Graphic image of the state of Lousiana Graphic that contains the title of this itinerary,
Graphic that contains the title of this itinerary
Graphic image of the state of Lousiana, highlighting those parishes that are included in this itinerary Graphic of a pink bar underlining the title
Text that reads
Graphic that provides a link to the Itinerary Home page Graphic that is a link to the Map of this itinerary Graphic that is a link to the List of Sites Graphic that is a link to the Learn More page Graphic that is a link to the National Register's homepage

The revival of the River Road region began with the restoration of Oak Alley in the 1920s
Courtesy of Lagniappe Tours, Foundation for Historical Louisiana
{photo2} Rear view of historic site

Although other states have their own River Roads, perhaps none is more evocative or famous than Louisiana's. Here, the very name inspires a vision of white pillared houses standing amid lush gardens and trees dripping with Spanish moss. Louisiana's fabled Great Mississippi River Road consists of a corridor approximately 70 miles in length located on each side of the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The area includes the river, levees, and adjacent lands and cultural resources. Among the latter is the state's most famous and recognizable group of monumental plantation houses, most built by wealthy sugar planters in the Greek Revival style.

The River Road's reputation of pillared splendor began with the comments of 19th-century travelers. As early as 1827, one succinctly described the region as follows: "Everywhere thickly peopled by sugar planters, whose showy houses, gay piazzas, trim gardens, and numerous slave-villages, all clean and neat, gave an exceedingly thriving air to the river scenery." More than half a century later Mark Twain journeyed down the river to revisit some of his old haunts. He records: "From Baton Rouge to New Orleans, the great sugar plantations border both sides of the river all the way, . . . Plenty of dwellings . . . standing so close together, for long distances, that the broad river lying between two rows, becomes a sort of spacious street. A most home-like and happy-looking region."

The Houmas house, designed in the Greek Revival style
Courtesy of Lagniappe Tours, Foundation for Historical Louisiana
The grand homes described by these observers were built by immensely wealthy sugar planters during the 30 years prior to the Civil War. They epitomize the conspicuous consumption lifestyle characteristic of the so-called Gold Coast during that period and were the absolute apex of the Greek Revival style in Louisiana. They may be briefly characterized as two-story mansions with broad double galleries and monumental columns or pillars that rise to the roofline in one continuous shaft. In some cases, conventional porticoes are dispensed with and the squarish mass of the house is surrounded by a two-story colonnade. Known as the Aperipteral style, the latter treatment is essentially a subspecies of the American Greek Revival and is an archetype peculiar to the Deep South.

Although the Greek Revival dominates, visitors to the River Road can see plantation houses in other styles as well. For example, a limited number of Creole houses survive. Also featuring columned galleries, these pre-antebellum homes, if one may use that term, are a relic of French colonial Louisiana. The entire River Road was once Creole, but one by one these early buildings were either modified or replaced. And, while it never even began to challenge the Greek Revival in popularity, the Italianate style is also represented among the region's majestic plantation homes.

San Francisco, one of the River Road's most ornate plantation houses
Courtesy of Lagniappe Tours, Foundation for Historical Louisiana
Although visitors tend to focus upon the big house, one must remember that plantations historically had a large number of buildings. Far from the rural idyllic view we have today, plantations were factories aimed at producing a cash crop on a large scale for world export. Each was in effect a self-contained community. Joseph Holt Ingram, in his The Southwest by a Yankee, 1835, noted that plantation appurtenances constitute a village in themselves, for planters always have a separate building for everything. From a practical standpoint, the sugar house and the slave quarters, rather than the big house were probably the most important of these buildings.

For those unfamiliar with the sugar industry, the term milling refers to the removal of juice from sugar cane stalks and its conversion into a crystallized product known as raw sugar. Before the Civil War milling took place in numerous small mills (known as sugar houses) located on individual plantations. After the war improvements in sugar technology combined with shortages of labor and capital to force the closure of many of these formerly profitable mills. In their place rose a system of large central factories which processed cane grown on distant plantations as well as that produced in their own fields. Abandoned by their owners and allowed to decay, historic sugar houses gradually disappeared from the plantation landscape. Today only a few badly deteriorated ruins survive.

The standard row arrangement of slave quarters, lost throughout much of the South, can still be seen at Evergreen Plantation
Photograph from the National Historic Landmarks collection

Slave quarters, which sheltered the laborers who made profits possible, have suffered a similar fate. Thousands upon thousands of these buildings once existed across the South. Today, a state might have maybe six or so surviving examples, with one on one plantation, two on another, etc. However, the standard row arrangement (once the norm across the South but virtually unheard of today) can still be seen on one River Road plantation, Evergreen.

Although a few major houses were lost in the 19th century, the River Road remained largely intact until the 1920s. During that decade Mosiac disease severely depressed the Louisiana sugar industry, with the result that great house after great house was abandoned and fell into ruin. Also in the 20th century, dredging the river bottom for ocean-going vessels ushered in an era of industrial development that changed the character of many parts of the River Road. More importantly, due to the encroachments of the Mississippi, federal action, owner disinterest, fragmented ownership, demolition by industry, and a weak economy, historic properties were lost, sometimes by the score.

The region's revival began with the restoration of Oak Alley in the 1920s. The River Road was a beehive of activity in the 40s, with such landmarks as Houmas House, Ormond, Bocage and Evergreen being restored. Much has been said about the impact of industry along the River Road, but there have been cases in which industry and preservationists have cooperated with spectacular results. Chief among these is the restoration of San Francisco Plantation House, which was accomplished with the financial assistance of the Marathon Oil Company.

Today's River Road is a study in contrasts, with broad cane fields, antebellum mansions, petrochemical plants and suburban strip developments, all jumbled together in a chaotic mixture. Nevertheless, much of the past remains to be enjoyed.

Essay written by the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation

Photographic background of azaleas
Photographic background of azaleas Graphic that is a link to a contextual essay on The River Road Photographic background of azaleas Graphic that is a link to a contextual essay on French Creole Architecture Photographic background of azaleas Graphic that is a link to a contextual essay on the Florida Parishes Photographic background of azaleas


Itinerary Home | List of Sites | Map | Learn More | Next Site

Comments or Questions