Woodlawn Plantation

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Woodlawn Plantation, near Napoleonville, Louisiana, built 1840, photographed 1938. Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress.

 

I’ve been thinking about a couple of things during the past day or so: George Washington Cable’s story ‘Jean-ah Poquelin’ (1875), the fourth tale in his ‘Old Creole Days’ collection, and the now vanished plantation house known as Woodlawn, which once stood a few miles south of Napoleonville in Assumption Parish, Louisiana. Somehow the two have become fused in my mind, although Cable’s story is set in about 1805 in an overgrown plantation house outside New Orleans, and Woodlawn was not built until 1840 and in a much more rural location in the state. But both houses are mysterious, Poquelin’s because it revolves around a somewhat spectral secret not revealed until the end of the story, and Woodlawn because it was so unique architecturally for its time and place, and because its decline was so slow and, viewed photographically and in terms of the few extant first hand accounts which have survived, pathetic to an extreme degree. I will leave my readers to explore Cable’s story for themselves and refrain from spoiling the plot. But Woodlawn I can say a few words about.

It was built by a newcomer to the Napoleonville area, William Whitmell Pugh, who along with his brothers had grown up along the North Carolina-Virginia border and headed southwest to make their fortunes in first indigo and then sugar. William’s brother Thomas built the even grander house known as Madewood which, in a splendid state of repair even today, stands a bit closer to Napoleonville and has a fine website of its own. Woodlawn was somewhat unique as far as elegant southern mansions went: it had relatively low ceilings; it was not confined to a single colonnaded block, but had graceful one-storey side wings constructed at right angles to the main house a decade after the latter was built; it had an indoor bathroom complete with marble tub more than a decade before the Civil War. According to all accounts, Woodlawn was a very artfully and efficiently run plantation with more than 300 slaves, 100 miles of ditching, 200 acres of pasture, 800 acres of cane and 1500 acres fenced altogether. One had to drive two full miles in order to pass the full length of William Whitmell Pugh’s property, and the area remains quite rural to this day. It is said to have had the first gas lighting ever installed in a private home in Louisiana, but I find that hard to believe. 

The decline of Woodlawn was prolonged and began directly after the Civil War. But even as late as 1938, when a large number of archival photos were taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey, the exterior walls, cement on brick, were a cheerful soft pink with white trim and green blinds, and the interiors were white with vermillion baseboards. The Ionic capitals atop the front columns were of marble, and two of them are said to grace the front entrance to another house outside Napoleonville today. Woodlawn’s bathtub, carved from marble in the form of a Roman sarcophagus, is supposedly in use somewhere else in the neighborhood even now. But the house vanished entirely in 1962. In 1938, when the Historic Buildings Survey was measuring and photographing the building for posterity, it was occupied by migrating workers from the neighboring cane fields who were breaking up the doors for firewood. Pathetic pictures of some of this can be seen on the Library of Congress website. The house looks so bad in those photos, in fact, that one wonders if it was really built to last, and if it was only a century of neglect which caused its demise. And there is disagreement as to whether it was ultimately pulled down or destroyed by fire. But Google Earth will show you that the area where it once stood is still largely unoccupied. The industrious restorer could make it rise again, and that, as they say, would really be something. 
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18 comments on “Woodlawn Plantation

  1. Susan Stone says:

    Thank you for giving me such a history of my father’s ancestors that I knew nothing about! I’ve seen Madewood and never knew anything about Woodlawn. I am researching family history and if you know anything about David Byron Pugh’s plantation, Energy, I would greatly appreciate your help.

    • leifhendrik says:

      Susan, I’m glad you find the information I posted interesting. I had not heard of the Energy plantation, but it’s a great name and now I want to learn more. I do have a few photos of your Pugh ancestor who built Woodlawn, taken in old age, which I can pass on to you if you like. I’d like to do another post on this blog on Woodlawn, in fact, because I have other information that I’d like to include. Madewood now serves as a very elegant place to stay, I think, and I’d love to have a couple of days there some time in the future. The whole area is really fascinating.

      • Susan Stone says:

        So so sorry that it has been such a long time since I viewed your reply. Unfortunately I had experienced some neurological issues involving my eyes and was unable to continue my research for a long time. If you are still willing, I’d love to have the photos that you mentioned of the Pughs. My father would have been delighted to see them! Thank you so much!

  2. A most interesting old house.. Please what remains today? Pics Would be nice

  3. leifhendrik says:

    I don’t think anything remains of the house today, unfortunately. There are conflicting accounts as to when it burned down. I think I’ve been able to locate the general spot where the house stood–it’s still a rural area, near the levee, not far from Napoleonville. I do have quite a few photos of the house, including basic floor plans and some interior shots. And there are some photos of its owner, the planter William Whitmell Pugh, in old age. I’d be happy to send you some of these by email, if you’d care to see them. As you say, Woodlawn was a very interesting house. Also: if you type ‘Woodlawn Plantation’ into the ‘search’ box at the top right of this page, you’ll find two other posts on Woodlawn, with more photos.

  4. Does anyone know where the physical address of this plantation would be maybe the latitude and longitude corrridantes would be? I hate that there is no real Wikipedia on this place. I like to look at where these old places would have been on google earth

    • I believe that this plantation house was located at the end of Woodlawn Rd, which runs east from Rd 308, south of Napoleonville. If you will google the address ‘Woodlawn Rd, Napoleonville, LA’, you should be able to find a satellite view of this area. From the air you will see a couple of groves of trees and some scattered farm buildings in the large clearing where Woodlawn Plantation house once stood.

  5. Virginia Wiggen says:

    You are correct that nothing remains of Woodlawn today. W.W. Pugh who built Woodlawn was my great-great grandfather. I have inherited several items that were at Woodlawn at one time and have some pictures of others that have survived and belong to various cousins. The Woodlawn cemetery still exists and is cared for by Pugh descendants in the area. I don’t know if you can discern if from the satellite view. Susan Stone should check out http://www.havensisters.com for information about David Bryan Pugh as the Madewood descendants who have this sight have done a lot of family research. If she e-mails me I can also put her in touch with additional Woodlawn descendants and get her on the family e-mail list if she would like.

    • Virginia Wiggen says:

      Just reread my comment. I don’t know where my mind was!
      Correction: – make that site [not sight]. and discern it [not if] 🙂

      • Susan Stone says:

        Dear Virginia, I read every page of Dear Nell totally mesmerized. I felt my ancestors come alive in those letters…a lot of sadness and a lot of answers to so many questions I’ve always had. I do hope I will hear from you soon to continue with my connection to the Pugh Family. I’m planning a day trip one day soon to visit Ellen at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York, as I live just a few hours away in New Jersey. I believe I read that the Pughs have held a family reunion at her gravesite and wonder if this continues. Please do email me at your convenience in regards to the family email list. I am eternally grateful to you for guiding me to the Haven Sisters website and would love to be able to write Kathleen McInerney to compliment her on her hard work and beautiful accomplishment in Dear Nell. Looking forward to hearing from you soon.

        Susan

    • Susan Stone says:

      Thank you so much, Virginia! I’d be so grateful to have the Pugh family information via the email list that you mentioned. I have a music box that came from Madewood and it has always been my most treasured piece. I only wish my father were alive now because he was so interested in family history. I truly appreciate your contacting me and look forward to hearing from you again.

    • Susan Stone says:

      I just visited the haven sisters.com site and am thrilled to learn about all the information about my great great grandmother, Ellen! Thank you isn’t saying enough for heading me to a world of family history! I ordered the book from Amazon right away!

    • Pauline Griffin says:

      I am interested to know the names of the Pugh descendants who care for the cemetery. We have an ancestor who was buried at Woodlawn in 1990s. Or if they or anyone in Houma knows who are buried there. Genealogy is fascinating.

      • Virginia Wiggen says:

        Pauline-1990’s or 1890’s? I have sent you personal e-mail and look forward to hearing from you.

  6. Virginia Wiggen says:

    Susan, I am delighted that you have been able to learn more about our family. If you feel comfortable sharing your e-mail address with me on this site, then I will pass it along to both Kathy McI. and Camille, our family ‘communicator’. If you aren’t comfortable putting your address out here, I will see if I can get Mark Mosher [who has e-mailed me] to give me yours or send you mine bu e-mail-a bit more private. There will be a bunch of Pughs [myself included] at Madewood on the weekend of April 9, if you are interested. It is probably too late to get a room at Madewood, but there will be a Sunday noon-ish gathering that you can probably still sign up for [actually don’t need to sign up unless you want to eat their delicious ‘picnic’ lunch.

    • Susan Stone says:

      Oh what a joy to receive your email, Virginia! I don’t really have a problem leaving my email on the site…it is sobmomus@comcast.net. Tell Kathy McI. to check out Amazon.com where I left a glowing review of her book just this afternoon. Thank you for including me in the Pugh gathering at Madewood on the weekend of April 9th. Unfortunately I will be in New York on the 9th and won’t be able to join you all, but hope to see photos of your get-together at beautiful Madewood. I look forward to being added to the family email site and hope that you can introduce me, so to speak, to various relations. I do hope that I can attend a future reunion of Pughs one day soon! Have a wonderful time at the “family plantation home” and know that I am already planning to bring my Louisiana Baked Beans to the next picnic lunch! Now that you have my email I look forward to hearing from you and more of our family members so we can continue Kathy’s heartwarming saga of the Pugh Family with our own stories. I’ll be thinking of y’all in the Bayou on April 9th! Best regards, Susan P.S. Don’t forget the mosquito spray!

  7. Kristen Graffeo says:

    I have pictures of the Woodlawn cemetery if anyone is interested.

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