The Genesis of Oak Alley
"In the beginning ..." there were the trees! Sometime in the early 1700's, probably a few years before the 1718 founding of New Orleans as the colonial seat of government, a settler claimed land from an original royal grant for his dwelling and defined its entrance with an alley of live oaks in two rows leading to the river. Although we do not know how successful he was in his efforts to adapt in the New World, it is clear that his live oaks had no such problem. Native to the area, they thrived and by 1722, when the early Capuchin Fathers arrived at St. Jacques de Cabahanoce to establish the settlement of St. James Parish, the young trees had already attained a stature which hinted at the magnificence that was to be theirs.
Into the bustle of colonial development appeared Jacques Joseph Roman, the first known member of the Roman family in Louisiana. It is thought that he came to Louisiana from Grenoble, France, to administer the affairs of his noble cousin, Joseph Paris du Vernay, who had been granted a large concession of land up-river from New Orleans. Jacques Joseph's presence in the Colony is mentioned in 1728 when difficulties between him and the concession managers were brought before the Colony's governing council. In 1741 Jacques Joseph Roman married Marie D'Aigle, whose family had moved from Canada, and spent much of the first years of their marriage buying and selling plantations. Of their five children only one son, Jacques Etienne, and his two sisters survived to inherit a sizeable estate.
At the age of 29, Jacques Etienne married Marie Louise Patin, who enthusiastically presented him with a large family. The youngest, Jacques Telesphore, and the 19th century arrived together and found a colony whose fortune was flourishing, due in great part to successes in the field of sugar planting. Sugar quickly became the major crop along the Mississippi as far north as Baton Rouge.
Louisiana, meanwhile, had become a ping-pong ball on the political table of Spain and France and in a few short weeks bounced from the Spanish flag, where it had been since the transfer from French hands by secret treaty in 1763, to the French Tri-Color, to the Stars and Stripes where it remained, achieving statehood in 1812. However, in the brief 3 weeks of the post-revolution French regime (November 30 - December 20, 1803) the Napoleonic Code was introduced, establishing a precedent that would remain and create a legal system in Louisiana distinct from the rest of the Nation.
At this point it seems appropriate to explain that the name Creole is a derivative of the Spanish Criollo, meaning native born, and was used to denote children of European parentage born in the New World. French Creoles, such as the Romans, viewed their new countrymen with disdain, claiming they had no refinement at all, and withdrew into the Vieux Carre (or Old Square) where the French language and old ways prevailed. However, as more and more Americans poured into the area a compromise became inevitable and the cultures began to slowly merge producing an almost imperceptible, but quite irreversible, trend toward social change.
As the Roman children grew up and married (always to Creoles), the family achieved more and more prominence as leaders of society and their activities alternated between their sugar plantations in St. James Parish and elegant dwellings in New Orleans, in the Vieux Carre, of course! Among the latter was the house now known as Madame John's Legacy on Rue Dumaine which was purchased by Jacques Etiennne's widow for her and her bachelor sons shortly after her husband's death, and from here Jacques Telesphore Roman began his courtship of Celina Pilie, whose very prominent family lived around the corner on Royal Street. They were married in June 1834. In May of 1836, "Valcour" Aime, neighbor, brother-in-law and friend, sold Jacques Telesphore the plantation riverboat captains later dubbed "Oak Alley."
At this point the fortunes of the Roman family had reached their pinnacle. Brother Andre was serving his first term as governor of Louisiana, an office he would later hold a second time. Josephine, Jacques Telesphore's only surviving sister, was married to Francois Gabriel "Valcour" Aime, whose wealth, interest in the sugar industry and opulent life style had won him the title of "Sugar King Of Louisiana".
Jacques Telesphore and Celina plunged with enthusiasm into the project of their plantation home. There would be no corners cut ... only the best would do. The architect is believed to have been none other than Celina's father, Gilbert Joseph Pilie, and master builder George Swainy was contracted to direct the construction, a task which took over two years to complete.
The design of the mansion combined several styles, the most notable being the 28 classic columns surrounding the house. The columns measure 8 feet in circumference and are solid brick. The bricks were made in pie-shaped molds in order to achieve the circular form of the columns. all the materials used in the construction of the home were found or manufactured on the plantation with the exception of the marble for the floors and fireplaces and the slate for the roof, both of which were imported.
The house was designed for maximum protection from the fierce summers of this area. The veranda extends approximately 13 feet from the walls, keeping the home in shade most of the day. The tall windows and doors face each other for cross ventilation and the ceilings are 12 feet high. Most important are the 16 inch thick walls throughout the house.
Improvements and additions continued through the end of the decade and the kitchen facilities were finally completed in 1841. Furnishings and interior fittings had been arriving continuously by steamboat, and special care was given to the gardens. The final result was a plantation home to be envied by the most discerning of the well-to-do sugar planters of the day. Legend has it that Celina Roman proudly christened her new home "Bon Sejour" (pleasant sojourn), but travelers on the Mississippi, impressed by the avenue of mighty oaks, called it "Oak Alley", and so it remained!
The Roman family resided at Oak Alley throughout the Civil War. Jacques Telesphore had died in 1848, a victim of tuberculosis, and so was spared the tragic series of events that were to affect all concerned. His widow, typical of the upper class woman of her day, was totally inexperienced in business matters and, to her, the productive part of the plantation had no function other than as a source of revenue for her and her participation in the heights of Creole society. Her only surviving son, Henri, assumed manhood and responsibility for family affairs in 1859. His valiant efforts to preserve the position and holdings of his family failed against the overwhelming social and political turmoil resulting from the War and Reconstruction, and the Roman empire, already weakened by Celina's incessant spending, joined the evergrowing tide of once powerful and proud Creoles caught in a downhill slide toward oblivion.
At length, in 1866, Henri was forced to sell the plantation and all but their most personal belongings at auction for a mere $32,800.00, thus ending 30 years of Roman joys and sorrows at Oak Alley.
Members of the Roman family, the Buchanans, remained on the plantation for a number of years after the sale, perhaps in an administrative capacity. In 1881, Oak Alley was purchased by Antoine Sobral, a native of Portugal. Under this new ownership, the plantation flourished and Sobral was accepted as one of the area's most outstanding figures, both as a proud veteran of the Confederacy and as a generous and wise gentleman who commanded respect from all who knew him. His reign had lasted 24 years when, in 1905, poor health and advancing years convinced him that he should accept an offer to purchase Oak Alley. Luck, however, did not smile upon the new owners, whose plans were to develop the plantation as a purely business venture, and, in a year or so, the association (dissolved by the shocking suicide of a partner) had to abandon all hopes of success. The house, unused since Sobral's residency, was boarded up and left to face the elements. Bats and other creatures, domestic and wild, took up occupancy and what had once been the site of envied elegance appeared doomed to disappear in the shadows of the oaks and underbrush.
Then, in 1917, yet another aspiring owner, Jefferson Davis Hardin, Jr., came to Oak Alley. He poured his fortune and dreams into the plantation, devoting special care to the oaks in the alley. He set about to transform Oak Alley into a model farm run by scientific methods. The home and gardens benefitted from the careful ministrations of Mrs. Hardin and her daughters and, for a few years, the estate once again knew the happiness of warmth and care. The old plantation jail (today the Foundation office building) was modernized to provide a temporary residence until restoration of the crumbling manor house was complete, and the family eagerly awaited the day they would at last move into their new home.
However, like so many of the area's planters of the time, Mr. Hardin came to the end of his resources after a run of misfortunes in the form of fires, floods, sickness in his herds, and even a costly court litigation arising from a train derailment caused by one of the Hardin's errant cows! In 1924, his dream of rehabilitating the mansion never realized, he signed Oak Alley over to the Whitney Bank, and silence again settled over the plantation.
In 1925, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Stewart purchased Oak Alley. They were the 5th and last resident owners. The Stewart's restoration of Oak Alley was one of the first along the Great River Road and began the trend toward saving old plantation homes in this area. The restoration took two years at a cost of $60,000.00 ... $10,000.00 more than the purchase price of the 1,360 acre plantation! The Stewarts recognized the historic and aesthetic value of Oak Alley and felt it was a privilege to live here. To insure the house would remain open for all to share, Mrs. Stewart created a non-profit foundation.
The mansion as you see it today has been restored to its 19th century glory, a noble tribute to those who left their indelible mark on this rich River Region.
Oak Alley Plantation
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