St. Francisville, LA Celebrates Audubon & His Birds March 16-18
By Anne Butler
The forty-seventh annual Audubon Pilgrimage March 16, 17 and 18, 2018, celebrates a southern spring in St. Francisville, the glorious garden spot of Louisiana’s English Plantation Country. For nearly half a century the sponsoring West Feliciana Historical Society has thrown open the doors of significant historic structures to commemorate artist-naturalist John James Audubon’s stay as he painted a number of his famous bird studies and tutored the daughter of Oakley Plantation’s Pirrie family, beautiful young Eliza. A year’s worth of planning and preparation precedes each pilgrimage, and with 47 years of experience under their belt, society members put on one of the South’s most professional and enjoyable pilgrimage presentations. This year’s breath of fresh air comes from never-before-shown properties and enthusiastic new owners of old houses.
One of this year’s featured country plantations is a remarkable house called Woodland, a story of unexpected twists and turns, intergenerational connections and a fascinating trip all the way across the Mighty Mississippi to the ancestral lands of the present owner in West Feliciana, a journey across hundreds of miles and two centuries. A grand Greek Revival house, Woodland was built in the mid-1800s on a sugar plantation near the steamboat town of Washington, but had been abandoned for years and was facing demolition when Cammie and David Norwood saved it. It took a year to prepare the old structure to be hauled circuitously along 375 miles of back roads and another several years to put it back together. Now the Woodland house has been returned to its original glory, filled with fine family furnishings and anchored to its pastoral site by well-planned landscaping, looking as if it has been there forever.
Another country plantation home with a remarkable history is glorious Greek Revival Greenwood, which has enjoyed more than its fair share of miraculous resurrections. Its story began in 1798, when widowed Olivia Ruffin Barrow journeyed by covered wagon to Spanish Feliciana. One of her grandsons would elope with young Eliza Pirrie, Audubon’s pupil. In 1830 Olivia’s son William Ruffin Barrow engaged prominent architect James Coulter to build a fine home on family property that would grow to 12,000 acres.
In 1915 Frank and Naomi Fisher Percy restored the house and opened it to the public. Featured in magazines, visited by tourists and beloved by Hollywood, it was called by National Geographic the finest example of Greek Revival architecture in the South. But on the night of August 1, 1960, lightning started a fire and within three hours, there was nothing left but 28 Doric columns and some free-standing chimneys. These ruins touched the hearts of Walton Barnes and his son Richard, who purchased the house site and 278 acres in 1968 and began the enormous effort of rebuilding. In July 2016, along came new owners Julie and Hal Pilcher, recently retired with the energy and enthusiasm to undertake significant improvements to ready the home for its first pilgrimage appearance.
An earlier country home also featured for the first time on the Audubon Pilgrimage this year is The Cedars, its design and first cash crop—tobacco—bespeaking the Virginia background of original owner Simon Hearty, for whom the property was surveyed beginning in 1790. The house was built between 1793 and 1795, and it was said that the artist John James Audubon sketched the birdlife on Cedars Lane and visited with the family there. After Thomas Butler purchased the property from his mother-in-law in 1879, his two daughters, Mamie and Sarah, who stayed in New Orleans after graduating from Newcomb, returned as spinsters to spend weekends in a house enlarged with two-story octagonal additions; subsequent owners, the Fred Kings, raised a family in a home they too improved.
Today The Cedars is houses a vibrant young family, the Andrew Grezaffis. They have filled it with an eclectic mixture of furnishings imparting the feel of having been lived in by generations of the same family, as all old homes should feel, although the Grezaffis and their five small children have been in residence only a few years.
In historic downtown St. Francisville are a couple of featured cottages across from the parish courthouse. Miss Lise’s Cottage was originally built in Bayou Sara, the flood-prone port city on the banks of the Mississippi River. In the late 1800s it was hauled up the hill into St. Francisville, safe from the floodwaters, its two rooms home for the first “telephone girl” whose early switchboard was on the second floor of the nearby bank.
Until recently a conveniently located attorney’s office, now it puts the WOW factor in this year’s pilgrimage and shows how adaptable these old structures can be in the right hands. The exterior facade retains the traditional Creole cottage character. but oh, that unexpected interior-- all black and white and simply stunning, showing what happens when you turn loose a gifted career architect, Jim Dart, and a frustrated designer of equal talent, David Anthony Parker II, on a charming little historic cottage, where the juxtaposition of antique and contemporary is stunning and a carefully curated collection of modern art strikes a happy balance with treasured family antiques.
Some of the best-loved pieces descend from Dart’s grandfather, an engineer and attorney whose law office next door to Miss Lise’s Cottage is now home to Kora, Grezaffi and Levasseur Capital Management (yes, the same Grezaffi whose home The Cedars is another pilgrimage feature). Built in 1842, it has housed such notable barristers as Uriah B. Phillips who was blown up in a mid-1800s steamboat explosion, and Louisiana’s last antebellum governor Robert C. Wickliffe.
Besides these featured historic structures, pilgrimage visitors are welcomed at Afton Villa Gardens, Rosedown and Audubon State Historic Sites, three 19th-century churches in town and beautiful St. Mary’s in the country, as well as the Rural Homestead with lively demonstrations of the rustic skills of daily pioneer life. Audubon Market Hall hosts an impressive exhibit of more than sixty of Audubon’s Birds of America done in the Felicianas, Audubon State Historic Site features morning explorations of nature photography and birding programs (led by C.C. Lockwood and Dr. Tom Tully) augmented by a bird walk at Oak Hill (home of artist Murrell Butler). There will also be floral arranging demos, and this year the hills are alive with the sound of music as special performances are scheduled for each featured home and throughout downtown St. Francisville in tribute to the late father of this year’s chairman. Daytime features are open 9:30 to 5, Sunday 11 to 4 for tour homes; Friday evening activities are scheduled from 6 to 9 p.m., Saturday soiree begins at 7 p.m.
Other events planned for March in St. Francisville include A Walk in the Park on Saturday, March 3, from 9 to 4, bringing a festive gathering of musicians, artists and craftsmen to oak-shaded Parker Park.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).