Remaking Madewood

Maintaining a grand Louisiana plantation house isn’t just about preserving the past…It’s about racing to keep up with the present

On a lovely warm afternoon, Keith Marshall and I sat on the porch at the Madewood Plantation House, a vast and imposingly columned structure built in the 1840s, about two miles below Napoleonville in Louisiana's Assumption Parish. It's the sort of home one would expect to show up at a casting call for Great Plantations of the South—and indeed, it was once the hub of a thriving sugar operation. What sets Madewood apart from so many Louisiana plantations (120 of which have been lost in recent decades, victims of time and neglect) is the fact that it survives. That has much to do with Marshall, now 63 years old, who owns the house and the surrounding 18 acres. But he faces continual challenges, namely how to maintain a grand old plantation house while keeping it functioning and relevant, when its reason for being no longer exists.

Madewood arose because of a geophysical twist of fate. For centuries, during spring flooding, the Mississippi River deposited rich soil on either side of its banks here. Then the river changed course, leaving behind a turgid bayou (the Bayou Lafourche) and strikingly fertile land. During the early 19th century, growers rushed in with frost-resistant strains of sugar cane, as well as new technology to power the mills and boil the juice, the burgeoning operations run by slaves. About 63 sugar plantation houses were built between Madewood and the Mississippi River, but the heyday was short-lived. The mill at Madewood closed in the 1890s, and though sugar cane continued to be grown here—keeping the plantation active—the harvested cane was trucked some miles away to another mill for processing.

By the time the Marshall family acquired the property, it was time for reinvention. "During the oil crisis in the 1970s," Marshall recalled, "we were sitting and having a nice lunch in the dining room, and out of nowhere my mother said, 'Well, if things get really bad, we can grow lettuce out back.' That was her solution to the oil crisis."

From the porch, I peered out across the lawn. I didn't see a lettuce patch, but I did see evidence of how Madewood has remained on reasonably sound footing by supporting other ventures—tourism, for one thing, and even the occasional opera performance.

"I really do feel like a steward of this place rather than the owner," Marshall said, "but for an unapologetic squatter, it really does feel like home."

Unlike the region's famed French Creole plantation houses, with their sloping roofs and broad encircling verandas, Madewood is a decidedly Anglo-American affair. It was built by Thomas Pugh, who arrived here with his two brothers from the tidewater region of North Carolina in 1818, just 15 years after Thomas Jefferson purchased Louisiana from Napoleon. The Pugh brothers snapped up property along the bayou and erected noble houses on their muddy lands. For his home, Madewood, Thomas Pugh hired rising New Orleans architect Henry Howard, who designed a Greek Revival residence on steroids. The rather stern-looking mansion is fronted with a hulking pediment and six stout Ionic columns. The central block is flanked by two smaller classical pavilions, which look like shy children peering from behind their mother's apron.

Though the imposing exterior projects a certain dour if regal charm, the interior is more informed by warmth and grace—its 24 rooms featuring doors and moldings of cypress, many hand-painted to resemble oak—as well as a subtle architectural complexity. You enter into a broad central hallway that runs the length of the house, passing between a pair of refined Corinthian columns, then, at the rear door, through a pair of simple, low Doric columns, ending up on the rear porch.There's a quiet intimacy to the whole tableau here—a live oak, a fountain, and a simple summer kitchen. It's a masterly progression, the architectural equivalent of hiking from the harsh light of the Grand Canyon to a small, shady ravine.

One afternoon in 1964, Naomi Marshall (Keith's mother), a New Orleans native and prosperous businesswoman, went to look at the Madewood Plantation House, which she had known about for many years. Madewood, then for sale, was in perilous condition and badly in need of a new roof, but walking the halls and then entering the grand if forgotten ballroom ignited a spark in Mrs. Marshall. She fell easy prey to that famous pair of questions: "Why not put in a lowball offer?" and "What do you have to lose?"

She offered a mere $75,000 and forgot about it. Until the bid was accepted. "She bought it while my dad was out of town," Keith Marshall recalled. "He never really got over that."

Over time, the family fixed up the roof and the rest of the house. The first attempts at furnishing interiors bordered on the comical—soaring ceilings and huge rooms made everything the Marshalls brought from their home in New Orleans, 75 miles away, look like dollhouse furniture. But this was the early 1960s; people everywhere were suddenly afflicted with the mania for the modern, airy, and light and were jettisoning their heavy, dark, oversized 19th-century pieces. Mrs. Marshall haunted auctions and tag sales, scooping up all she could—canopy beds, mahogany clawfoot dressers—and filled a hulking house with hulking furniture.

Keith Marshall is moderately tall and carries himself with a dignified bearing. He wears his plantation house well, like a slightly outsized cloak. He grew up in New Orleans, went to Yale, studied literature with Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, and was later a Rhodes Scholar, specializing in classical music and 19th-century British art and society. Back in New Orleans, he ran the art supply store his mother established in 1935 and reviewed classical music for The Times-Picayune.

From his mid-30s, however, he lived a double life, half of which he spent supervising affairs at the plantation house his mother had purchased—keeping it (not to mention various other buildings on site) in good repair and generally in an upright condition. But nothing he had done heretofore prepared him for the day in 1983 when he got an electric bill that was a disheartening $450 higher than it had ever been.

"I said, 'That's it, it's over with, it was fun while it lasted. We've got to put the place on the market,'" Marshall remembered. Then, his phone rang. It was a man who said he'd always wanted to stay in a plantation house and wondered, by chance, if Madewood was available by the night, with meals. If so, how much would it cost for three ­couples? Marshall looked down at his electric bill, and replied, Yes, it was available. For $450.

The weekend went well. Marshall enjoyed it, as did his guests. And so Madewood soon made the familiar voyage from private home to plantation inn. Marshall configured the rooms to better allow for guests, and he hired a manager to run it while he was in the city. Naomi Marshall, who died in 2006 at the age of 92, occupied quarters on the ground floor for the last eight years of her life, and "presided" in the evenings, as Keith put it, from her 18th-century armchair with needlepoint footstool, regaling guests with colorful ­stories.

As it happened, Marshall now had plenty of rooms to configure—not just in the main house, but also in a carriage house located elsewhere on the property, a slave quarters moved from another plantation, plus several historic outbuildings that over the previous decades he had relocated to Madewood.

"I started rescuing old buildings in the early 1970s," Marshall said, sighing slightly and employing the resigned tone someone might use to explain how he ended up adopting several greyhounds. The 1970s was a time of rampant demolitions, and Marshall, without much forethought, set up what amounted to an orphanage for unloved structures.

"The first was the cottage by the cemetery, the little cabin," he told me as we headed out back from the porch, walking amid the centuries-old live oaks. Originally sited about a mile down the road, it was a late-18th-century trappers cabin that had at some point been converted to slave quarters.

Others followed, including an 1830 blacksmith shop, which now sits with a light dignity behind the main house, and the Charlet House, a handsome, peak-roofed structure built in 1822. It once stood a few miles upriver from Madewood and was being sold for lumber. Marshall bought it, loaded it on a truck, and moved it along dirt roads through the cane fields, where it must have looked like a steamship plowing through a verdant sea. Today the cottage sits directly behind Madewood's patio, forming a sort of informal courtyard, and has been fixed up to accommodate overnight guests.

Then came Rosedale, an early-20th-century plantation house. In 1983, Marshall gathered up the structure and moved it two miles up the highway—after slicing off the top of the roof so that it would pass under power lines. Following that, a friend announced that the acquisition of any more houses would make Madewood permanently tacky. Marshall has resisted the call ever since. "It's a good thing I did this when I was in my 30s," Marshall said. "Because I would never tackle anything like this right now."

Last August, just four years after Madewood escaped serious damage from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, an electric bill came in the mail. It was for $2,892, reflecting a surcharge imposed to pay for repairs to the storm-­damaged electric grid. Well, Marshall said to himself, I guess that's it. It's time to sell Madewood.

Of course, he didn't. After all, he hadn't yet built his opera house.

Marshall's mother loved opera, and growing up with it, he became an aficionado. Starting in 1974, the Marshalls staged the Madewood Arts Festival each year, which included an opera production. The first year, Marshall constructed a lozenge-shaped stage on the rear porch, housed the orchestra on the upstairs balcony, and installed four screens, hung between the columns, upon which dramatic images could be projected from behind. The festival was a hit, but the ordeal of organizing it each year led him to shelve it after 1982.

Still, the dream of bringing opera back to the bayou remained. Rosedale—the last of the old buildings Marshall had moved to the grounds—sat toward the rear of the property and had been used largely for storage, including architectural ­salvage accumulated over the years. Marshall wanted to fill Rosedale with arias rather than old lumber. He created an orchestra pit big enough to seat 18 musicians, built a stage flanked by salvaged columns, and opened up interior walls to improve the sight lines. The work was completed in about six weeks—after which Marshall coaxed up members of the New Orleans Opera, who put on a performance of Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium, accompanied by members of the Louisiana Philharmonic. The show was a hit, with all 130 seats sold out.

"It just works so perfectly—the sound is great," Marshall said. "I almost feel like this is what the building wanted to be—it always wanted to be an opera house." A performance last year of Christoph Willibald Gluck's L'ile de Merlin also attracted a full house.

The trick is to make full use of Rosedale, Marshall said as we left the building. "It's a crime to just have it used once a year." Marshall has been talking to some locals who are interested in staging traditional Cajun dance concerts here on Friday nights.

There was still the matter of the unfortunate electric bill, which the new opera house and its annual performance did little to mitigate. What about solar power? Marshall wondered. Would that work?

Marshall brought up solar engineers from New Orleans, who calculated the amount of sunshine the site received. Mounting panels on the roof was out—that would have compromised the integrity of a historic structure. Instead, the engineers created what Marshall calls his solar garden, siting the panels several dozen yards from the mansion on a sunny side lawn. Low roses, azaleas, and a Ligustrum hedge now surround it. Finished in December 2008, it cost slightly less than what Marshall's mother paid for the whole plantation.

Marshall and I wandered over to examine the solar garden. The panels sit on an angled steel framework—"from the back it looks like a football stadium for extremely small people," Marshall said, with complete accuracy. A digital meter attached to the rear legs records the amount of energy generated each day and the quantity of carbon dioxide kept out of the atmosphere since installation late in 2008. "It's amazing how easily pleased we all are," he said.

Marshall headed back inside, and I walked over toward the bayou, looking back at the gleaming white house and the jarring black postage stamps of the solar panels. If they don't quite mesh visually, the panels serve nicely as an asterisk to the plantation house itself.

The appended message is that a historic house like Madewood isn't just about place, it's also about time. Visiting a plantation house is never just stepping into the past—no matter what the brochures say—it's always about a trip into a complex present.

The past is easy, as Keith Marshall well knows. It's the present that will trip you up every time.

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