A House with a Broken Heart
“Yet it was not heavy, or pompous. It managed somehow, to combine vastness with delicacy; titanic proportions with grace and warmth . . ."
(John Clarence Laughlin, Ghosts Along the Mississippi)
I was introduced to Belle Grove Plantation through Clarence John Laughlin’s book Ghosts Along the Mississippi. I was hooked from the first picture. Many times I would study the pictures in Laughlin’s book. I would try to imagine what the house looked like while it thrived and people loved it. I would try to imagine what the view from the front porch was like for the people who lived there.
I would think of the noises of the inhabitants. The laughter. The sadness. All of it pressing against the walls in a permanent, life-affirming way.
John Andrews, who made his fortune in Virginia and owned 7,000 acres surrounding Belle Grove near White Castle in Iberville Parish, Louisiana, built the mansion for $80,000 between 1852 and 1857. Andrews had a legendary rivalry with John Randolph, the owner of neighboring Nottaway Plantation. Both men commissioned New Orleans architect Henry Howard to design their homes. Both mansions sport a mix of Greek and Italianate styles. Andrews more than 150 slaves who produced over one-half million pounds of sugar a year also provided free building labor. Lumber was used from nearby Cypress trees, and the pillars were, in fact, six feet wide cypress trunks and were hand carved. Bricks were produced on the plantation. Expert European craftsmen were hired to plaster and carve the walls and mantels. The front steps, rising twelve feet above the arches, were covered with imported marble. The door knobs and keyhole guards were of silver.
Belle Grove’s lower arches were 12 feet high, and ultimately the whole of the house stood 62 feet high and rambled 122 feet wide and 119 feet deep. Seventy-five rooms encompassed four floors. The wings rambled from the center in no particular pattern. Even a jail cell was built within the house. No expense was spared in its construction, and it is said Andrews refused to keep receipts or a cost analysis of the money spent. It was one of the largest mansions in the South, even larger than Randolph’s Nottoway Plantation.
Nottoway, however, is still with us. Belle Grove is not.
In 1867, due to the loss of the war and the collapse of the Southern economy, Andrews sold the plantation house and the surrounding acreage to James Ware for a mere $50,000. The plantation stayed in the Ware family until the 1920s when, after a series of crop failures, they were forced to sell.
From 1925 onward, the house sat vacant, and Belle Grove began a rapid decline. Louisiana’s harsh environment rots away at neglected properties. A roof leak destroyed one wing. The mansion was purchased several times by individuals who hoped to restore Belle Grove to its former glory, but the realities of the Great Depression and World War II proved too great an obstacle. Rehabilitation was further complicated by the lack of available materials and the expense of such (cypress for the beams and local bricks, imported marble) to bring the mansion back to its original state. When decay came to the house, it spread rapidly. On March 17, 1952, a mysterious night fire destroyed what remained of the house.
Belle Grove has long charmed people. The house even has its own group of friends with a webpage: Friends of Belle Grove Plantation of Louisana Website. The plantation has been the subject of a number of books. Unlike other mansions that have been lost with time, in the 1930s photographs and architectural drawings were taken of the inside and outside of the structure. Before that, in 1908, the contents were inventoried upon the death of James Ware. All of these records and more are available on the website for the Library of Congress.
But a house that has done what a house should do, a house that has sheltered life, That has put its loving wooden arms around a man and his wife, A house that has echoed a baby’s laugh and held up his stumbling feet, Is the saddest sight, when it’s left alone, that ever your eyes could meet.
So whenever I go to Suffern along the Erie track I never go by the empty house without stopping and looking back, Yet it hurts me to look at the crumbling roof and the shutters fallen apart, For I can’t help thinking the poor old house is a house with a broken heart.
(Excerpt, The House With Nobody In It, Joyce Kilmer)
Pictures from Historic American Buildlings Survey (HABS) LA-36.
Wikipedia. Belle Grove Plantation (Iberville Parish, Louisiana). Found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belle_Grove_Plantation_(Iberville_Parish,_Louisiana)
Friends of Belle Grove Plantation of Louisiana Website. Found at http://www.bellegrove/html.net.
Laughin, Clarence John. Ghosts Along the Mississippi. (New York: American Legacy Press, 1961.)