Wednesday 22 June 2016

Grandeur, ghosts, Steinway, slaves...

You’re heading out of New Orleans, going north, there’s a big lake in the way, what do you do? At home, we’d go round it. In the US? You build the country’s longest bridge, all 24 miles (38km) of it, sweeping smooth and concrete across Lake Pontchartrain right the way across past lines of power pylons taking their own route through the lake, above their mirror images in the glossy silver water.

We were on our way to Dallas, via a three-day detour through some of Louisiana’s points of interest. One that we didn’t see is the Angola Penitentiary, where there are apparently several inmate rodeos a year, a nine-hole golf course (for visitors) and a crop and cattle farm worked by the prisoners. It’s not all enlightened rehabilitation though: most of them are lifers, and there is a Death Row.
Our focus today was on accommodation of a much more congenial sort: ante-bellum plantation houses. Big, two-storey plus, pillars, porches, surrounding oak trees hung with Spanish moss, cool (thanks to modern AC) dim interiors furnished with antiques, the tester beds fitted with mosquito-net rails, dining tables set with Limoges china, music rooms with Steinway grands… Yes, grand is the word.
First was the Rosedown Plantation, built in 1835 for three generations of the Turnbull family and restored over 10 years at a cost of $8 million by an Exxon-rich obsessive, for our delectation. Hand-stamped linen wallpaper, portraits, imported antiques 90% original to the family, curved staircase of treacherously steep stairs, especially for the women handicapped by the hoop skirts on display upstairs in the bedrooms… we’re talking rich here. That’s 3,500 acres of cotton fields, 450 slaves rich. All of that was destroyed by a beetle, of course: the boll weevil arrived in 1909 and wasn’t eliminated till the 1970s, so today the house and gardens are a stage on the tourist trail.
Next stop for us was The Myrtles near St Francisville, where we were shown around the 1796 mansion by the gorgeous Miss Connie in her shawl and maroon silk gown: in her previous (real) life employed in the oil industry but now finding her born-to-it place in life as pretend mistress of a plantation house. Here they had 550 slaves, the house is furnished with French antiques gilded with 24ct gold and dominated by an angel theme, to keep away the evil spirits. 
They might have looked in the mirror for those, since they bought a five-piece sofa suite upholstered in fabric embroidered in super-fine petit point by the small fingers of children using magnifying glasses and wrecking their eyesight.
Except, the mirrors are haunted – or, at least, the one in the entrance hall is, with its persistent blurry outline of a woman’s face and children’s handprints. Could of course just be degradation of the silver backing, but only a party-pooper would suggest that…
Miss Connie painted a vivid picture of the high days of The Myrtles, the furniture cleared away for dancing, the Baccarat crystal candelabras lit, the doors open onto the wide porch, fireflies flickering out in the dark, the ladies’ gowns swirling and swishing. Of course, all this grandeur came to the inevitable end with the decline of the cotton industry and again depends on tourists to keep it ticking over.
At Frogmore (yes, named after the estate in Berkshire) they know all about cotton. Owner Lynette and her husband still farm it and, also (initially, till the heat got too much for her) dressed in period costume, she told us all about the boom and the bust, as well as the practical details, with no holds barred about the slavery that underpinned the whole industry: 250lbs a day was standard here. In a dimly-lit wooden building, they have an original cotton processing engine – a gin – which is a marvel of ingenuity and fine-grained magnolia wood. 
Outside, we sat in the welcome breeze blowing through the shady dog-trot passageway of the overseer’s house as bats chittered invisibly in the rafters and Lynette talked about shareholders, how the Chinese don’t play by the rules, and how high thread-count is ‘propaganda’ and actually makes the fabric weaker.

And we ended the day in Alexandria, in the Baroque opulence of the Hotel Bentley with its marble, wrought iron and stained glass, eating across the road at the Diamond Grill, itself an architecturally splendid former jewellery shop with high ceilings, grand staircase and, inevitably, a ghost. But also excellent food!

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