47th Annual Audubon Pilgrimage  

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 from North Carolina to Spanish Feliciana. One of her grandsons would elope with vivacious young Eliza Pirrie of Oakley Plantation, 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 for the cultivation of cotton and sugarcane.

Nearly 100 feet square, the Greenwood house was completely surrounded by 28 huge Doric columns of brick. Inside, a 70-foot central hallway was flanked by large rooms with 14-foot ceilings; a third-floor attic was topped by a rooftop belvedere from which Barrow could survey his fields and look out as far as the Mississippi River several miles away.

The Civil War brought tragedy, but in 1915 Greenwood Plantation was purchased by Frank and Naomi Fisher Percy, who restored the house and opened it to the public. Featured in magazines, visited by adoring tourists and beloved by Hollywood, it was called by  National Geographic the finest example of Greek Revival architecture in the South. And then on the night of August 1, 1960, tragedy struck again. Lightning started a fire; within three hours, there was nothing left but 28 Doric columns and some free-standing chimneys. In 1968 these tragic ruins touched the hearts of Walton Barnes and his son Richard, who purchased the house site and 278 acres and began the enormous effort of rebuilding as close to the original as possible. In July 2016, along came new owners Julie and Hal Pilcher, recently retired empty-nesters with the energy and enthusiasm to undertake  significant improvements, furnishing the home with an interesting mixture of Barrow, Percy, Barnes and Hollywood pieces to ready it 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 the home of a vibrant young family, the Andrew Grezaffis, who have filled it beautifully 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 and a frustrated designer of equal talent on a charming little historic cottage, where the juxtaposition of antique and contemporary is striking and a carefully curated collection of modern art strikes a happy balance with treasured family antiques.

Some of the best-loved pieces descend from Jim 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 and birding programs, and this year the hills are alive with the sound of music, with varied special performances scheduled for each featured home and throughout historic downtown St. Francisville as a 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.

The Historic District around Royal Street is filled during the day with the happy sounds of costumed children singing and dancing the Maypole; in the evening as candles flicker and fireflies flit among the ancient moss-draped live oaks, there is no place more inviting for a leisurely stroll. Friday evening features old-time Hymn Singing at the United Methodist Church, Graveyard Tours at Grace Episcopal cemetery (last tour begins at 8:15 p.m.), and a wine and cheese reception at Bishop Jackson Hall (7 to 9 p.m.) featuring Vintage Dancers and young ladies modeling the pilgrimage’s exquisitely detailed 1820’s evening costumes, nationally recognized for their authenticity. Light UpThe Night, the Saturday evening soiree, features live music and dancing, dinner and drinks beginning at 7 p.m.

For tickets and tour information, contact West Feliciana Historical Society, Box 338, St. Francisville, LA 70775; phone 225-635-6330 or 225-635-4224; online , email wfhistsociety@gmail.com. A package including daytime tours and all evening entertainment Friday and Saturday is available. Tickets can also be purchased at the Historical Society Museum on Ferdinand Street. 

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