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.
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.
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.