October 26, 2011

Plantation Obsession: San Francisco Plantation

The year was 1827. Just 40 miles downriver, New Orleans was celebrating its first Mardi Gras. Elisée Rillieux, a free man of color and a smart visionary, began buying tracts of land and slaves to establish a sugar plantation in St. John the Baptist Parish. But Elisée never intended to be a planter himself. Like his brother Francois, who in 1822 created an estate that later became Godchaux Plantation, he was more of a speculator and a good one at that. Only three years later Elisée sold the plantation to Edmond Bozonier Marmillion and his partner Eugène Lartigue for the enormous sum of $100,000 dollars, collecting an estimated $50,000 dollar profit.

Edmond, in debt from day one, immediately began establishing a professional sugar production. Although he became a successful planter of large crops, Edmond remained in financial troubles throughout his twenty-six years of ownership. He continued to acquire slaves and purchase additional swamp land, but invested little in modern sugar machinery. During the prosperous 1850s, the plantation became an economical success. But tragedy had long overshadowed Edmond's family life. In 1843 Edmond’s wife Antoinette was dead from tuberculosis, a disease contracted by almost all of her eight children as well. Six of them died throughout a period of just over twenty years.

To provide his surviving sons Valsin and Charles with a prestigious residence, Edmond began building the plantation home that exists today. In 1853 he hired expert builders and purchased twelve highly skilled slaves to convert his extravagant vision into reality. When main construction was finished two years later, Edmond appointed accomplished artists to carry out an ambitious decoration project. It featured five artistically hand painted ceilings, painted door panels, faux marbling, and faux wood graining throughout. The house became so distinctive that it inspired novelist Frances Parkinson Keyes to write "Steamboat Gothic", a story about the family she imagined lived there. Viewed from some angles, the house closely resembles the ornate and yet graceful superstructure of a Mississippi riverboat.

Edmond passed away in 1856, less than one year after the home was completed. The day after Edmond’s death, his oldest son Valsin returned from Europe and was forced to take over the plantation. Valsin Bozonier Marmillion was married to Louise von Seybold of Munich, Germany, and had three daughters. Together they lived at the home and ran the sugar plantation for the next fifteen years. The unusual name “San Francisco” is believed to be derived from Valsin’s comment about the extraordinary debt he was confronted with when taking over the estate. He declared he was sans fruscins or “without a penny in my pocket.”

The name evolved into St. Frusquin and, in 1879, was changed into “San Francisco” by the next owner, Achille D. Bougère.
Valsin never envisioned his future as a Louisiana sugar planter. He had been educated at prominent Catholic universities on the East Coast and had worked as an accountant in New Orleans and Paris for many years. But nothing made him want to leave his home more than the death of his six siblings and his own developing illness.

As early as 1859, Valsin and his younger brother Charles attempted to sell the estate but were halted by a legal conflict with their sister-in-law, Zoé Luminais. When the argument was settled in 1861, it was too late. War and reconstruction prevented any possibility of a sale for the following fifteen years. Valsin’s and Louise’s dream of moving to Southern Germany remained unfulfilled.

Valsin died of tuberculosis in 1871. Charles, who had served in the Confederate Army for four years, helped Louise sustain the estate until he also passed away in 1875. Four years later, Louise finally sold the plantation to Achille D. Bougère for only $50,000, never coming close to maintaining the crops they had before the Civil War. Bougère also had financial problems and died in 1887. His wife and sons managed to maintain the estate and even acquire the neighboring Union Plantation for $30,000.

In 1904 they sold the entire estate to Schmidt and Ziegler for $80,000 dollars and moved to New Orleans. Shortly after the Ory family purchased the property and established the “San Francisco Planting & Manufacturing Company“ in 1909. They kept living in the house for the next fifty years, adding a kitchen and bathrooms but fortunately undertaking few other alterations.

As a result of the Great Flood of 1927, the Army Corps of Engineers began building the
Mississippi River levee system and completed the project in 1932. The new levee unfortunately sacrificed the luscious front yard and gardens. The project would have also claimed the home, but local residents lobbied the Louisiana legislature to pass a measure that would save as many plantations along the River Road as possible. Fortunately, the Corps was able to curve the levee around San Francisco.

In 1954, the Ory family leased the house to Mr. and Mrs. Clark Thompson who maintained the premises and opened the mansion to the public. The Thompsons are credited for preserving the home at a time when it could have faded away as did many of the treasures along the Great River Road.
In 1974 Mrs. Thompson, then widowed, moved out of the home. It was purchased by the ECOL Company and later by Marathon Oil. The San Francisco Plantation Foundation was created and the home underwent a massive restoration. As scientific analysis of materials and structure were done, along with archival research, it was decided to that the home would be restored to the golden years just before the War Between the States. The house then became listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today the San Francisco Plantation remains a major attraction in Louisiana being visited annually by over 100,000 people. Although the house is antebellum in a chronological sense, it is certainly not typical of the period. Its style and coloration are totally distinctive, and its memories are now locked in time just prior to the War Between the States, when the house was at the height of its splendor.
Restoration of the San Francisco Plantation began in 1973 and took over 3 years to complete at a cost of over 2 million dollars. The restoration took place after the deteriorating plantation was purchased by The Energy Corporation of Louisiana as the site of an oil refinery and the house was included in the purchase. The chairman of the corporation, Frederick B. Ingram, urged restoration and the house and seven acres were donated to the newly formed San Francisco Plantation Foundation.
The house was restored to its most elegant period, around 1860, when Antoine Valsin and his wife Louise completed redecorating. Every effort was made to faithfully restore or reproduce every aspect of the house to this period, from the structure, the ceiling, and wall painting, to the light fixtures, accessories, carpets, furniture and draperies.

Fortunately, few structural changes had been made during the building’s 120 years of history prior to restoration. Most of the structural changes were removable additions such as modern bathrooms and kitchens. However, some alterations were most serious such as partitions with doors had been built at the head of the two interior stairs on the main floor.

Archaeologists were called in to work with architects in determining more precisely how the house looked in 1860. This work included tests of fabric and paint sequences, on-site and in laboratories. Following these investigations, work began to open up the building for further research and to begin restoration.

Wooden ceilings on the ground floor level were removed to reveal the original Creole-style exposed-joist and floorboard construction, along with hand-made lead plumbing pipes, all bearing the earliest paint sequences.
Now it was possible to begin restoration.

First the slate roof was restored. Then working down, the exterior walls were repaired. The first floor of the house is brick, supporting peg wood framework for the upper levels. On the second floor, framework is filled in with brick in the old French style, four inches thick, then stuccoed on the outside and plastered on the inside. The masonry required extensive repair. Further repairs involved leveling of the attic balcony and restoration of many pieces of millwork, several of which bore the initials EBM, for Edmond Bozonier Marmillion.
The roof drainage system was repaired, and the leaded domes of the cisterns that flank the house were reconstructed using evidence of old photos and fragments of the original ribs and struts.

The exterior was repainted in the striking colors of the Marmillion period.
The big challenge however was restoring and reproducing the lavish and intricate interior painting. Specialist painters were brought in from around the world to assist in the delicate and demanding work.

In some rooms only small areas of graining and marbling could be scraped to the Marmillion paint sequence while others all the appropriate work was revealed. But even in the most difficult areas, enough was exposed to permit faithful reproduction. Three of the frescoed ceilings had been heavily overpainted at some time, but enough of the original work was exposed to establish color.

Furnishing the house also became a challenge because none of the original contents remained. However, fairly extensive inventories of the house contents (required under Napoleonic Code) were discovered and these provided an adequate frame of the reference for recreating the styles of the Marmillion period. In most cases, it was evident where the individually listed pieces should be placed.

Insistence on authenticity raised some unusual problems, but the end result of this painstaking attention to detail, in the structural restoration and redecorating as well as in the contents of the house, is a faithful reflection of the lifestyle of the period.

Restoration of the San Francisco Plantation House was completed in 1977.
The house has been declared a National Historic Landmark and is open to the public, through the auspices of the San Francisco Plantation Foundation.

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