Traveling the River Road north from New Orleans will lead you to Ascension Parish, Louisiana’s Sweet Spot. Houmas House or “The Sugar Palace” has drawn visitors for years. Kevin Kelly has added a new addition to the River Road experience.
Great River Road Museum
Although It has not had its formal “grand opening,” it is wowing visitors. Under construction for eight years, the museum is an immense and impressive look at the local and southern history. It is a historian’s delight.
Jim Blanchard is a contemporary artist known for his architectural watercolors of historic Louisiana. He assisted and helped to create and wrote the museum’s content. Jim is the author of Magnificent Obsessions and Louisiana’s Sugar Palace.
As Jim and I toured the museum, he reminded me that Northerners wrote all the South and Civil War history. He reminded me that the winners write all history. Often the real stories get lost. At the Great River Road Museum, you will discover long-lost stories of the South.
Jim asked me a question, “Why did God give us two ears?” He smiled, “God gave people two ears and one mouth, so they can listen twice as much as they talk.” Certainly a sentiment we can use in today’s world.
Bienville and Iberville
The founding fathers of Louisiana, Bienville, and Iberville begin the museum tour. Their exchanges with the native Indians began the creation of Louisiana.
Five years ago, the Museum de Conti closed in New Orleans. Madame Tussauds created the hand-crafted wax figures in Paris. Kelly purchased one hundred and sixty plus wax figures for use at Great River Road. Fifty of the hand-crafted figures are used in displays throughout the museum.
On display in the main museum display area, visitors view an 18-foot painting formerly hung in the Hilton Hotel depicting John McDonogh being rowed across the harbor. McDonogh supported the American Colonization project, which enabled freed blacks to return to Africa. He also adopted three slaves as his sons. His sons were men of great accomplishment. McDonogh’s money funded the New Orleans public schools for 100 years.
You will learn the stories of Southern Plantation life, but you will also learn many stories that have long been forgotten. You can draw your conclusions from the wealth of information here.
Rex is the King of Mardi Gras. People will be surprised to learn that Grand Duke Alexis Romanov, the son of Tsar Alexander II, gave is his royal colors to New Orleans in 1872. Those colors of Green, Purple, and Gold became the colors of Mardi Gras. In 1936, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor caused a worldwide stir when they were presented and bowed to Mardi Gras royalty.
One artifact that stood out to me in the steamboat model display was the 1840s roll maps of the Mississippi River. Only three exist. River Road is fortunate to have one that contains the original wooden rolls. Many of the model ships came from a Maritime museum donation.
Battle of New Orleans and Civil War
The plantations on the Mississippi River played an integral part in the Civil War. Here you will learn stories of how New Orleans helped win the war.
“It’s a great collection. No one tells the story in this way.” Jim told me. Many local teachers have expressed they want to bring students to the museum to learn the history of the River Road plantations.
Don’t miss this opportunity to learn more about the true stories of the South at Great River Road. Here is a brief video for a look inside the new museum.
HOUMAS HOUSE and GARDENS, the Crown Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road
The Sugar Palace is the crown jewel of the River Road in South Louisiana. The mansion, built in 1780 and by 1890, John Burnside operated the largest sugar cane plantation in the county at the height of its working life producing upwards of twelve million tons of sugar each year.
New Orleans businessman Kevin Kelly purchased the house in 2003 for three million dollars and paid fourteen million for the furniture in the home. About 65% of the furniture is original to the home. He has said that he always wanted to own a plantation. Kelly is a hands-on and on-site owner. He will likely be touring the grounds in a golf cart with his dog or chatting with guests in one of the property’s three restaurants.
Houmas House Tour
Patrick, our tour guide, provided an informative tour of the Houmas House. The Great Flood of 1927 flooded the property. Sixteen of the twenty-four Live Oak trees that created a path to the house were damaged and removed. Today, eight of the trees remain. The pond that fronts the home was formed when a Live Oak tree was removed. The pond reflects the width of the roots of the tree.
In Kevin’s research on the houses of the era, he tasked the gardener to paint the murals in the entryway as an homage to sugar fields. The gardener was a self-taught artist and completed the murals in seven months.
In the dining room, guests will see the Houmas House Limoges china. Inlaid with 24 karat gold and imprinted with ‘Houmas House’ the china dates to 1830. There are 300 pieces in the house’s collection.
In the ladies parlor, visitors can hear the 1901 Steinway Baby Grand piano was made in Germany, it is one of only 200 made.
There are two remarkable pieces in the Gentleman’s parlor, a sculpture of a sitting Lincoln and an Indian statue. Made of sterling silver, the Sitting Lincoln weighs in at 68 pounds. Lincoln was sculpted by Gutzon Borglium, who designed the figures on Mt. Rushmore. The female Houmas Indian stature is another excellent find by Kelly.
The hour-long home tour lasts is a fascinating dive into the history of the property. There are many exciting and striking artifacts on display in the home.
Restaurants at Houmas House
There are three restaurants at the Houmas House for guests to enjoy. Dixie Café’ and The Carriage House serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner and Latil’s Landing is a fine dining experience. The Turtle Bar is an intimate setting for a tasty libation. I recommend the “Sweet Spot,” a drink created by the Houmas House to celebrate Ascension Parish.
Latil’s Landing opened just three months after Hurricane Katrina. I mentioned that I had seen the fourteen pages of wines offered at the Houma’s House restaurants, Kevin had a story to share.
John Mariani, Esquire Magazine’s distinguished food critic, reviewed Latil’s soon after it opened. On offer were bottles of red and white wine, priced between $30, $60, and $120. Unimpressed with the wine selections offered, Mariani told Kevin that if he had a better wine selection, he would make Latil’s Landing one of the top twenty restaurants in the country. Kevin rose to the challenge and told him, “Give me two weeks.”
Mariani was dubious. As promised, Kevin quickly stocked the wine cellar with cases of the best wine to be procured. Mariani asked how he had created a fantastic wine cellar in such a short time. “I wrote a check,” Kevin explained. Later, Latil’s was awarded one of Esquire’s top restaurant prizes.
Kevin says they mainly sell bottles in the $30, $60, and $120 price range. On occasion, they will sell a pricey bottle for a special occasion. The cellar boasts some excellent vintages from 2005.
Where would the wine be stored? Kevin turned the two old water cisterns into wine cellars. It was a unique use of the structures. Ask and you can have a tour of both the red and white cellar.
COTTAGES AT HOUMAS HOUSE
Houmas House has 29 cottages where visitors can enjoy some Southern hospitality. Each cottage is well-appointed with first-class furnishings. The cottages are a short walk from the museum and the home. Visitors don’t even have to walk; a golf cart will deposit you wherever you wish to go on the grounds. Here you can see a brief video of my accommodation.
Donaldsonville, Louisiana, served as the capital of Louisiana from 1829-1831. The red brick 1890 Courthouse dominates the town square. Admiral Farragut’s ceaseless bombardment nearly destroyed Donaldsonville in 1862.
Ascension Catholic Church
Local historian, Boo LeBlanc, gave me a tour of Ascension Parish Catholic Church. Established in 1772, construction began on the present church in 1875. Worshipers are surrounded by ornate, beautifully crafted stained glass in the sanctuary.
The Roman marble columns were imported from Croatia and shipped through New Orleans. In order to get the columns to Donaldsonville, they were put on barges. The town built a rail spur from the river to get the columns to the church.
The floors are the original 1875 longleaf pine tongue and groove floors. The church is a beautiful presentation of the quality artistry of the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The beams above the altar show twelve sections representing the months of the calendar and shows the influence of the Native Americans.
River Road African American Museum
Kathie Hambrick established the River Road African American Museum in 1994 at Tezcuco Plantation but a fire led to its relocation in 2002. Hambrick’s mission is to tell the story of African-American freedom, resilience, and reconciliation on the River Road. Donaldsonville has a strong connection with black history. Not a large museum, there is a lot to see and learn here. From the first elected African American Mayor to the first woman millionaire.
Cajun Village, Sorrento
This unique stop offers visitors and locals a stop for food at the Coffee House and an opportunity to shop. Stop by and see “Big Boy,” though you might want to think twice if it’s feeding time. Stop in at the Coffee House for beignets or breakfast. You won’t go wrong starting your day with a café a lait.
Traveling the River Road
The River Road in South Louisiana features many plantation homes, but Houma’s House is certainly the crown jewel. Now with the Great River Road Museum, visitors will learn even more as they explore the stories of Louisiana. Like what you see? Follow Roadrunner Journeys on Facebook, Pinterest and YouTube.