Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Tuesday Travels: Christmastime at Louisiana's Madewood Plantation House

While exploring New Orleans, many visitors make time to venture beyond the city's borders – and embrace the unique attractions that southern Louisiana locales like the Northshore, the Great River Road, and Cajun Country have to offer. While all of these regions are worth experiencing, I admit to harboring a particular affinity for the plantation homes that lie along or near the Great River Road. Despite the complicated history of Southern plantation life – and the horrendous practice of slavery that allowed many plantations to thrive – I've always enjoyed visiting these antebellum homes, if only to have a better understanding of America's past.

As I've expressed on my American Nomad blog before, two of my favorites are the Destrehan Plantation and Laura: A Creole Plantation. Over the weekend, though, my husband, Dan, and I had the delightful opportunity to experience two other plantation homes in southern Louisiana – Madewood Plantation House (pictured above, 4250 Hwy. 308, Napoleonville, 985/369-7151) and Oak Alley Plantation (3645 Hwy. 18, Vacherie, 225/265-2151) – both of which were well worth the 1.5-hour drive from our apartment in the French Quarter.

Admittedly, I'd been to Oak Alley on several previous occasions, though never with Dan. As for Madewood, however, this was the first time that either of us had ever seen it in person – mainly because, unlike Oak Alley and the other plantations along the Great River Road, Madewood lies a bit farther afield. In fact, it's considered a “bayou plantation” – likely because of its proximity to Bayou Lafourche. Honestly, though, I was excited to visit both plantations with Dan – though the two experiences turned out to be quite different.

On Saturday night, Dan and I were invited by Keith and Millie Marshall, the owners of Madewood, to attend their annual Christmas Heritage Banquet. So, shortly after five in the evening, we found ourselves headed southeast on Highway 308, hoping that we wouldn't miss Madewood amid all the other houses that lay along both sides of the road. As soon as we saw the looming white “house,” though, we knew we'd found it – and I must confess, we were both impressed by the understated elegance of this Greek Revival-style mansion (pictured above). In fact, we couldn't believe that the home, outbuildings, and well-tended, 20-acre grounds were privately owned!

Once Millie had spotted us and introduced us to her two dogs, Clio and Pandora (pictured to the left with Millie), she offered us a brief tour of the mansion's lower floor, which consists of several high-ceilinged rooms, including a parlor, a dining room, a ballroom, a library, a spacious foyer, another well-furnished sitting room, and the bedroom in which Dan and I would be staying overnight. Upstairs, meanwhile, there are four more bedrooms, including the former bedroom of Naomi Marshall, Keith's mother, who bought and renovated the mansion in 1964, and a nursery (pictured below) furnished with children's beds, a stroller, vintage toys, and an adult-sized canopy bed. All the bedrooms offer full or half-canopy beds, queen-sized or king-sized mattresses, access to private bathrooms, air conditioning, and wireless Internet access, and some even provide access to the breezy verandah.

Naturally, Christmas decorations were everywhere – fragrant wreaths hung on the doors, garlands were draped above the thresholds and along the banister (pictured to the left), eerie-looking angels were suspended above the tables in the ballroom, and two enormous, extensively decorated trees stood in the ballroom and parlor. Beyond the high ceilings, stylish moldings, gorgeous chandeliers, and tall windows (which I rightly assumed would be lovely in the daytime), the house boasts an impressive hodgepodge of furniture, artwork, family mementos and photographs, and other artifacts, including Mardi Gras tiaras, Millie's mother's vintage spoon collection, a seemingly anachronistic painting with a curious backstory, more silver pitchers and demitasse cups than I've ever seen in my life, and, perhaps my favorite items, two old music stands with attached candleholders that seem reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera. While the furnishings in many open-to-the-public plantation homes appear to coincide with particular historic periods, the eclectic nature of the items at Madewood make it seem less like a museum and more like a real home – which is, of course, part of the charm of this tranquil plantation.

As I discovered later in the night, Keith (a journalist, a historian, and Madewood's business manager), had found and chosen many of the furnishings himself – a task in which he seems to take a lot of pride. Madewood, after all, has been in his family for nearly five decades, ever since his mother purchased the property, which had been part of a former sugarcane plantation that lay between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Originally commissioned by Thomas Pugh and built by architect Henry Howard around 1846, the Madewood Plantation House had survived the American Civil War and passed through the hands of several families, including the Godchaux and Baker clans, before Naomi claimed it in 1964. Keith was 17 at the time, and apparently, the relatively empty though stately mansion required a lot of love and care to become the house it is today.

In fact, it wasn't always a bed-and-breakfast. For a long time, it was simply home to the Madewood Arts Festival – that is, until the mid-1980s, when Keith was spared from a staggering utilities bill by a doctor who had called to inquire if Madewood accepted overnight guests. After that, the rest, as “they” say, was history.

Interestingly, the only original buildings on the property are the mansion, the outer kitchen, and the former carriage house. Keith was in fact responsible for relocating the other buildings to Madewood's grounds, such as the Charlet House (pictured to the left), a two-story cottage linked to the main house by a shady patio (pictured above). This early-19th-century riverboat captain's house now contains three sumptuous suites, including one with a fireplace and a private screened porch ideal for honeymooners, the Porteus Suite, and another (pictured below) noted for a former inhabitant – Brad Pitt, who stayed there during the filming of Interview with the Vampire.

Following our tour of the house, Dan and I ventured to the old kitchen (pictured to the left), which, in the fashion of most plantations, was separate from the home. There, Janet Thomas, one of Madewood's amiable staff members, graciously served us some hot wassail (a yummy spiced ale that, yes, lured me back for seconds and thirds, but I digress...).

A local church choir (pictured to the right) then regaled us with Christmas carols in the foyer, after which Dan, the Marshalls, all the other guests (numbering around 50), and I took our seats in the dining area, where we were treated to salads, scrumptious tomato soup, wine, and a Christmas-style buffet, complete with turkey, cornbread stuffing, spinach casserole, cranberries, and a yummy mashed concoction made of pumpkins, sweet potatoes, apples, and raisins. During dinner, the Marshalls, who were serendipitously the other couple at our table, shared stories of Madewood and their previous experiences as journalists at The Times-Picayune. Besides the fact that Keith was a Rhodes Scholar alongside President Bill Clinton, the other takeaway that impressed me was the fact that Millie had interviewed novelist Anne Rice early in her writing career, which sparked a lifelong correspondence. Apparently, like the actor who played the vampire Louis, Anne is also a fan of Madewood.

After dinner (and my first yule log dessert), Dan and I took our coffee and Christmas cookies onto the rear porch (pictured to the left), a comfortable place to relax in the cool night air. Eventually, the other guests went home or ventured to their bedrooms, and we were finally able to access our own bedroom (the bathroom, after all, had been needed during the party). Situated beside the rear porch, the room featured a handsomely carved, half-canopy, queen-sized bed, an old-fashioned armoire and dresser, two relaxing day beds, and other vintage furnishings – it's no wonder, then, that I'd noticed guests taking photos of it all night. Although the unfamiliar mattress and one annoying mosquito made it hard for Dan to sleep, I enjoyed the chance to stay in an authentic plantation – particularly one in which the guests are free to wander. That's certainly not the case with the major plantations-turned-attractions along the Great River Road – and that's probably why so many guests and party attendees had been there many times before.

Its authenticity is why Sister, Sister was filmed there back in the mid-1980s, and why location scouts from Django Unchained considered it as the model for the villainous Calvin Candie's house in Quentin Tarantino's soon-to-be-released film. But, despite Madewood's lack of televisions and in-room telephones (which, frankly, only adds to its peaceful vibe), modern conveniences certainly exist there. Our bathroom, for instance, boasted a whirlpool tub and terrific water pressure, and I also appreciated other little touches, such as having coffee brought to our room before breakfast. It's this balance between old (like the former kitchen pictured above) and new (such as having individual thermostats, not to mention contemporary kitchens in addition to the original one) that makes Madewood such a unique place – and yet, at the same time, challenging for some guests, who come expecting nothing but modern luxuries. It is a real plantation home, after all, with the quirks of any 166-year-old place – just as the French Quarter is a real place, and not merely a squeak-free tourist attraction. So, it's good to keep Keith's words in mind when staying there: “Madewood will teach you flexibility – you just go with the flow.”

Of course, Madewood wouldn't be the hospitable place it is without its small, capable staff, which, besides Keith and Janet, includes Janet's great-nephew Michael Johnson; his wife and the house/event coordinator, Angie Johnson (who met Michael at Madewood); Angie's sister, Alice Himel; and the caretaker, Warren Freeman, whose family has cared for the property since the Civil War. As Millie said on Sunday morning, “See, you come to Madewood, and you never know where the day will take you. We all become part of the family!”

After relishing a Southern-style breakfast of eggs, grits, biscuits, and the like in the decked-out ballroom (pictured to the left), Dan and I chatted with Keith, Millie, and an Austin couple who had been to Madewood on three separate occasions, then took one last stroll around the house and grounds (which include a small cemetery, pictured below) before heading to Oak Alley for an afternoon tour of its impeccable house and grounds. But that's another story entirely, which I'll save for a future post.

In the meantime, if you're looking for a bed-and-breakfast that offers a glimpse of the 19th-century lifestyle of Southern aristocracy, consider staying at Madewood during the holidays – or at any time of the year. Standard rates (Sun.-Thurs. $229-265, Fri.-Sat. $259-298) include a wine-and-cheese reception in the library, a candlelit dinner of regional favorites in the dining room, coffee and brandy in the parlor, and a full breakfast for two. Special packages and weekend getaways, however, are also available. Given the reception hall in the rear cottage and the spacious grounds, it's also not a bad spot to hold a wedding, a reunion, or any large gathering. But, more than anything, it's a wonderful place to escape the city for a while, and of course, it's a convenient home base for exploring other area plantations (such as Oak Alley, pictured above).

If I ever have the chance to stay there again, I'd happily book the same bedroom in the main house, though I wouldn't mind giving one of the others a try as well. After all, as with most bed-and-breakfasts, each room or suite at Madewood has its own unique spirit – and I don't mean the ghostly kind.

So, have you ever slept at a plantation? If so, which one – and how was the experience?

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