Palo Alto Plantation: Part 3

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Marie Adrien Persac. ‘Palo Alto Plantation, near Donaldsonville, Louisiana.’ Gouache and collage on paper, 17″ x 23″, 1850’s. Private collection 

A closer look at the Persac painting of Palo Alto (click on image for larger resolution) will reveal some interesting details and features. The window shutters on the main house, for example, are yellow in the painting: though the shutters have always been green, the green paint in Persac’s picture flaked off over time, revealing the yellow undercoat he had painted in order to make the final green of the finished work more vivid. When the painting was cleaned and restored in recent years, Persac’s original green was brought back. The combination of white and green was typical of such dwellings in mid-19th century Louisiana plantation dwellings.

The sugar house, where the cane was processed immediately after harvest into molasses and various grades of sugar, is just visible in the distant background of the painting. Only the wealthiest of planters generally built sugar houses of masonry: the one at Palo Alto was of wood. Federal troops were quartered in the sugar house in the early years of the war and it was not burned, though it has not survived. In both foreground and background of the painting horizontal rail fences are in evidence. Not in evidence is the extensive gridwork of ditches and canals common in all sugar plantations: their function was to drain excess water into the bayous which formed the rear boundaries of these agricultural operations. Maintenance of both fences and ditches constituted some of the main work of plantation slaves during the months when sugar cane was not being cultivated, harvested or processed.

To the left and slightly in front of the main house is a small frame structure with no chimney, which may have been a dairy, judging from its proximity to the plantation kitchen. To the right of the house is what is known in French as a ‘pigeonnier’, a pigeon house both ornamental and functional, with pyramidal roof and small shed attached. Though the original structure did not survive, it has been reconstructed in more recent years from an examination of the painting. A primitive shed in the middle ground of the painting appears to stand directly on the ground and has a dirt floor. The small boats moored nearby indicate that it would have been either a boat shed or storage facility for goods shipped or received via the bayou. 

A small vine-covered cottage stands in the center of the painting, with white curtains pulled to either side of a central opening. According to family tradition, this was the schoolhouse. An English governess named Mrs. Goddard is recorded in the 1860 census as living with the Ayraud family. Just to the right of this, the small overseer’s house appears alongside the double row of slave quarters, each with two rooms, a chimney and open gallery across the front. It is interesting to note that they are of above-ground construction, and that the cabins on the right have steep double-pitched roofs, more typical of Creole than American design. Their proximity to one side of the manor house is also unusual, since slave quarters were often built some distance to the rear and not immediately visible. 

Another point: the large figures in the foreground are actually collage, images cut by Persac from magazines and inserted into the painting, a common practice with Persac. The figures in the background of the picture, however, were drawn and painted by the artist, including the occupants of the sailboat, the people and animals on the farther bank, and the carriage with its passengers and horses passing the front of the house. And one more thing of note: anyone familiar with Palo Alto today will be struck by the relative lack of vegetation evident in the painting, which would have been executed not long after the land itself was originally cleared for planting and the house constructed in what had so recently been a wilderness. 

Palo Alto Plantation: Part 2

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Palo Alto Plantation, near Donaldsonville, Louisiana. Plan of principal floor. 

The house and property which form Palo Alto Plantation are first described in some detail in the mortgage between Pierre Oscar Ayraud and Jacob Lemann dated February 21, 1860. This document lists improvements which include the dwelling, the sugar house (where sugar cane was processed and refined into molasses and various grades of sugar), a ‘saw mill, cotton gin, machinery, negro cabins, out houses, implements of husbandry, etc., etc.’ A letter of January 24, 1867 goes on to say that ‘the place contains 440 acres: there are 13 mules on it, a good sugar house with engine, fine dwelling house, 50 x 60 feet…stables, corn house, corn mill, laborers houses, etc.’ A letter of February 1, 1867 tells us that ‘the dwelling house is 50 x 60, one and a half storey, frame, covered with shingles.’ The house was insured for $3000. The sugar house, also of wood with a shingle roof, was insured for $6000. It should be noted that until the later 19th century, most sugar plantations included their own sugar refining facilities, since the cane, once harvested, had to be immediately processed, and rapid means of transport from plantations to centralized processing plants, characteristic of a later period and of today, were non-existent at the time.

The image above shows the layout of the principal floor at Palo Alto. The front of the house appears at the top of the plan, which includes at open verandah or gallery 50 feet long and nearly 12 feet wide, with steps (deteriorated over time, but later restored based upon an examination of the Persac painting) leading down to the garden. A central hall nearly 10 feet wide and 40 feet long separates the main rooms of the house, the only ones which existed until the finishing of the upper storey was completed in the early 20th century. Each of the four main rooms is about 19 feet square, and pairs of glassed doors flank the main entrance, leading onto the gallery from bedroom and parlor at the front of the house, a typical French architectural feature found in many parts of Louisiana. The rear of this principal floor of the main house originally included a larger bathroom and more elaborate stairway to what was for many decades the attic area of the house. The stairs have been reworked as part of the finishing of the upper floor, a small bath has been tucked beneath them, and a semi-open loggia/dining area has been created. Today’s kitchen was in former times an open breezeway, 22 x 11 feet, connecting the back of the house and dining room with the otherwise detached building which housed the kitchen.

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A look at the second floor plan above will show how the upper storey was finished in the early part of the 20th century to greatly add to the living space of the house. Four large bedrooms with fireplaces are the principal result. Three of them include bathrooms tucked into the corners of the dwelling, and all have complex and spacious closet arrangements to take advantage of the low-ceilinged areas where the pitch of the roof descends to meet the galleries below. Narrow passages leading to the dormers at the front and rear of the house provide extra light and cross-ventilation for the bedrooms and access to the closets. The bedroom at bottom left, which includes not only a doorway to the stairs leading to the dining loggia below, but a second staircase giving access to an open space directly below the highest point of the roof, may originally have served as a nursery or common room. The roof is metal today, though originally of cedar shingles. The doorways leading from one bedroom to another, while unusual today, were common features in houses without modern air-conditioning in the hot and humid climate of the American Deep South. 

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The isometric drawing of the entire ensemble shown above gives a good idea of how the various structures are arranged. The semi-detached building to the left was originally the kitchen, now remodeled to form a separate apartment with spacious bedroom and sitting room (14 x 14 feet each), kitchen, bathroom and closet. The kitchen of the main house connects the latter with this separate structure and was once, as mentioned above, an open breezeway. You can find all these architectural renderings, along with others, on the website of the Historical American Buildings Survey (HABS) at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/la0460/. Palo Alto Plantation is generally classified as an Anglo-Creole Louisiana plantation house decorated in Greek Revival style. Some scholars believe it may have been designed by the prominent Louisiana architect James H. Dakin (1806-1852). If so, it would have been one of his final projects and would have been executed at a very eventful and stressful period of his life and career. 

 

Palo Alto Plantation: Part I

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Marie Adrien Persac. ‘Palo Alto Plantation, near Donaldsonville, Louisiana’. Gouache and collage on paper, 17″ x 23″, 1850’s. Private collection. 

Palo Alto Plantation near Donaldsonville, Ascension Parish, is one of the very few Louisiana sugar plantations to have remained in the same family not only since before the Civil War, but from its very beginnings. It took its name, which means ‘tall tree’ in Spanish, from the site of a battle in the Mexican War which took place on May 8, 1846, and in which General Zachary Taylor led the combined militias of Louisiana and Texas. Some speculate that the original owners may have had a relative who took part in this battle, but they may simply have bestowed the name out of patriotism. There was another Palo Alto Plantation, by the way, in Iberville Parish on the west bank of the Mississippi, and among other Spanish names of Louisiana plantations are Buena Vista and Contreras. All three were taken from Mexican War battle sites illustrated in a series of color lithographs published by Carl Nevel in Paris in 1851. 

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Marie Adrien Persac, 1823-1873. French-born Louisiana architect, watercolorist and engraver. 

The Donaldsonville plantation formed part of an original Spanish land grant to Diego Gomez, whence it passed to Gomez’ son-in-law Matias Rodriguez. Pierre Osar Ayraud, who is believed by the family to be the gentleman in white standing at the foot of the stairs in the painting reproduced above, married Rodriguez’s daughter. Though existing records are a bit unclear on this point, Ayraud and his wife, rather than Rodriguez himself, were apparently the builders of the plantation house which still stands today, and they probably also commissioned the painting. As to this latter point, a family tradition exists to the effect that the artist, the French born Marie Adrien Persac (1823-1873), who had come to the area to produce what later became known as ‘Norman’s Chart of the Lower Mississippi River from Natchez to New Orleans’ (published by B.M. Norman, New Orleans, and engraved, printed and hand-colored by J.H. Colton and Co., New York), stayed at Palo Alto as a guest of the Ayrauds and presented them with the gouache of their plantation house in thanks for their hospitality. This may well be only a legend, however, since the same story is told of Persac with regard to his depictions of other properties in the area for which the records are clear that he was in fact paid. In any case, Persac’s gouache of Palo Alto has another distinction which it shares with only one other of his works, Persac’s watercolor of the famous plantation known as Shadows-on-the-Teche: it still hangs inside the plantation house for which it was painted. 

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Palo Alto Plantation House near Donaldsonville, Louisiana. Contemporary photograph. 

Pierre Oscar Ayraud acquired the land on March 13, 1852, as part of the terms of the will of his wife’s father. Then, on February 21, 1860, he mortgaged the land to Jacob Lemann, a prosperous merchant from nearby Donaldsonville whose family was to continue to acquire plantation lands and sugar manufactories long after the Civil War had ruined most other planters. Lemann closed on the mortgage in 1867, and the painting left the house in that year with Pierre’s daughter Mary Lee, who had meanwhile become Mrs. Frederick Landry. Her daughter, also Mary Lee, born 1865 and granddaughter to the builders of Palo Alto, in an odd twist of fate married Arthur A. Lemann Sr., grandson of the same Jacob Lemann who had acquired the plantation from her Ayraud grandparents. In 1914 they moved into the house. The painting, however, remained with Mrs. Frederick Landry, and it did not return to the house which it depicts and where it had originally hung until 1929, when Mrs. Landry died and Mrs. Lemann’s siblings presented it to their sister as a gift. Thus Persac’s painting came full circle. The Lemann family is in possession of painting, house and plantation to this day, and the latter is a thriving 6000 acre sugar, hunting and fishing operation in both Ascension and Iberville parishes. The Palo Alto plantation house is not open to the public, though individuals and groups may arrange to stay at a picturesque lodge built in the 1960’s as a retreat for the family on the property. In another colorful story, the latter is said to have been built with materials taken from one of the hideouts used by the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte. It lies hidden in a serene grove of native oaks and cypresses overlooking Bayou Tomare.