Cummings has big plans for Whitney

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 13, 1999

LEONARD GRAY / L’Observateur / September 13, 1999

WALLACE – The new owner of Whitney Plantation announced plans for the future of the 1790-era complex and aims to tell “the whole story” about plantation life and their owners.

John Cummings, a New Orleans attorney, has this week completed the purchase of Whitney, including a complex of 20 buildings such as a plantation store, barns, stables and a massive house on River Road.

The 51.07-acre site was bought from Formosa Plastics near where thecompany once planned a massive plastics plant.

In 1989, Formosa bought the 1,800-acre Whitney Plantation with a stipulation from then-Parish President Lester Millet Jr. that the house andadjoining buildings would not be razed but rather restored.

Alden Andre, vice-president of Formosa, said: “For the past 10 years, we have been trying to find someone who has the interest in our area’s history, the commitment to restore the plantation and the funds to do so.

We have talked to many people who met the first two criteria, but it has been hard to find someone who can meet the third one.”Cummings said his plans include restoring the house for eventual public tours and establishment of a museum of plantation life and an educational complex.

“It’ll be very unique and will be a great asset to the parish,” Cumming said.

Next summer will see a host of architectural and other student interns who will painstakingly work to restore the house and other buildings.

Other employees will be working at minimum wage out of their own commitment to Whitney’s future.

Despite outward appearences, 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 he died in 1800.Cummings added he’s been impressed with the renovation work under way at other plantations up and down the River Parishes, such as at Laura Plantation in Vacherie. He said Whitney will be “something a littledifferent,” and added, “people can come and understand what was going on in St. John the Baptist Parish.”The Whitney plantation complex spans three centuries, from the 1790 main house to the 1920s-era manager’s house. The French barn locatednext to the house may actually predate the present house and, according to some historians, may be the oldest-standing agricultural building in the Mississippi Valley.

Inside the main house’s parlor are murals, which are still intact, though threatened by the elements for years. The last major modification of thehouse was done in the 1820s.

Architectural historian Lori Durio commented: “Whitney isn’t massive like some of the River Road plantations; instead, it has a quiet elegance.”Cummings continued that renovation work will commence soon to stabilize the house, and he is also seeking an antebellum church to relocate to the site. Two slave cabins near the Wallace water tower arealso due to be relocated closer to the house, and he is looking for more.

Cummings said he has met with “great enthusiasm” from the parish, and added a prominent St. James Parish family has also offered theirassistance.

He is also welcoming photos, historical objects and stories from the Whitney complex and urges people interested in helping to call him at 586-0000.

“Whitney is going to be a place where you can see the whole history of our region and the contributions of the people that helped build it. It’ll be aplace of pride,” he said, “where the line drawn between the haves and have-nots will not be apparent.”His plans also include showcasing the contributions of African-Americans to the region, and he also plans small crops of indigo and cotton so people can better appreciate the hard work of slaves who contributed to the success of planters of the era.

Cummings expressed his own delight at the acquisition and said, “You can never have a dream come true without a dream.”

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