavish parties and the

    courting of Andrews five daughters, although this all came to a halt upon the outbreak of

    the Civil War. Following the war, the financially-pressed Andrews was forced to sell the

    house to Henry Ware in 1868 along with 1809 adjoining acres of plantation land.6 Like

    Andrews, the Wares shared a great affinity for entertainment and life in the spotlight.

    The house became an entertainment landmark and a symbol for the recovering South as it

    slowly stepped out of Reconstruction into a period of growing prosperity. Two

    racetracks and accompanying stables were built on the property and a collection of

    furnishings later estimated at five hundred thousand dollars was accumulated at the

    house.7 The home remained in the Wares possession until 1925 when they too were

    forced to sell the property under financial stress.

    Despite its lavish beginnings, Belle Grove has become better known for its

    twentieth century identity, as a site that progressed steadily into ruin. By 1908, this

    process had already begun with the race tracks, stables, and possibly even the sugar

    refineries having ceased operation [Fig. 3].8 The plantation continued to produce sugar

    and it is unclear whether sugar was sent to other plantations in order to be refined or

    whether there was a refinery on the site that continued to be operated. The greatest

    deterioration at the site occurred after the house was sold in 1925, after which point

    nobody resided there. In fact, the Wares had abandoned the home in 1924 a year prior to

    selling it since they simply could not afford for its upkeep. A 1927 description of the

    structure mentions that there was much damage in the upstairs due to leaks in the ceiling.

    The intricate plasterwork had fallen in many places, the woodwork was battered and

    discolored and bottles lay on the floor of the home indicating its use by trespassers.9

  • 4

    Although the hope of restoration was sparked in the 1930s by the sites change in

    ownership, the plantation continued to deteriorate. The effects of nature began to become

    too much for the structure to handle for as one author noted while the soft air of the

    Deep South builds quickly, it quickly destroys.10 By 1936, large portions of the roof had

    fallen in allowing massive amounts of moisture to penetrate the structure. The great

    mahogany spiral staircase, once lauded for its beautiful contours, had been destroyed and

    many of the windows shattered.11 Within a year, all of the doors, balustrades and

    windows had been removed by greedy looters and poor neighbors in search of materials.

    It was reported that already the elements were beginning to compromise the structure of

    the building, with some of the rafters sagging under the weight of the collapsed slate

    roof.12 Within a few years, the entire wing in which the spiral staircase was located

    collapsed. Belle Grove, grandiose even in its wreckage, began to take on a new

    persona as the romanticized ruin that would characterize it for its remaining years.13

    Throughout the 1940s, the structure began to draw more and more attention with

    many sources comparing it to the ancient ruins of Rome. By 1945, only seventeen acres

    remained of the once noble plantation and animals grazed in and around the gaping mass

    of the house. It had become as much a wreck as it was the perfection of colonial

    construction in its earlier days.14 On March 15, 1952 the structure once known as the

    grandest house in all of the United States was consumed by flames and reunited with the

    ghosts of the past.15 Since the house had been in such a neglected state before the fire

    and since ninety percent of the house was made of brick, the blaze did not actually

    drastically change the appearance of the ruined mansion. However, the fire did consume

    the rafters, the frontal pediment and all of the remaining plaster leaving the remaining

  • 5

    brick structure dangerous and subject to collapse.16 The burned remains of the building

    were bought in 1955 and razed in order to make way for a housing development that now

    stands where the mansion once loomed. The only remnants of the site that exist are a few

    great oak trees that once surrounded the house.

    Belle Groves condition prior to the fire was a direct reflection of the deteriorating

    economic state of Louisiana as a whole. Formerly one of the richest states in the Union

    prior to the Civil War, Louisiana subsequently became the poorest.17 Sugar production

    had represented the most profitable industry in antebellum Louisiana and had relied

    entirely upon a large amount of slave labor. Following the war, Belle Grove and the

    other mansions located along the stretch of the Mississippi River known as the River

    Road crumbled under the financial demands of employing a paid work force.

    Following the post-war struggles of Reconstruction, sugar plantations did manage

    to rebound, reaching record production numbers by 1904. However, this period of

    prosperity was short-lived. The following period from 1906 to 1926 became known as the

    Great Decline due to huge decreases in sugar production that devastated the Louisiana

    economy. In 1912, heavy freezes and damaging floods lead to a disastrous crop. In