Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana is distinguished by a hauntingly beautiful grove of live oak trees leading to a massive plantation home. No one knows who planted the trees or why, but they predate both the mansion and the plantation’s tumultuous history–one all too common among the grandest residences of the antebellum American South.
In 1837, Jacques Roman, who belonged to an elite French family that had settled in Louisiana in 1741, set out to build a home in the Greek Revival style, on property his brother-in-law already had established as a sugarcane plantation. Nearly 200 slaves worked the plantation, and they had created massive wealth for the Roman family. To build his home, Roman imported marble, slate, and glass by steamboat; the entire home was built by slaves.
Nearly two centuries later, most of the grand plantation houses of the period are long gone. Oak Alley still stands thanks to a careful restoration undertaken in 1925 by the last resident owners of the home, Andrew and Josephine Stewart. With the help of architect Richard Koch, Oak Alley became a model example of architectural restoration.
Toward the end of her life, Josephine Stewart created the Oak Alley Foundation, whose purpose is to share the mansion and its 25 surrounding acres with the public. Earlier this year, the foundation reconstructed several former slave quarters on the property to tell the stories of the plantation’s lesser known residents.
For information on visiting or lodging, see Oak Alley Plantation.
Photography via Oak Alley Plantation.
Above: The plantation first piqued my interest for its role as the home of vampire protagonist Louis de Pointe du Lac in the film Interview with a Vampire. But that detail melted away as I dug further into the history of the place.
Above: The plantation was named for its distinguishing feature, an 800-foot-long alley of live oak trees. Estimated to have been planted between 1725 and 1750, the trees are almost 300 years old. Photograph by Max Trombly.
Beyond the oak alley flows the Mississippi River. At the time the plantation house was built, white landowners in the region were thriving due to a robust sugar industry sustained by human slavery. But at the end of the Civil War, the home and plantation were no longer “economically viable” and fell into disrepair.
Above: Antoine, a slave who lived on the property, built a reputation as a master gardener. A nearby farmer had been unsuccessfully attempting to create a pecan tree suitable for commercial purposes, and charged Antoine with the task. Antoine succeeded at creating a variety of pecan that could be cracked with one’s hands, and it won a prize in the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Roman planted a grove of Antoine’s pecans on the plantation, but despite his instructions to leave the grove for perpetuity, the trees are now gone. However, the Oak Alley Foundation believes that some of Antoine’s variety may still be found throughout Louisiana.
Above: In addition to the oak trees, pecan and crepe myrtles trees pepper the landscape.
Above: Moss grows on the very old roots of a live oak tree. In 1995, these live oaks were inducted into the Live Oak Society, a club whose membership includes one honorary human and more than 7,000 trees. (The oak with the largest girth serves as president of the society.)
Above: The plantation is beautifully eery. Reports abound that the house and grounds are haunted–from visions of ladies in period dress to candlesticks flying across dining rooms.
Above: The plantation was once nicknamed the bon séjour, or “place of good living.” The moniker reflects one side of the story, but good lives for some came at the expense of many others. Photograph by Jana Hackett via Oak Alley Plantation.
Taken by the trees? Browse Gardenista’s Design Guide for Trees.
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