Our tour guide warned us, “This will not be your traditional tour.” She had my attention. We were ready to walk into a stately plantation home on the banks of the Mississippi River about 45 minutes west of New Orleans. Of all of the historic plantations scattered along the river and open to tourists, my friends and I had chosen this one. According to the website, it seemed to have an interesting history and the guidebooks claimed it was in good condition. None of the plantations have major historical value in terms of famous Americans who lived in them or events that occurred at them.
So, we entered Houmas House, named for the nearby Houmas Indians. Our guide said we could touch and even sit on much of the furniture. Nothing was roped off. She didn’t talk about every painting or piece of furniture, which was a relief. But she also didn’t talk much about the family who built the house, life on the plantation, the challenges of slavery, the change over time… I expected a little more history. From the website I learned that the Greek Revival mansion begun by Revolutionary War general Wade Hampton was completed in 1828. An earlier and less opulent house was built in the mid-1700s. The plantation became once the largest sugar producers in the country and during its most productive years, in the late 1800s, it produced 20 million pounds of sugar annually. But a devastating 1927 flood followed by the Great Depression sent the property into a spiral of ruin. The grand alley of live oaks was diminished by the river’s changing course and the gardens and home fell into disrepair.
I wanted to hear about the complexities of slavery (though we did learn that Louisiana had more than a thousand slave owners of color), about the cash crop, sugar cane, and how it fit into the market system.
Our guide sat down at a rare Steinway from Germany and sang a song from the Bette Davis movie “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte,” which was filmed on the property. She talked about crazy Southerners and about the dog “wedding” staged at the house to garner publicity when a multi-million dollar renovation was completed. We looked at the dog’s wedding gown in a case in the Bette Davis room and I wondered about this untraditional tour.
The “Crown Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road,” (as identified on the site’s web page) the house is a beautiful example of Greek Revival architecture and has been preserved to look as it did in 1840. It’s also an example of an owner’s attempts to live in a historic property while earning enough revenue to maintain it. It is advertised as a popular wedding venue and the various amenities on the site clearly cater to multiple revenue-generating uses for the property. Future plans for the site include guest accommodations and an exhibit about riverboats. It must also compete for tourist dollars with the other grand homes along the river. Maybe it takes a dog wedding and constant references to a film shot there in 1963. It was an entertaining tour and our guide was enthusiastic, to say the least. But history value? At the end of the tour she made a pitch for the support of historic properties across the nation. Bravo, was all I could say (and shake my head at the untraditional tour).
Upon further reflection, while I can be repulsed by the commercial aspect of the site, I must admire the owner for seeking to preserve the property. I would hope he would want to educate the property’s visitors about the deep complexities of plantation life and of the ills of slavery. I’m sure some research would reveal fascinating stories that would touch on many themes in American history. But, what do these visitors want from their visit? I’m sure more than a few of them, brides included, just want a setting that helps them imagine the “romantic” days when the plantation mistress didn’t have a care. To foster this view without the other perspectives is a disservice to all who visit.
Hi, Tim, thanks for this post. I think it raises important questions about the “difficult” content of historic plantation houses. It reminded me of some articles we ran a few years ago in the museum journal Exhibitionist. The theme of the issue was “The Unexhibitable” and it included a couple of articles that you and readers might find useful. Go to Exhibitionist Archives on http://www.name-aam.org and look for the Fall 2008 issue. Julia Rose, Name by Name, Face by Face: Elevating Historic Representations of American Slave Life. and Andrea Douglas, Forming American Identities: Our Southern Legacy.
Thanks for this post. I haven’t visited the site, but I think your critical perspective is important.
You are too critical!
I’m a historian, we’re trained to be critical.
Thanks for sharing, Tim, but you didn’t say if you sat on the furniture. 🙂 For readers who enjoy mysteries, check out “The Cutting Season” by Attica Locke (2012), which takes place at an historic Louisiana plantation that’s now a house museum similar to Houmas House.
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