Sustaining Evergreen: Preserving a 250-Year-Old Sugar Plantation

As seen on the silver screen, this 250-year-old Louisiana plantation holds a cache of Southern history.

When Quentin Tarantino was seeking a setting for his Oscar-winning film Django Unchained, the director fell in love with Evergreen Plantation on the west bank of the Mississippi River, about 30 miles north of New Orleans. It presented the authentic look he wanted, including a plantation house, oak allées, and original structures where enslaved people once lived. It also offered expanses of land on which to construct a second “majestic house” needed in the plot about a formerly enslaved African-American man, who with the help of a bounty hunter, sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal plantation owner.

“[Tarantino] saw Evergreen in its ‘historical totality,’” says Wise Wolfe IV, location manager for the film. That was enough for Jane Boddie, director of Evergreen, to recommend to the property’s owner that Tarantino be allowed to setup shop on the expansive, 250-year-old property nestled among sugarcane fields and live oaks.

The film industry has been attracted to Evergreen Plantation for many of the same reasons that the property attracts admission-paying visitors: It is the only intact, antebellum sugar plantation remaining in Louisiana—and one of the
few intact plantation properties in the South. At Evergreen, the contingent of buildings once common to Mississippi River plantations still stands in the classic layout. At other plantations, floods, fires, hurricanes, and the exigencies of financial hardship have decimated the landscapes in various ways over the decades.

This makes Evergreen not only unique, but something of a miracle.

The big house was originally constructed in 1790 as a Creole-style farmhouse, and then renovated in 1832 to Classical Revival style. Within its immediate orbit are pairs of garçonniers [“bachelor pads”] and pigeonaires, a kitchen, a milking barn, a carriage house, stables, a domestic house, and an outhouse for the plantation’s owners, all constructed in Classical Revival style surrounding a parterre garden.

To the rear of the big house complex, down a long, white shell road lined with 250-year-old, moss-draped live oaks, is the elegantly somber layout of 22 nearly identical weathered cypress cabins built 
as shelter for the people once enslaved at Evergreen. All the buildings were built before 1850; 12 of them date from as early as 1830. Evergreen’s enslaved lived in the cabins until the end of the Civil War; they continued to live in them as free people, as did their descendants, working in Evergreen’s fields until 1947.

In addition to being the only intact working antebellum sugar plantation in the South, Evergreen also offers “the largest collection of extant slave dwellings in one place,” says Joseph McGill, Field Officer in the National Trust’s Charleston field office and founder of the Slave Dwelling Project. McGill travels the North and South, staying overnight in cabins constructed for enslaved people, as a way of bringing attention to the historic buildings and helping save them. He spent a memorable night at Evergreen, which he says was unique because “there is the power of having all the cabins left. You can feel how the place functioned, how generations of slaves lived in one village. It was a powerful experience.”

Other historic buildings dot the Evergreen landscape, including a cypress cottage thought to have been the owners’ residence pre-1790 and another vintage cypress building decorated with added Victorian trim that houses the welcome area, gift shop, and Evergreen’s new interpretative center. It is a setting historically complete, save for two structures: a sugar mill, which was no longer active after 1930 and dismantled over time, and a Baptist church built near the cypress cabins after the Civil War, which was destroyed by Hurricane Betsy in 1965.

In the antebellum period, when plantations housed everyone who worked there, 200 people lived at Evergreen, including the extended family of owners and a large enslaved population. The tradition continues today, and Evergreen’s staff lives on site—but that includes only director Boddie, a research 
assistant, a historic preservation specialist, and a landscape professional. (Soon, however, Boddie hopes to add several historic preservation interns.) The plantation’s owner, Lake Charles, La., businesswoman Matilda Gray Stream, is also in residence there frequently. Originally, she resided in the iconic big house on her periodic stays but, after the property opened its stately gates to the public in 1998, she moved to one of the cottages.

Except for a brief period of vacancy, Evergreen Plantation has been a family home since the mid-18th century, when the Heidel family, German immigrants to the area, claimed the land circa 1760. Christophe Heidel, considered a Creole by virtue of intermarriage with a local French family, built the big house in 1790 as a Louisiana Colonial, or Creole farmhouse. The unenclosed first floor was raised on pillars, as a bulwark against periodic Mississippi River floods, and the living area was on the second level. The latter was surrounded by galleries that offered views across the flat, multi-arpent landscape where he first planted indigo, then sugarcane.

It was Christophe’s great-grandson, Pierre Clidamant Becnel, who renovated the house to Classical Revival, enclosing the ground floor and galleries; adding other architectural elements including the now-iconic curved, double return front staircase; and building the dependencies around the back garden. Becnel Plantation, as it was known until 1884, remained in Pierre’s extended family until it was sold in 1894 to Alfred Songy, another Creole planter. The Songy family resided at Evergreen until 1930 when, after a trifecta of misfortunes—a 1927 flood, mosaic disease of the sugar cane, and financial strains from the Great Depression—the bank foreclosed on the property. The Songys were forced to depart, leaving Evergreen unoccupied for 14 years, save for the cypress cabins, where farming families lived. Meanwhile, the big house and its dependencies were used to stable cattle and farm animals.

As the property grew increasingly derelict, it might easily have suffered the same fate as so many other area plantations but for a serendipitous rescue by Matilda Geddings Gray from Lake Charles, La. An oil heiress, Gray was the ruling matriarch of her family and its highly successful businesses. She was also independent and artistic, a member of a sophisticated social circle with passions that included restoring historical architecture—which sometimes translated into rescuing plantations.

One of Gray’s friends was New Orleans architect Richard Koch of the Louisiana Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) program. Koch fell in love with the decrepit Evergreen while documenting endangered historic buildings and convinced Gray to buy and restore the old property.

Her reclamation of the plantation began in 1944 with Koch as architect. Before the project was completed, however, owner and architect clashed so fiercely that their friendship ended; they had nonetheless ensured the survival of Evergreen.

Evergreen Plantation was one of several properties that Gray ultimately collected (other residences were located across the United States and in Paris and Guatemala), but she never lived at the historic Mississippi River treasure. By the time Gray died and her niece Matilda Gray Stream became the sole heir to the properties in 1971, Evergreen was in disrepair.

Stream’s response was a determination “to be a good steward of what she had,” says Jane Boddie, to honor each property and its buildings—and she has spent the past 40 years doing just that. When Stream accepted one of the many awards she has received for her work in preservation, she smiled serenely and said simply that the work had been “a duty and an honor.”

Sustaining Evergreen, however, requires funding that will ensure that it is “self-supporting. Not reliant on Mrs. Stream’s other businesses,” explains Boddie, and to this end owner and director have cobbled together an enterprising stream of revenue. As they have for two centuries, Evergreen’s 400 acres of sugarcane fields are still productive. The farming families are descendants of the former owners, the Songys, and have farmed Evergreen for more than 100 years.

Renting out its swath of Mississippi River batture—the long riverbank—to shipping and maritime companies for parking and storing barges has provided additional revenue. With land stretching six miles from the riverbank to the lowlands around Lake des Allemands, Evergreen also rents the acreage at the rear of the property for seasonal hunting leases.

Leasing the property for film productions such as Tarantino’s has become increasingly lucrative; since 2002, when Louisiana began offering tax incentives to lure moviemakers to the state, Evergreen has been the site of six movie projects. Though the projects are profitable for the property, Boddie admits that she must be constantly vigilant to ensure that the demands of a large production will not physically damage the historic buildings or grounds.

Tourism, too, provides a major source of income. Today Evergreen welcomes all interested visitors for 
regularly scheduled, docent-led cultural history tours. These wind through the big house, the dependencies, and cypress cabins as tour guides emphasize the rigorous documentation and archaeological research that Evergreen has used to tell its story.

The collection of cypress cabins is always the most moving element of the tour; no one who visits Evergreen can avoid confronting the issue of slavery. Boddie remembers people who felt too uncomfortable at the buildings where enslaved people once lived to finish their tour. But she also was delighted when other visitors arrived to proudly show their grandchildren where they lived in the 1930s.

While ensuring Evergreen’s continued existence is the primary mission for its owner and director, they have also assumed an equally compelling charge: to preserve the plantation’s cultural history and to tell its story. They began by sponsoring a workshop for area preservationists to introduce the use of lime mortar, coatings, and washes as an authentic way to repair and restore historic structures. Then Boddie, with funding from a Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities grant, invited Scott Simmons, an archaeologist with Southeastern Louisiana University, to direct a public participation dig. Five hundred students and 100 adults were involved in excavations at the cypress cabins, which, Boddie notes, “had no written history.” The ceramic and glass shards, buttons, marbles, bone fragments, bottles, and keys found behind the cypress cabins where enslaved people once lived have been studied and explicated, and are among the exhibits in the new interpretative center.

The center, according to Boddie, is a work “now and forever in progress,” one that binds the history of Evergreen with its cultural history and its people by illuminating the lives of all those who ever lived at Evergreen—black and white, enslaved and free. The center’s current exhibit includes a series of original acrylic paintings that depict the architectural evolution of the house and cypress cabins; timelines that place Evergreen in relation to events of Louisiana and national history through the centuries; and artifacts representing each era of ownership. It also includes a growing collection of binders stuffed with archival document facsimiles relevant to Evergreen, many written in longhand, in French, followed by typed English translations. Among them are such papers as the 1801 act of partition of the estate of Christophe Heidel and the 1830 inventory of the estate of Pierre Becnel’s widow, including “chairs, dray horses, a sugar mill propelled by cattle, a provision store, a rice mill, twelve negro cabins,” and more.

“We have collected hundreds of pages of civil and parochial records,” says Boddie, all of which are available as primary sources for historians and genealogical researchers. But she also hopes that the exhibits and documents will attract descendants of all of Evergreen’s diverse residents. Evergreen’s cultural history may one day include currently unidentified Heidels, Becnels, and Songys, black and white, as well as offspring of the people who were emancipated and worshipped in the Baptist church amid this French-Catholic landscape, and descendants of Italian farmers who worked Evergreen’s fields in the early 20th century.

“We will not interpret these materials,” Boddie says of the growing collection in the interpretative center. Instead, she hopes that people “will come and be moved to tell their own story, to fill in some of the blanks and add to the understanding of what Evergreen is.”

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