There is evidence indicating that the present big house was the third on the property and the second on the present site. According to that evidence, the first residence on the property was the Cottage Buard, which came with the 960 arpents that Ambroise LeComte (1807- 1883) purchased from Gasparite Lacour for $29,000 in 1835. That transaction essentially completed the land acquisitions that became Magnolia Plantation. Cottage Buard may have been the home of widow Suzette Buard, her children, and her younger brother Matthew Hertzog, who lived at Magnolia at the time of the 1850 census. Archaeological investigations suggest the Cottage Buard may have been located northeast of the gin barn near the present Highway 119, but the structure does not appear on Walmsley's 1858 plat. Malone described the Cottage Buard as a small Creole cottage of brick, bousillage, and whitewashed cypress, and suggested that it was occupied until destroyed by a tornado in 1939. 9^ that it was occupied until destroyed by a tornado in 1939.
Family lore dates the previous house to the 1830-40 period, while other oral tradition states that a house existed on the present site before the house that burned in 1864. Other sources date the previous house to 1840. Eliza LeComte Prudhomme (1840-1923), youngest daughter of Ambroise LeComte II and Julia Buard, recalled the death of her mother in the bedroom of the Magnolia big house. That contradicts the evidence placing the big house under construction in 1851, unless the work had been ongoing since before 1845. The 1845 inventory in the succession of Julia Buard offers no clarification, simply mentioning that the plantation included buildings and improvements, without describing the residence.
Stylistic evidence does not support a construction date in the 1830s, but rather points to a time closer to 1850. A number of raised Creole cottages survive on plantations in the vicinity of Magnolia Plantation, and a larger number are extant throughout Louisiana. These were built between ca. 1790 through 1850. Between 1790 and 1840, moreover, a number of raised Creole plantation dwellings with a brick basement story were built in Natchitoches Parish and on the Mississippi River plantations.
Examples of raised Creole cottages with brick basements in the vicinity of Magnolia include the Kate Chopin House (ca.1809), the Roubieu-Jones house (ca.1835), and the main houses at Oakland Plantation (ca. 1818-21), Oaklawn (1830-35), and Melrose (1833). Others around the state include Laura Plantation house (ca.1820), Reserve Plantation house (ca.1825-50), Graugnard Farms house (ca.1790-1820, ca.1850), North Bend (1835), and Whitney Plantation (ca.1803, 1836-39).
The brick basements in those houses were either a full story or less. The full story basement was not the norm, however. While basements ranged down to just a couple of feet in height, the basement type was more common than the big house on brick piers. In addition, houses along the River Road were occasionally moved and rebuilt on a shorter basement, adding to the tendency toward shorter basements in the extant examples. The evidence in the structure at Magnolia is not clear whether the ground floor of the previous house had a full story raise or whether it was the present height of around 6'.
Those raised Creole cottages built before about 1840 all had either bousillage or briquette-entre-poteaux (brick between posts) construction for the upper story. Such raised cottages used the ground floor for storage with the second story as the premier etage or primary living space for sleeping. Some included a parlor and dining room on the ground floor, which appears to have been the case at Magnolia. Aside from the Magnolia big house, Uncle Sam plantation in St. James Parish (1841, rebuilt 1849, demolished 1940) is one of the only known examples of a two-story, brick basement on which sits a raised Creole cottage.
Another indication of a slightly later date for the previous big house at Magnolia Plantation is the central hall and nearly symmetrical floor plans, indicating Anglo-American influences. The examples of raised Creole cottages built before about the late 1830s normally used an asymmetrical floor plan, without the central hall. As an indication of the endurance of traditional building methods in Natchitoches Parish, Cedar Bend plantation (ca.1850) included bousillage walls, wraparound mantles, and an asymmetrical plan with no central hall. The two-story brick house at Magnolia, with its central hall plan and exterior surrounded by Tuscan columns, must have been the finest outside of the River Road when it was built. The brick masonry of the edifice lent a cosmopolitan air to the rural landscape, was enhanced by the presence of the equally-durable, brick slave quarters, and contrasted sharply with the bousillage buildings all around it.
Further insight into the appearance of the previous house comes from correspondence from the Magnolia overseer E. B. Eddins to Ambroise LeComte describing a burglary of the "new" house committed by a boy named Charles Natchitoches. Eddins's description of the burglar's path provides clues about the home's appearance. He states that the burglar entered LeComte's "new house" by way of, "a ladder from the ground to the floor of the back Gallery - up which he went on to the floor - he came to the last door on the end of the Gallery next to the Sugar Cain and (said) he found that door unlocked. He opened it passed through the room to the stairs - and down on to the lower floor he first went into the Clausit and then into the dining room and to the store room which he found locked he passed then into the pantry where he found the pantry key." Charles then entered the storeroom, where he stole whiskey, wine, and meat.
The brief passage confirms that the house had two stories, a raised gallery, interior stairs, and ground floor dining room. The stocked pantry indicates that the house may have been occupied in some capacity. The passage raises several questions however, such as why the burglar used a ladder rather than exterior stairs to reach the gallery, and why a house would be stocked with meat, wine and liquor before the floors were finished. In addition, the designation "new house" may have been used to distinguish it from another, older home, rather than to indicate its age.
After the fire, the family lived in a Natchitoches townhouse and the Magnolia slave hospital until the present house was completed. The family converted the slave hospital to a residence, modifying the structure extensively over the next thirty years. The building was used as an overseer's house after the family moved back into the big house. Keel states that the Hertzogs moved into the big house less than a year before Atala's death on October 31,1897, but family history indicates that Matthew Hertzog (b. May 11, 1897) was born in the overseer's house, suggesting the big house was not completed until after that.
Little is known about how much of the house survived the fire and its condition between 1864 and the 1890s. The only evidence comes from oral history and from the physical evidence of the house. Oral history states that the foundation, walls, and brick columns survived the fire, along with a portion of the back of the ell. Family lore states that Matthew Hertzog started making plans for rebuilding soon after the fire, when he saw a white mockingbird in the ruins of the house. Oral history also states that bricks were salvaged from the slave quarters to rebuild the house.
Another glimpse of the previous house and the ruins comes from the short fiction story "Ma'ame Pelagie," by Kate Chopin. Author Kate Chopin (1850-1904) moved to Cloutierville with her husband Oscar Chopin in 1879. While there she spent time visiting the Chopin plantation, operated by Oscar's brother Lamy (b. 1850), and experienced life in Natchitoches Parish. From her home in Cloutierville, Kate could walk or ride her horse to Magnolia Plantation. After Oscar's death in the 1880s, Kate moved back to her home in St. Louis, but kept in touch with the Chopin family and returned to Cane River for visits. Oscar's brother Lamy married Fannie Hertzog in 1893, the same year that Kate published "Ma'ame Pelagie" in the New Orleans Time-Democrat. Fannie had grown up in the modified slave hospital, within sight of the ruins of the big house. She inherited half of Magnolia Plantation from her father Matthew in 1903.
The story of "Ma'ame Pelagie" is fiction, but has some basis in what Kate Chopin had seen of the ruins at Magnolia. The fictional account tells of the life of a woman obsessed with her memories of the mansion that had been destroyed and of the husband who had died in the war. Chopin describes the home as "an imposing mansion of red brick, shaped like the Pantheon. A grove of majestic live-oaks surrounded it." Thirty years after the war, "only the thick walls were standing, with the dull red brick showing here and there through matted growth of clinging vines. The huge round pillars were intact; so to some extent was the stone flagging of hall and portico."
The brick masonry may provide the best evidence for determining how much of the previous house at Magnolia survived. The bricks throughout the house are soft, slightly larger than a modern brick, and have a roughened surface suggesting they were hand-made. The mortar has a pink color. The "pie-shaped" bricks forming the cylindrical columns have the same texture. The round columns are distinctive enough that they must have dated from the previous house, particularly in the context of the perpendicular lines and conservative construction of the present structure.
The builders would have had to reconstruct chimneys, sections of the walls that had collapsed, and door and window openings. They also may have lowered the elevation of the first floor, cutting off the round brick columns to support the gallery and leaving the ground floor ceiling too low for occupancy. The builders in the 1890s may not have had enough brick to resurrect two-story, brick structure after the ruins sat exposed for thirty years. Or they may have merely chosen to reduce the height of the brick walls to accommodate the new wood-framed second floor.
Seams in the brick walls indicate possible areas of reconstruction. One such area is located where the chapel joins the utility room. Diagonal and vertical seams are visible from the ground floor to the top of the wall on both exterior walls of the ell. Cracks are also visible around most of the windows in the house, spreading diagonally above and below the corners of the lintels. Those may be cracks from stress and water seepage, or may designate seams where the walls were reconstructed above and below the windows. Seams are also visible below the windows that open onto the front and back galleries. The seams continue down to the ground floor, where all of the openings have brick in-filled around them. The seams point to places where a wider or taller opening was filled in to make a window or a smaller door.
Physical analysis of the mortar may be necessary to determine if there are different ages of masonry present around the areas of apparent reconstruction. Much of the brick is painted or covered with mortar or concrete stucco, but several areas have been exposed as sections of the concrete has fallen off. If a substantial restoration of the brick masonry occurred in the years leading up to 1895, when the frame house was under construction, there may have been invoices recording purchases of large quantities of lime through the Magnolia store.
The earliest invoices for building materials found so far date to October of 1895. Eight invoices for materials between October 25, 1895, and February 29, 1896, record purchases of various dimensions of cut lumber, heart pine, and credit for 810' of cypress, suggesting that construction had been underway already. Purchases through that winter included six barrels of cement and more than five thousand board feet of cut lumber. Family members report finding large numbers of steel bands used to bind lumber in the front yard at Magnolia, indicating the builders stored the materials there.
After a lapse of two months in the spring, deliveries resumed in May of 1896. Records show nine purchases from May through September of that year, including cut lumber, weatherboarding, flooring, siding, fourteen barrels of lime, and fourteen barrels of cement. The lime could have been used for whitewash or for mortar. That group of invoices from the summer includes lumber purchases designated for Victor David and Henry Douglas.
Purchases continued through the fall and winter of 1896, including more lumber, lime, flooring, and purchases of materials for other people. The first invoice marked specifically "Charged to Magnolia" was dated November 17, 1896. After a period of inactivity over the winter, deliveries resumed in March of 1897. Purchases from March through September included rough and cut lumber, ceiling and flooring, pine fencing, 175 barrels of lime, six barrels of Portland cement, and six hundred firebricks. An invoice dated July 30, 1897 from Roberts & Co. of New Orleans records the delivery of four half-columns measuring 5"x 10" x 13' at $2.50 each, credit of $3.00 for a newell, and unspecified "materials as per estimate 35/97, $621.00." The half-columns match the dimensions (5"x10"x13') of the four half columns currently on the galleries. The invoice bears the hand-written note, "charged to Magnolia Building."
Invoices suggest that the structure was nearly complete by the end of 1897, but roofing, lime, Portland cement, locks, fifty-two gallons of paint, and three additional orders from Roberts & Co. valued at over $150.00 came between October of 1897 and February of 1898.
Tax assessment records indicate the value of the plantation increased from $12,000 in 1888 to $21,000 in 1898.