This was once a 3300 Acre Sugar Plantation


Palo Alto Plantation, Donaldsonville Louisiana
Date added: March 06, 2024 Categories: Louisiana House Plantations & Farms
Northeast view, note cellar entrance (1976)

Palo Alto House is a characteristic example of the type of large cottage or substantial but relatively small plantation residence prevalent throughout the lower south, and particularly in Louisiana in the decade preceding the Civil War. It is among very few surviving examples that are represented in topographical views of rural buildings by a local artist of that period, Adrien Persac. The house has remained in continuous occupancy and in good repair, with few modifications.

No record of the builder or the exact date of construction has been found. A reasonable approximation, shortly before or after 1850, would be suggested by a combination of the building style, family and courthouse records, the Persac painting, all slightly supported by a hint in the place name.

The property was acquired on March 13th, 1852 by Pierre Oscar Ayraud and his wife, nee Rosalie Rodriguez, from the succession of Mathias Rodriguez, the latter's father. The official document does not describe the dwelling that is mentioned among improvements on the land. It might have been built by Mathias Rodreguez or it might have been built by Ayraud after acquiring the land. When the plantation was mortgaged by Ayraud on February 21st, 1860, to Jacob Lemann, the dwelling house is specifically listed, and is later described with measurements, type roof, etc. and therefore identified.

The style of architectural detailing, especially as seen in the character of molding profiles, has a heavy, emphatic, and planar quality that developed following the refinement and delicacy in scale of the early phase of Greek Revival in Louisiana in the 1830s. Although the heavy character suggests the 1840s, the elaborations of interior plasterwork seem to anticipate the Victorianisms of later phases of the Greek Revival in the 1850s. The absence of coal grates, cast iron, and rococo revival detail points to a time anterior to their popularity in the late 1850's. Also, there is no Italianate detail that sometimes accompanied the very late Greek Revival places in Louisiana.

Adrien Persac (1823-1873), a native of France, active (circa 1850-1873) as an architect, engineer, cartographer, Lithographer and artist, is remembered best for his engraved chart of all properties along the Mississippi River from Natchez to New Orleans, dated 1858, as well as for his fifteen or twenty surviving paintings of antebellum sites.

The scale figures in his typical gouache painting of Palo Alto, which are cut-out engravings pasted on according to his custom, are costumed in the style that was fashionable in Paris about 1855. This detail helps to confirm the tentative dating based on architectural style. The painting is presently in Palo Alto house, inherited by the present owner via his mother, a grand-daughter of Pierre Oscar Ayraud. Only in one other known instance, "Shadows-on-the-Teche", is a Persac original located inside the corresponding house.

An odd circumstance of the place name may be worthy of mention as possibly bearing out the presumed dating. The Spanish language is in conspicuous contrast to the Indian, French, or very English titles of Louisiana rural names such as the "Oaks", "Elms", "Magnolias", or the "Belles", this or that. This Spanish name could have been influenced by the battle in the Mexican War, May 8th, 1846, where militia from Louisiana and Texas were led by General Zachary Taylor. Only two other Spanish plantation names, other than family names, are noted in Louisiana, Buena Vista and Contreras. All three names figure in the series of Carl Nebel's color lithographs of Mexican War Battles, issued in Paris in 1851.

Palo Alto and the adjacent plantation St. Emma, were the site of a Civil War episode, part of a series of engagements in which 465 Union men were lost. St. Emma was a property of Charles Koch. Sidney A. Marchand in his "Story of Ascension Parish" quotes from a report of Col. J. M. Millan, dated September 25th, 1862, in which the Colonel describes a series of skirmishes in the Donaldsonville-Bayou Lafourche vicinity, and mentions the billeting of men at sugar warehouses of "Aro and Cox". (Misspelling of Ayraud and Koch).

Palo Alto plantation has varied in size from about 440 to 3300 acres and is now administered corporately exclusive of the main residence and grounds. It is associated with agricultural developments in the State, in that it was one of about ten properties in single ownership cultivating and processing sugar, one of the two or three largest such combinations in the period between the Civil War and World War I.

Site Description

Palo Alto House faces in an easterly direction toward Bayou Lafourche and is set about two hundred feet back from the highway, the property extending to the Bayou Bank. It stands near the center of about seven acres of informal landscaped grounds, which include many large live oak, pecan, magnolia, cypress and other trees, a sturdily structured, well-preserved nineteenth-century stable and various garden features.

The main house is a one-and-a-half-story structure raised about four feet above grade on brick piers with a chain wall along the front. It is gabled at the side, with two dormers on either slope of the roof. A twelve-foot wide "front gallery" or porch is recessed beneath the gabled roof. Its deep entablature returns along the depth of the gallery. Two chimneys, each with four flues, are set at the peak of the gable. The roof, originally cypress shingled, is now v-jointed metal. The side walls are cypress clapboarded over framing of cypress timber, filled with brick. The interior walls are also of brick, probably with similar wood framing. This structural scheme, a survival from early French colonial practices, was known locally as briquete-entre-poteaux. The front wall, originally plastered as was the porch ceiling, was covered with clapboards at some unknown time and is now again plastered. The one-time plastered porch ceiling has been left in its revised state, tongue and grooved boarding.

An accessory structure or service wing, similarly roofed and also with a recessed porch is placed about twenty-five feet to the south of the main house. An extension of its front porch made an open, roofed connection with the main house, but this is now enclosed and made into a kitchen.

The style of the house might be called "Carpenter's Greek Revival". Six box columns across the front, slightly tapered and paneled, are detailed with heavy moldings of severe rather flattened profile. Similar moldings prevail throughout.

A central platform projecting beyond the porch with symmetrical stairs is a restoration of the original front stair arrangement. The main doorway and the flanking openings, two on each side, are framed in the characteristic Greek Revival manner with a laterally projecting cross member at the top and a corresponding break in the surrounding molding. The central door has a single panel and is surrounded by clear glazed lights, octagonally shaped both in the transom and side lights. The flanking openings are transomed with glazed and paneled French doors opening inward and batten blinds that are paneled on their inner faces. Similar blinds protect the first and second-floor side windows, double hung sash with twelve over twelve lights on the first floor and nine lights on the second floor.

Near the rear of the north side of the house is a projecting gabled box-like entry into a cellar space, its small openings in brick walling secured with iron bars.

The first floor has four 19.5 ft. x 19.5 ft. rooms flanking a 12-foot wide central hall. The ceilings are 14 feet high. Flooring, in random widths, and other woodwork are of cypress. All four rooms have identical mantelpieces, massive and of simple design, similar in character to the front door frames, tapered at the sides with a jog in the molding near the top.

Cornice and ceiling plasterwork is unusually rich for an otherwise severely detailed house. The central hall has a cornice ornamented with Greek palmettes, below which is a cove filled with a rinceau motif in high relief and below this the frieze is punctuated with spaced rosettes. Identical rinceaux are in the two front rooms, which also have a knotted rope decoration around the ceiling. All four rooms have leafed medallions at the center of the ceiling. There are two leafed medallions in the central hall.

Three openings, one leading from the rear end of the central hall and one from each of the flanking rooms, have glazed French doors similar to those at the front of the house. They confirm the assumption that the twelve foot wide rear space was once an open "gallery". A window and shutter sealed up in a wall at the south end of this space and revealed during a renovation suggest that the rear "gallery" had been at one time flanked by two small spaces called cabinets in the typical plan of the French Colonial house type, a type that continued into the first two decades of the nineteenth century until the introduction of central halls. If this were the case here, such an arrangement would be a survival in a later house type. The longitudinal space across the rear of the house, at one time enclosed with tongue and groove walling and sash windows, was reworked in 1955, in a manner more compatible with the character of the house, with three wide transomed and glazed openings with French doors leading into the rear yard. At this time the stairs at the north end of this space was restored, its original walnut baluster and newel put back in place. The wall that had separated the stairs from the once-opened gallery was removed at this time, making the stair a visible part of the longitudinal rear space of the house.

Four upstairs rooms 15 ft. x 24 ft. are placed four square without a corridor. Mantlepieces and doors are plain. In each room, a door leads to an alcove-like space with two steps up to each dormer window. Deteriorated plaster walls were completely replastered in 1955 and three bathrooms were accommodated under the roof slope at the corners of the house.

A walnut stairway dismantled from a Donaldsonville building of 1877 by James Freret, architect, was introduced in the first of the four upstairs rooms to give easy access to the attic space. In style, it is similar to the stair from the first to the second floor. Windows were introduced in the attic space near the peak of each gable.

The service wing has six chamfered posts at the front and two major rooms, each with large fireplace openings, high shallow mantlepiece shelves and brick hearths, one of which extends seven feet into the flooring. Partitions of roughboarding were removed when spaces were rearranged for living purposes. This wing was at one time a kitchen structure. When walls were replastered, old insulating material of mud and moss was unavoidably lost.

Other accessory structures on the grounds are of more recent date.

These include servant's quarters built in 1955 (located 50 feet south of the old kitchen) and a barn or stable which was built sometime during the second half of the 19th century (located between the 1955 servant's quarters and the old kitchen, but to the rear of these structures).

Palo Alto Plantation, Donaldsonville Louisiana Palo Alto Plantation watercolor by Adrien Persac, Circa 1850's (1976)
Palo Alto Plantation watercolor by Adrien Persac, Circa 1850's (1976)

Palo Alto Plantation, Donaldsonville Louisiana Front view (1860)
Front view (1860)

Palo Alto Plantation, Donaldsonville Louisiana Southeast. Note open walkway between house and original kitchen. Barn is still in good condition. (1890)
Southeast. Note open walkway between house and original kitchen. Barn is still in good condition. (1890)

Palo Alto Plantation, Donaldsonville Louisiana Southeast. Original steps and porch railing removed (Later replaced) (1920)
Southeast. Original steps and porch railing removed (Later replaced) (1920)

Palo Alto Plantation, Donaldsonville Louisiana Original kitchen wing note new kitchen enclosed at right. (1920)
Original kitchen wing note new kitchen enclosed at right. (1920)

Palo Alto Plantation, Donaldsonville Louisiana Original kitchen wing (1920)
Original kitchen wing (1920)

Palo Alto Plantation, Donaldsonville Louisiana East. Front view from left to right: Servant quarters, barn in rear, old kitchen, connecting new kitchen, House (1976)
East. Front view from left to right: Servant quarters, barn in rear, old kitchen, connecting new kitchen, House (1976)

Palo Alto Plantation, Donaldsonville Louisiana Front view showing house and original kitchen (1976)
Front view showing house and original kitchen (1976)

Palo Alto Plantation, Donaldsonville Louisiana Northeast view, note cellar entrance (1976)
Northeast view, note cellar entrance (1976)

Palo Alto Plantation, Donaldsonville Louisiana North side quarter circle top (attic) windows inserted cellar entrance (1976)
North side quarter circle top (attic) windows inserted cellar entrance (1976)

Palo Alto Plantation, Donaldsonville Louisiana Southeast. Modern kitchen extended one bay in 1964. Quarter circle (bathrooms) and top (attic) windows inserted in (1955)
Southeast. Modern kitchen extended one bay in 1964. Quarter circle (bathrooms) and top (attic) windows inserted in (1955)

Palo Alto Plantation, Donaldsonville Louisiana Front view of original kitchen and new kitchen (1976)
Front view of original kitchen and new kitchen (1976)

Palo Alto Plantation, Donaldsonville Louisiana Northwest view of original kitchen and rear of new kitchen (1976)
Northwest view of original kitchen and rear of new kitchen (1976)

Palo Alto Plantation, Donaldsonville Louisiana West view. Rear of house (1976)
West view. Rear of house (1976)