Ashland-Belle Helene Plantation, Geismar Louisiana
Seven miles above the Darrow ferry, facing the Mississippi River across a great mall and backed by enormous oaks, stands Belle Helene, one of the most impressive examples of the Greek Revival in Louisiana. Its faded yellow washed walls, the gray woodwork and the small peak of purple slate roof showing above the heavy Greek cornice leaves an unforgettable impression of simplicity as achieved by the plantation builders during the most affluent period of Louisiana's history. We have become so accustomed to seeing the plantation house through the vista of a large avenue of oaks that we sense a realization of new ideas. Was it perhaps inspired by the romantic trend of England where the houses were being placed with extensive views over large meadows and the allies destroyed?
In plan the house is square, surrounded by a colonnade with eight columns on each face a large hall through the center gives access to the principal rooms, and, off the end of this hall, is a well designed circular stairway that leads to the second story. The rooms are large and now bare - but what a background for the rosewood furniture and accessories that Ashland Plantation (as Belle Helene was then known) no doubt had.
The house is built of brick and stuccoed; the floors are of pine as are also the galleries; the columns are square - not round as is usual in Louisiana; the details are Greek Revival, taken no doubt from one of the architectural handbooks of Asher Benjamin or Minard Lefevre which were then current.
Built in 1841 by Duncan Kenner, a prominent planter of the day, who in 1839 married Nanine Brangier of the adjoining HERMITAGE Plantation, ASHLAND was the center of the social and political life of this rich sugar section prior to the Civil War. Duncan Kenner was elected to the Confederate Congress and was special commissioner and minister plenoipotenianary to France in 1863. It is interesting to note that he urged Jefferson Davis to free the slaves.
Ashland-Belle Helene exemplifies the massiveness, extreme simplicity, and dignity which are generally held to epitomize the Classical Revival style of architecture. Because it is articulated in the manner of an independent pavilion, free of service attachments and with the same severe trabeated logia on all four facades, it is a more complete classical statement than the vast majority of Louisiana plantation houses. In addition, with its broad spread of eight giant pillars across each facade and its full heavy entablature, Ashland-Belle Helene is among the grandest and largest plantation houses ever built in the state.
Duncan Kenner was born in New Orleans and educated in the city's public schools and at Miami University in Ohio. After four years of travel and study in Europe, he read law in the office of John Slidell. But instead of practicing, he settled at Ashland Plantation, where he became a sugar planter and horse breeder. It is often said that he named his plantation after the home of Henry Clay, whom he admired.
In 1839 he married Anne Guillelimine Nanine Bringier, member of an old and influential French family of Louisiana. In about 1840, Kenner began construction on a home for his bride, and the result was the present building, finished about 1841. Many secondary sources attribute the design for Ashland to New Orleans architect James Gallier, Sr.
Prior to the Civil War, Kenner could boast of a moderately successful political career. In 1836-he was elected to the state House of Representatives from Ascension Parish, and in the years following he served several terms in the legislature, first in the House and then in the Senate. He was a member of the state constitutional convention of 1845, and president of the state constitutional convention of 1851.
By 1860; in addition to Kenner and his wife and their two daughters, Ashland supported some 473 slaves, making Kenner the eighth largest slaveholder in the state. The slaves lived in 95 slave dwellings on the property. In the 1860 Census, Kenner listed the value of his real estate as $190,000 and the value of his personal property as $250,000. He owned 2000 acres of improved land, and an additional 1600 acres of unimproved land.
He had $65,000 worth of farming implements and machinery, and $23,067 worth of livestock, including 50 horses, 173 mules, 57 oxen, 370 sheep, and 65 cattle. During the previous year, the plantation had produced 1500 thousand-pound hogsheads of sugar, 56,000 gallons of molasses, and 20,000 bushels of corn.
With the coming of the war, Kenner continued to be active in politics. In 1861, he was one of Louisiana's seven delegates to the provisional Congress of the Confederacy at Montgomery, Alabama. After the Confederate government was set up and the capital moved to Richmond, he became a member of the new government's House of Representatives, where he was chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means.
As the war went on, he became convinced that European recognition was essential for the South to win and that slavery was a primary factor in the European nations refusal to grant it. In 1864, when the cause of the South was desperate, Kenner urged his friend Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin to send a special commission to Europe to offer England and France the abolition of slavery in return for recognition. President Jefferson Davis reluctantly agreed to the plan but instead of appointing a commission he followed Benjamin's advice and appointed Kenner sole envoy with the rank of minister plenipotentiary. But by the time Kenner arrived in Europe in early 1865, Sherman's campaign had destroyed all confidence in the chances of the South's success, and the mission was a failure.
At the end of the war, Kenner returned to a plantation in ruins, for Ashland was raided by Union troops in 1862. Although the house was not burned, his valuable horses had been seized, his overseers captured, and his slaves freed. At the age of fifty-two, he had to start over again, but by persistence and great business skill he built up an estate which was even larger and more valuable at the time of his death than it had been before the war." According to the 1870 Census, by that year he had already made a good start on his return to prosperity. At that time he had 2300 acres of improved land and 1000 acres in unimproved land. Under the column headed Total Amount of Wages Paid During the Year, Including Value of Board, he listed $25,000. It seems likely that many of his former slaves had become laborers for him. In the course of the previous year, the plantation had produced 391 thousand-pound hogsheads of sugar, 24,000 gallons of molasses, and 5,000 bushels of corn. The estimated value of all his produce for that year was $40,000. Kenner is said to have been the first in the state to use the portable railroad to carry cane from fields to mill and to have been among the earliest users of several other technological innovations in the sugar industry. He was a leader in the organization of the Louisiana Sugar Planter's Association in 1877, serving as the first president of each.
Political activism continued to be a habit with him. During 1866-1867, he represented Ascension Parish in the state Senate, and in 1877 he was elected state senator from New Orleans, where by then he spent most of his time. In the late 1870s, he ran for the U. S. Senate, but was defeated. In 1882 he was appointed to the U. S. Tariff Commission. He was chairman of the building committee for the Cotton Exposition held in New Orleans in 1884 - 1885. Kenner died in New Orleans in 1887.
In 1889, Ashland was purchased by John B. Reuss, a German immigrant who became a prosperous sugar planter. Reuss re-named the plantation "Belle Helene" in honor of his granddaughter Helene Reuss, who grew up to become Mrs. W. Campbell Hayward, the present owner of the house.
Ashland-Belle Helene plantation house is set approximately 1500 feet north of the Mississippi River. The south front of the house commands a vista to the levee, which is encompassed by oak trees set in a horseshoe pattern (open end toward the house). Once an open lawn, this area is overgrown with weeds and shrubs but the vista is intact. The north, east, and west facades face large live oak trees planted in rows.
In addition to the main house, the area also contains four small frame buildings, three of which are in a dilapidated state. About 200 feet east of the main house is a dilapidated double-quarters type house with a front gallery. Adjacent to this is a modern latticework gazebo, also dilapidated. Some distance north of the house is a small, modern, frame clapboard caretaker's cottage. Just west of the house is a frame kitchen building with a brick chimney. Built by a film company in 1974, it is out of place next to the plantation house.
The square plan house is encompassed on all four sides by a 12-foot wide colossal pillared gallery, which provides for a first and second-story veranda. The plan on both floors consists of a 12-foot wide central hall running north- south, with three rooms on each side. Access from the first floor through to the attic is provided by a graceful oval-shaped staircase which is set in a large curved alcove off the rear of the hall, The two main parlors, which occur east of the hall, are connected by means of sliding doors. Ceilings are 14 feet high on the ground floor and 12½ feet high upstairs.
The walls, pillars, and foundations are of brick with a heavy cypress pegged timber roof framing which supports the shallow pyramid roof.
The exterior is characterized by extreme simplicity and massiveness. The block of the house is surrounded by 28 stuccoed pillars three feet square, with molded capitals formed of corbeled brick. The pillars are surmounted by a thick wooden entablature whose main characteristics are visual weight, flatness, and lack of ornamentation.
The flat unornamented architrave is differentiated from the frieze by a row of dentils. The frieze is surmounted by a heavily molded cornice with a row of small dentils. The underside of the architrave is treated with wood coffers, which occur between the pillars. Windows, which reach to the floor and recede into the upper walls, are cut sharply into the scored stucco without molding. Shutters are mainly original with fixed louvers. Front and rear doors on both levels are treated with heavy aedicule motifs with Doric pilasters, transoms, and sidelights. Doors are heavy with one huge panel encompassing the entire door. The interiors have suffered considerably from neglect, vandalism, and use of the house by various film companies. None of the mantels remain, and floors on the first floor have been removed, though the floor in the hall has been replaced. Interior doors consist of one large panel and doorways are in heavy holder molded frames. Ground floor rooms have heavy denticular cornices. The double parlors each have ceilings consisting of a central acanthus leaf cluster surrounded by scroll patterns. Thirty-four acres encompass a park in which the mansion is set. This park includes the front lawn as well as treed land to the rear and sides which at one time were intended for gentlemen's recreation. There was, for example, a racetrack among the oaks to the rear of the house. This, however, has disappeared. Of the four structures that are in the area, three are rotted out and generally dilapidated beyond any hope of restoration. The caretaker's cottage, which is located about 200 feet to the rear of the mansion, is possibly old but much remodeled with new windows, new doors, and a new porch and with siding replaced in patches over the years.