Houmas House, constructed in the Greek Revival is style, known as the Sugar Palace due to it being the mansion of the owner of a prominent sugar plantation. Dating back to 1775 it has been substantially extended and restored over the years and today provides an excellent view of what life was like during the Antebellum period of the Southern States of America.
The Houmas House, known as the Sugar Palace, is a mansion from the Antebellum Period (the Antebellum Period spanned the end of the War of 1812 to the start of the American Civil War in 1861), that has been restored to show the opulence that a sugarcane estate had in the 1880s.
Located on high ground on a curve of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the land was first inhabited by the Houmas Indians, which is where its name came from, and it was where the house stands today that they would conduct their ceremonies. The land was obtained by Alexander Latil and Maurice Conway from the Houma tribe in 1774. Latil built a French Colonial-style plantation house at the site around 1775.
By 1803 it had become a working sugarcane plantation and shortly after was purchased by Louisiana politician Daniel Clark, who began to develop the property and built one of the first sugar mills along this stretch of the river. He also built a new center hall cottage directly in front of the 1700s French House.
In 1811, the former American Revolutionary War general Wade Hampton purchased Clark's land holdings and slaves making him one of the wealthiest landowners and largest slaveholders in the South. In 1829, Hampton began the task of enlarging the Cottage and transforming it into the Classical Revival Mansion that stands today.
For over 240 years, the Houmas Mansion evolved and grew although the great colonnade has not changed since 1829, when General Hampton set out to build his mansion.
The mansion remained in the Hampton family until the death of Wade Hampton II in 1858, when the Houmas Plantations, contained over twelve thousand acres of the finest quality of cultivable land, and a workforce of over five hundred and fifty slaves. It was sold to John Burnside, for $1,000,000 (which is about $29,500,000 in today's money) making it the finest property possessed by a single proprietor in America.
John Burnside was 48 years old when he acquired the Houmas, and immediately began enlarging the estate and purchasing other sugar plantations along the Mississippi River. Burnside was to become known as “The Sugar Prince,” by attaining the largest sugar empire in the South.
Burnside died at the age of 71 and left his estate to his boyhood friend, Oliver Beirne who, on his death in 1888, bequeathed the estate to his five grandchildren. In 1892 they transferred all their interests to the Miles Planting Company and William P. Miles was appointed President.
During the 1890’s the mansion was enlarged by connecting the 1829 mansion to the French House, to the rear. The carriageway was created between the two buildings and two additional bedrooms and a center hall were added to the 2nd floor of the mansion. During this period, the 2nd floor housed seven bedrooms. The first floor of the mansion was re-designed to accommodate the extensive library of William Porcher Miles, incorporating the current Dining Room and creating a larger dining room in the rear of the building.
In 1899, at the age of 77, William Porcher Miles died, and the Houmas Estate and Company were inherited by William P. Miles, Jr., and his sisters.
Miles entertained lavishly at the mansion with people often staying for considerable periods of time, which could extend to many weeks.
In the 1920s, the Miles’s were forced to sell off much of the estate due to a failed sugar crop. This resulted in them moving to New Orleans, and using the Houmas for weekend and Holiday retreats.
In 1892 William Miles closed the various sugar houses and built the new Houmas Central Factory with the capacity of producing 10 million pounds of sugar annually. In order to get the cane to the factory he constructed a narrow gauge railroad with three steam engines and five hundred cane cars, the track was located just behind the house. Also at the rear of the house are restaurants - of which the house has four – an art gallery, and a gift shop.
The Mansion is an excellent example of Greek Revival architecture in which the main structure is surrounded by grand columns, each with an uninterrupted span from ground level to the roofline.
The Gardens cover 38 acres and include many courtyards, fountains, and sitting areas.
In the 1940’s the Mansion was purchased by Doctor George Crozat as a country escape from his home in New Orleans. The look of the Mansion was then “Federalized” by the removal of ornate features such as cornices, crown moldings, and ceiling medallions, and the structure was painted white, both inside and out. It was at this time that the building was modernised with the addition of modern plumbing and changes being made to the service quarters, including the addition of an upstairs hallway to connect the two structures and the installation of a striking Palladian window that provides a view of the fountain courtyard.
In 2003 the Mansion was purchased by New Orleans businessman and preservationist Kevin Kelly and he set about recreating the experience of encountering Houmas House as it was when completed in 1840.
The mansion’s exterior style of architecture is Greek Revival, in which the main structure is surrounded on three sides by 14 monumental Doric columns, each having an uninterrupted span from ground level to the roofline. The building is painted in rich ochre, which reflects the influence of Mediterranean villas owned by wealthy Europeans, something that the southern planters emulated. The hipped roof is crowned with arched dormer windows and a belvedere (an architectural structure sited to take advantage of a fine or scenic view), which is known as the Widows Walk and is said to be haunted.
The entrance roadway is lined with oaks forming a canopy, these were planted in the 1830s. In 1927 the front gates, that lead up to the front of the mansion were moved 125 feet closer to the house to enable the river levee to be constructed. As the house is situated by the river it is a frequent stop for river cruise boats.
In the grounds are two restored matching brick octagonal garçonnières, or bachelors' quarters. They are two stories, with a sitting room on the first floor and a bedroom on the second.
There are also numerous other brick service structures adjacent to the house.
Today visitors are able to see the house as it was in 1840 and how it architecturally evolved. They are also able to see many rare and period artwork and artifacts which are displayed and these are used by the guides to explain plantation life.
The interior features and finishes have been reinstalled in their original form and the house contains many beautiful pieces of furniture, ornaments, and paintings. Many of the great artists of the time worked in the house.
Entry is into the central hallway, which has a room-size mural with a sugar cane with the sky above painted on the ceiling. The sugar cane mural was common in many plantation homes along the Mississippi.
From the hallway visitors enter the dining room which displays a number of items that were used in the room, including an interesting glass container used to trap flies.
Wide doors connect the Dining Room and the Ladies' Parlour. Both rooms have a black marble fireplace. The Ladies Parlour, also known as the Music Room, contains a beautiful chandelier, a harp, and a piano, with family portraits displayed on the walls, including that of Caroline Hampton, the daughter of General Wade Hampton, just behind the piano.
Across the hallway is the Gentlemen’s Parlour which is where the owner would entertain his male guest with drinks, smokes, and gambling. The décor is much darker in this room with darker walls and mouldings. The reason for this is to conceal the nicotine stains. The statue in the right corner of the room was brought from Portugal, it was supposed to represent a Native American Indian but a close look at the face indicates that the woman is probably Greek.
The next room is the Oval room which when the house was purchased in 1940 by Doctor George Crozat, necessitated him carrying out significant alterations to the building, which included the installation of plumbing and the installation of the free-standing three-story spiral staircase, which follows the curvature of the adjacent wall. The staircases banisters being shaped over a period of two years to form the desired shape.
Up the stairs are the bedrooms, four are open to visitors with the most famous being the Bette Davis Room. This is named after the film star who stayed there for three months and slept in the bed during the time that the film Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte was being shot, in fact, a number of films were made at Houmas House.
On display in this room are a number of Voodoo objects as well as other items.
The next room visited is the Children's Bedroom which contains a number of interesting objects including a rocking horse, a folding stroller, which can be adjusted in height, and a piece of furniture that can serve as a table or as a child’s desk.
This level of the house allows access to the veranda which provides views over the grounds at the front of the house.
The Master's Bedroom contains a step to enable the person to get into the bed, but this also contains a chamber pot.
Returning to a lower level is found the kitchen where numerous artifacts used to prepare coffee beans and sugar cane, and to make cigars and candles.
It should be noted that visitors are likely to see some additional or different rooms, for the route will depend on the guide, as these are given a certain amount of freedom in a visit and can talk about the things that their group is interested in.
The visit provides a great deal of information about the house and the way of life in those times and is rated as Louisiana’s top tourist location.