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.