Renovations to plantation nearly complete

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 3, 1998

By LEONARD GRAY / L’Observateur / August 3, 1998

WALLACE – Evergreen Plantation, a jewel of the west bank in St. John theBaptist Parish, is undergoing a face lift like none other in its history.

Project manager Jane Boddie said the privately-owned plantation is the most complete plantation complex in the state, with 39 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

Drivers on River Road (Louisiana Highway 18) who have long remarked on the graceful curving double-stairway on the front of the house, were stunned some time ago with the removal of the famed stairs.

Not to despair, advised Boddie. The stairs have been renovated,strengthened and will be placed again on the 1786 Greek Revival-style house.

The stair renovation is only one small element in the nearly completed total restoration and renovation of the facility.

First off, the paint had to be restored, and that meant a paint consultant, John Lahey of Fine Paints of Europe in Vermont, came in to advise on how to re-moisturize the wood of the house so it would retain the paint on the surface.

The process, carried out by contractor Keith Guy of New Orleans, included rescaffolding all around the exterior five times, over and over, as the oil and painting processes were applied and dried.

The house itself for many years was the only building with modern plumbing and electricity, but now all buildings have been modernized.

The gallery on the second floor, for a long time, had rotted so badly it could not be walked upon. That has been rebuilt so well it all looksoriginal.

Evergreen Plantation is sister to nearby Whitney Plantation, now owned by Formosa Plastics but about to be sold to New Orleans attorney John Cummings III, who plans to restore it.

Despite outward appearances, Whitney and Evergreen were originally built with identical floor plans, probably built at the same time by brothers Christophe and Jean Jacques Heidel. Jean Jacques likely built Whitney, andhe died in 1819. Christophe built Evergreen but died in 1800.After Christophe’s death, his daughter, Magdelaine (the widow of Pierre Antoine Becnel) bought out her sister, Francoise, in 1801. Upon her deathin 1830 her grandson, Pierre Clidamant Becnel, eventually became sole owner after buying out the interest of other heirs.

Pierre launched a massive remodeling of Evergreen in 1832, contracting with builder John Carver of St. Charles Parish.Carver rebuilt the roof and added the captain’s walk at the roof’s peak (still accessible today through a steep stair and ladder from the attic). Healso added the large, plastered, two-story brick columns on the front and most of the outbuildings of the plantation.

Those outbuildings, which make up one of the most complete plantation complexes in existence, include two pigeonnaires, garconnaires, double- privy, a milk barn and an overseer’s cabin. The plantation also sports itsoriginal kitchen building.

Attention to detail and style was the watchword in Becnel’s renovation, as evidenced by the orders for creation of Evergreen’s famous winding stairs.

According to the original 1832 building contract, “Two winding stairs…one on each side of the platform covered by the portico’s roof,must gracefully wind down with the proper slope so as to present the lower step fronting the river. The stairs must be made as substantial andas nigh each other at their base as will consistently agree with grace and elegance.”The effect was apparently achieved, but nearly a century after the fact a new owner bought the derelict house in the 1940s and added the double- stairway without even being aware of the old building contract, Boddie said. Now, Evergreen’s double stairway is one of its most remarkablefeatures.

Another remarkable feature of Evergreen is the double row of 22 slave cabins which face each other across an avenue of oaks. All but two aredouble-family occupancy cabins, and the remaining are four-plexes which, Boddie advised, were possibly used for hospitals for male and female patients among the slaves.

The row once included a slave church, used by descendants at least until the 1920s, but it was knocked down in 1965 by Hurricane Betsy. All thecabins now have tin roofs but are otherwise unrestored.

Evergreen, known at that time as Becnel Plantation, acquired its present name in 1884. It remained in the Becnel, then Songy families until thecombination of the 1927 Great Flood and the stock market crash of 1929 dealt the owners a one-two blow from which Evergreen couldn’t recover.

It lay derelict for 14 years, slowly succumbing to time, vandalism and the elements.

Then came Matilda Gray of New Orleans, scion of southwest Louisiana oil money, who “collected houses,” according to Boddie.

She bought the faded flower of Evergreen and added a few renovations, not the least of which were the garden and brick walkways behind the house.

The bricks used by Gray in restoration of the house and construction of the gardens and walkways, all 300,000 of them, were transported from the demolished Uncle Sam Plantation site in St. James Parish.”She was fascinated by the Southern way of life,” Boddie noted, adding she also built a plantation-style house in Lake Charles.

After her death in 1971, her niece, Mrs. Matilda Gray Stream, acquired theproperty and still retains it. Boddie has been a live-in administrator forthe past year and a half.

Unlike Destrehan Manor, which is seeking out original furnishings and portraits, Evergreen has no such furnishings or portraits original to the house. Although there are several portraits, all are unidentified.The house is now in private use, but the day may come soon when the house and its extensive grounds, outbuildings and furnishings may be seen by the public, Boddie said.

If and when that happens, she added, and the public will see an extraordinary sight – a clear window into the past.

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