By Anne Butler
It is called one of the South’s best preserved formal Victorian parlors, and the New Orleans Museum of Art now has it on permanent exhibit. Moved in its entirety from English Plantation Country in St. Francisville, it is shown not only as a perfect representation of an era in history, but also as a tribute to those skilled craftsmen, both free and enslaved, capable of creating such beauty.
On a plantation established in the 1790s by her father, the area’s first physician, Harriett Flower Mathews began assembling the room’s elegant furnishing and decorations as clouds of Civil War gathered. The ninth generation of direct descendants occupy the property now, but it was five generations of strong women who preserved the parlor intact.
In the 1850s, widowed upon the death of her husband Judge George Mathews of Louisiana’s first Supreme Court, the determined Mrs. Mathews refused to be inconvenienced by the rumblings of war, ordering deliveries from fine merchants across the country: marble mantels from Kent & Fuller in St. Louis in 1855, wall-to-wall floral strip carpeting (53 7/8 yards) with a central medallion made most likely in England from Bayou Sara retailer I. Meyer & Hoffman, 9-foot-tall gilded pier mirrors and silk lambrequin curtains from the New Orleans retailer C. Flint & Jones but no doubt also imported from Europe.
The day before Louisiana seceded from the Union on January 26, 1861, a large order was placed for a sumptuous rosewood parlor suite from Hubbell & Curtis of Bridgeport, Connecticut, beautifully carved in the Rococo Revival style with flowers, fine fabrics, carved scrolls and fruit clusters. Harriett Mathews may well have visited the manufacturing site on visits to her son, who attended Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., as she also patronized a number of early nurseries Up East to order plants and ironwork for landscaping. In all, the parlor would contain a 12-piece set of rosewood furniture including several sofas, several styles of chairs, marble-topped tables, and a fine mahogany etagere beside the pier mirrors and lambrequins held with calla-lily tiebacks.
The Mathews family could well afford such grandeur, owning in the 1850s four extensive productive cotton and sugar plantations across the state. But then came wartime troubles. In April of 1861 a letter was received from Hubbell & Curtis, requesting acknowledgment of receipt of the furnishings. “We are aware that troublesome times are come to all parts of our country, and the largest part of the calamity must fall on the manufacturing interest of the country. Our business is nearly ruined. But if our friends who are able will pay us…”
Succeeding generations kept the parlor intact with careful use, in the exact setting and in the original fabric, until the present generation, mindful of how rarely do our children want our old things, began to fret about its future. She didn’t want it divided; she didn’t want it to be auctioned off; she didn’t want it to go to an inappropriate place. Since the property had never been sold outside the original family, the attic remained full of trunks and trunks of original invoices and journals; many records were placed in the Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley collection of histories at LSU, but some were still on site.
Along came the late New Orleans attorney Paul Haygood and his interns from the Classical Institute of the South, doing an inaugural summer study of plantations in the St. Francisville area, where they were incredibly impressed with the sheer volume and quality of preserved material culture as well as the documentation through invoices and correspondence from providing merchants. And working closely with Mel Buchanan, the RosaMary Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the New Orleans Museum of Art, the perfect solution was found. After all, there had always been close ties between St. Francisville and the Crescent City, with planters and their families travelling by steamboat south to handle business matters, socialize and shop, attend carnival festivities and board ocean-going vessels for trips to the East Coast or Europe.
In 2014 a fleet of climate-controlled eighteen-wheelers parked on the front lawns of Butler Greenwood Plantation, while inside, an army of professional fine-art movers made crates for every single piece of the parlor furnishings…carpeting, sofas and chairs, etagere, towering pier mirrors, lambrequins and delicate calla lily tiebacks. This was all carefully transported to the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park and given a light conservation for an introductory exhibit in October 2015. Now, as of December 20, 2019, it has been opened as a permanent exhibit for all to see.
Cognizant of current sensibilities, museum staff made sure that this is a celebration of all segments of society during the antebellum period, including the labor of the enslaved who made many more important contributions than picking cotton…there were skilled craftsmen, knowledgeable horticulturists, blacksmiths, seamstresses and weavers, culinary artists and many more whose talents and hard work provided the backbone and underpinnings for the cotton culture, and who are just now getting their due recognition. In the NOMA parlor exhibit are displayed small iron nails, obviously forged on the place. Examples of the skill of plantation blacksmiths, these tacks were used to secure the strips of carpeting to the cypress floor below, just a tiny reminder that there were contributions both great and small.
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived,” said author Maya Angelou, “but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
For information on hours and fees, look online at www.noma.org.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. Several splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses in St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 o r 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online www.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, or www.stfrancisville.net (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).
Photos by Rich Johnson