Sunday, September 8, 2013

Oak Alley Plantation - Plantation Visits Part 1.

About 45 minutes from New Orleans, by the banks of the Mississippi along the winding, picturesque Great River Road, are lavish estates with majestic plantation homes. For hundreds of years the sub-tropical air was filled with the sweet smell of sugarcane and opulence, wealth and culture clashed with slavery and tragedy to make this region, for better or worse, a part of American history. Our first stop on a two plantation tour is Oak Alley. I have wanted to visit this plantation since seeing Interview with a Vampire. In the movie this was Brad’s (Pitt) house and I was not to be disappointed. Leaving the tour bus, when we turned the corner and saw Oak Alley, my jaw dropped. The famous view appeared and it is every bit as stunning as any photograph depicting it. There are no words to describe the transcendent experience of walking down the main avenue toward the mansion. Once there, we were met by two charming people dressed in period costume who offered mint juleps or lemonade. Transcendence in gear. I was feeling mighty parched after all that walking without my parasol. Lord have mercy and pass me the mint julep. For the uninitiated, a mint julep is ice, bourbon and water with a little sugar and mint. But, what they really are is heaven and these are very good. One sip: transcendence is complete and I have stepped back in time. Civil war era. Lookout Rhett and Scarlett. The mansion’s design is Greek Revival architecture, featuring a free-standing colonnade of 28 Doric columns on all four sides, a common feature of antebellum mansions of the Mississippi Valley, though Oak Alley is supposedly one of the finest of those remaining. The pale pink white of the plastered columns and walls and the blue green of the louvered shutters and gallery railing gleam in the afternoon sun. Accompanied by a tour guide in period costume, once inside the house we entered the living room, where we learned the history of the original owners of the plantation, Jacques and Celina Roman. Celina's father built the house for the couple with his daughters comfort in mind. The veranda extends 13 feet from the walls, keeping the home in shade most of the day. As a designer what I found even more interesting was that the tall windows and doors face each other, allowing for cross ventilation and the ceilings are 12 feet high which allowed for maximum comfort during the hot humid summer Louisiana days. Across from the living room was the dining room where Celina hosted many parties. Sipping my mint julep, yes drinks are allowed in the house, I could imagine myself back in the day being entertained here. After the dining room, we headed up stairs where we first saw a sparse, solitary room. This would be in this room that a sick family member who was contagious or one who was dying slept. Oh my, pass the smelling salts; I do believe I'm getting the vapors. Across the hall was the nursery. The Roman's had 4 children, two of whom passed at young ages. Then onto the master suite and a lavender guest suite, lavender was the owner’s favorite color. The tour ends with a stop on the balcony which overlooks the “backyard”. Get your camera ready for the view of the line of oaks from the second floor balcony as the guide theatrically opens the floor to ceiling windows that lead to a balcony. It is an amazing sight. Planted before the house was constructed in 1837, there is an impressive double row of giant live oak trees which form an alley about 800 feet long, from which the property derived its present name. Unfortunately Oak Alley, like all plantations share an unhappy history and it can’t be denied that the wealth that built the property was predicated on slavery. There was nothing on the tour which glorified slavery or excused it but neither was there any real discussion about the slave trade or the slaves’ role on the plantation. There are a few slave cabins which you pass on the way to the house tour and they are currently reconstructing the slave quarters to do a better job of telling the history of the plantation and the South and more sobering (excuse the pun, after the mint juleps) is an inventory of plantation slaves, complete with names and their value taken from a census in April of 1848. But no one really comes here to learn the history, do they? They come for the scenic, picturesque grounds, which are breathtaking, the beautiful antebellum mansion and well, quite frankly the mint juleps which are phenomenal. Pass me another while I walk, otherwise I may swoon from the heat. Oak Alley is iconic for its design, its state of preservation and the unbeatable view of a canopy of aged, gigantic oak trees forming a verdant tunnel of Southern comfort grandeur. The grounds are beautifully maintained with magnolias galore, lush lawns, pristinely kept gardens and meandering pathways that encourage one to slow down, relax, and take it all in. There is also a former office turned into a garage which houses two original Ford Model T automobiles. As you stroll around this beautiful property, preferably with a mint julep in hand, it is easy to imagine a bygone era, and to step back in time. Rhett, I do believe that my corset is laced a little too tight, must be the mint juleps. Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn! Play acting aside, if you're going to visit plantations, definitely make this one of your stops. Yes, the tour was mainly about the white plantation owners with only a cursory mention of their slaves, but the 180-year old restored house is beautiful & the 300-year old oak trees are just outstanding. With knowledgeable and entertaining tour guides all dressed in period clothing which adds to the ambience, lax rules (photography, eating & sipping mint juleps anywhere in the house and property was permitted and even encouraged), I think Oak Alley is absolutely beautiful, interesting, historical, and entertaining. . "Oak Alley”... Home. I'll go home. And don’t worry about Rhett, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all... tomorrow is another day." (My apologies to Gone with the Wind, Scarlett and Rhett Butler, but Oak Alley brought out the Southern Belle in me). Pass the smelling salts, or better yet the mint julep!

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