An Unusual Landmark for Sailing Ships: Oak Alley PlantationApril 15, 2011 1 Comment
Oak Alley Plantation is sometimes known as the Grand Dame of the River Road, a collection of historic plantations located an hour from New Orleans in the town of Vacherie, Louisiana. Little is known about the plantation’s early years, but it was already a known landmark by the time the Capuchin Fathers settled St. James Parish in 1722.
The plantation is named for its sweeping alley of 28 live oak trees, arranged 14 on each side along the lane leading from the river to the home. Although it is impossible to see over today’s 30-foot levees, in the 1700s and 1800s the levees were only five to ten feet tall. The soaring live oaks played an important, if unintentional, role in ships’ navigation, as riverboat captains used them as a landmark to pinpoint their position.
From the Romans to the Stewarts
In 1836, Jacques Telesphore Roman acquired Oak Alley from his brother-in-law, Valcour Aime. It was already a working sugar plantation with 57 slaves and a steam sugar mill. In 1837, Roman began construction on the current home, the first documented plantation home on the property. Completed in 1839, the house is a stunning example of Greek Revival architecture, and is constructed of solid brick. All walls are approximately 16 inches thick, and the home is surrounded by 28 columns, each 8 feet in circumference.
The family held onto Oak Alley until 1866, when son Henri was forced to sell it at auction. The plantation fell into an era of bad luck, as owner after owner experienced struggles and hardships. Fortunes finally reversed in 1925, when the plantation was purchased by Andrew and Josephine Stewart.
The Stewarts put a great deal of time and money into renovating Oak Alley, which had deteriorated significantly during periods of abandonment. Josephine Stewart outlived her husband and created a nonprofit foundation for the preservation of Oak Alley. Upon her death in 1972, ownership of the home and 25 acres of surrounding grounds transferred to the Foundation.
Oak Alley Today
Josephine Stewart’s nephew, Zeb Mayhew, Jr., was raised in New England but often vacationed at the plantation. He attended college at Tulane University in New Orleans and, as an adult, assumed control of the Oak Alley Foundation. He also inherited a portion of the surrounding plantation land from his Aunt Josephine. Over time, Zeb became the sole owner of the entire plantation, except the home and the 25 acres owned by the Foundation.
In 1996, the Foundation hired a highly respected Louisiana antiques dealer to oversee a massive restoration project. The goal was to recreate the look of Oak Alley during the Roman family’s era. Every room in the house has been redone except one. Josephine Stewart’s bedroom was left unchanged as a tribute to her legacy and hard work on behalf of Oak Alley.
Today the plantation home is only part of Oak Alley’s allure. Those who wish to spend the night have a range of Creole cottages to choose from. The cottages are decorated in 19th century style, but offer such modern amenities as cable TV, Tempur-Pedic mattresses and wireless internet access. Cottages range in size from two-person getaways to an entire four-bedroom house perfect for larger groups.
The on-site restaurant, open for breakfast and lunch, serves a variety of freshly prepared Cajun and Creole dishes. Prices are surprisingly reasonable, and the portions are easily large enough to share. Those staying in the Creole cottages can order a boxed dinner, delivered to the cottage in heat-and-serve containers.
Connected to the restaurant, the gift shop is a true must-see. It contains a mind-boggling array of Oak Alley souvenirs, regional cookbooks and even handmade collectibles. Plan to spend at least 30 minutes shopping, or longer if you plan to browse through the massive collection of books.
Oak Alley Hauntings
Ghost hunters will be pleased to know that Oak Alley appears to be a hotbed of paranormal activity. Visitors and staff members alike have reported experiences ranging from unusual sights and sounds to flying candlesticks. The property was investigated by the team from Syfy’s Ghost Hunters in 2008.
Oak Alley in Film
The plantation and grounds have been heavily featured in television and film since the 1960s. Perhaps the most famous film appearance was in 1994’s Interview with the Vampire, starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. Oak Alley continues to welcome film crews, appearing in such recent television productions as The Young and the Restless and American Idol.
Tips for Parents
The expansive plantation grounds are larger than they appear at first glance. Massive swaths of manicured grass provide an excellent place for kids to run and play, burning off excess energy. Try to time the house tour, which lasts nearly an hour, for shortly after lunch. There is a lot to see, and most kids seem to love the tour, but it can feel like a long hour for parents if the kids are tired or hungry!
Food and beverages are not permitted inside the house, but can be carried around the grounds. Keep everyone hydrated in the Louisiana heat and humidity. Benches in the shade offer a great place to sit down and relax.
If anyone in the group is disabled, let the ticket booth operator know. Only the lower level of the house is accessible to those who have trouble with stairs. Everything else is wheelchair and stroller accessible, but the distances between things are long. The ticket booth operator can provide a pass allowing you to drive the back roads through the plantation grounds, parking close to each building.