History. Architecture. Trees.
Magnificent And Magical Oak Alley
If you do an Internet search for “Southern Plantation,” you’re likely to find many photos of the iconic Oak Alley, a stately Greek Revival mansion framed by a quarter-mile-long tunnel of live oak limbs.
The grandeur of the 28 ancient trees that line the 800-foot “alley”( or allée) to the Mississippi are impressive and were regarded in the 18th and 19th centuries as a display of affluence and “established” wealth. But on a more practical level, the line of oaks helped direct cooling breezes from the Mississippi River toward the plantation house to reduce the intense heat of Louisiana’s summers.
As a testament to their strength and resiliency, every one of the original trees planted at Oak Alley between 200 and 300 years ago, still stands. Unlike other earthly inhabitants, the great oaks seemingly grow more spectacular with age, their intertwining limbs joining to create a scenic walkway that is part enchanted forest overhead—and part gnarled, knobby bark and roots, below.
For more than two centuries now the mighty trees have provided shelter to the house along the Mississippi, enduring the effects of hurricanes, floods, droughts and war. Trunks that measure 29 feet around bear the scars of their age, but the evergreen canopy above reveals no trace of the passage of time.
Most documentation about the trees says they were planted in the early 1700s by an unknown French settler, who eventually left the site. (Although recent research shows that mature live oaks were moved and planted there in the 1800s).
In any event, in 1837 French sugar planter Jacques Telesphore Roman decided this was the perfect site to build a Greek Revival mansion for his bride.
The Bon Séjour plantation, as Oak Alley was originally named, was first purchased by the French Creole Valcour Aime in 1830 to grow sugarcane. Aime, known as the "King of Sugar," was one of the wealthiest men in the South.
In 1836, Aime exchanged this piece of property with his brother-in-law JT Roman and the house was finally completed in 1839. Bricks were made on-site, but slate for the roof, glass for the window and marble had to be shipped in by steamboat. It was an extremely laborious and time-consuming endeavor, accomplished entirely with slave labor.
The overall architecture of the house mimics details of an ancient Greek temple, although it is obvious that New Orleans’ weather also influenced its construction. Sixteen-inch thick brick walls lathed with plaster helped to keep the hot sultry air of summer out and the cool air within.
The palatial home’s most distinguishing architectural feature is a colonnade of 28 colossal Doric columns. (Which, by the way, matches the number of oak trees that line the alley). Iconic photos of the plantation illustrate the grand columns, but seeing the massive size up close reveals what a marvel each one is.
The house itself is set back from the great columns to create a double gallery. The galleries are wide enough that the hot rays of the sun and even lashing rains would not be a problem. Doors and windows could therefore be left open for ventilation.
An important event in American horticultural history occurred on the plantation in the winter of 1846-47, when Antoine, a slave gardener at Oak Alley, first successfully grafted pecan trees. His work resulted in the first named variety, Centennial, and the first commercial pecan orchard at nearby Anita Plantation.
Sadly, although strict instructions were left in Jacques’ will to never remove the trees, the wish was disregarded and no originals remain.
The 1,360-acre plantation survived the Civil War without great physical damage, but did not fare so well afterward. With the economic changes and dislocations, farming was no longer viable. The property sold at auction in 1866 for $32,800. Successive owners could not afford the cost of upkeep, and by the 1920s the buildings had fallen into disrepair.
In 1925, Scottish cotton broker Andrew Stewart purchased the property as a gift for his wife Josephine. She would go on to oversee the restoration and hired architect Richard Koch to restore and modernize the house, adding indoor plumbing and electricity. The Stewarts used the plantation as a cattle ranch until the 1960s and upon Josephine's death in 1972, the home was transferred to the Oak Alley Foundation to be opened to the public.
As a side note, all of the clocks in the mansion are stopped at 7:30, marking the death of Mrs. Stewart, who was the longest resident of Oak Alley.
The main house is fully restored, and the Foundation continues to do restoration work on the slave quarters, the historic gardens, and other buildings. Other exhibits include a working blacksmith shop, a reconstruction of a Civil War era officers field tent, and an exhibit on sugarcane that includes a short film.
The trees now rise to a height of 60 to 80 feet with spreads as much as 130 feet. Their carefully planned north-south alignment produces a dramatic side-lighting effect both early and late in the day. This vivid interplay between shadow and light is as much a work of art as the mammoth, yet graceful, limbs that hang as silent witness to centuries of Louisiana history.
Oak Alley is located on the west bank of the Mississippi River in St. James Parish, near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Don’t forget to pick up one of their famous Mint Juleps before you go on your tour!