Requiem for a Greek Revival

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To give you get a better idea of how the old house looks today, here’s a link to a recent picture of The Cottage on Flickr.com by a Mr. Greenjeans.

As for the title, I think now that it should have been called “The House of Many Sorrows” or something alluding more to the human tragedies than to the structure itself.

This article appeared in the annual “Myths and Legends” issue of Country Roads in October 2003.

On River Road south of Baton Rouge sit the remains of a plantation home named The Cottage. Ruined columns jut up from the earth, prompting passersby to wonder about their origins. There is a primal allure in their order, a lasting testament to the structure’s once-famed Greek Revival design.

“It is unfortunate that there is no roadside sign explaining the home’s past,” says Mary Ann Sternberg, author of Along the River Road, the definitive guide to one of America’s most historic roadways. “It was a landmark in its heyday.”

Named for a small weekend retreat that once stood nearby, The Cottage included twenty-two rooms. Lafayette reportedly slept there, as did Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate secretary of war. Colonel Abner Duncan built the home between 1823-24 and presented it to his daughter on her marriage to Frederick Daniel Conrad. It is from the original occupants that the land on which the home once sat derived its name, Conrad’s Point (the spot is also referred to as Duncan’s Point).

“My mother, Fanny Bailey, was sentimentally attached to the place, for obvious reasons,” says Claude Reynaud, a Baton Rouge attorney whose maternal grandmother was a Conrad. “When I was a kid, we spent countless hours out there. I seem to recall hearing about a boat that blew up in the Mississippi.”

Indeed the steamboat Princess exploded off of Conrad’s Point in 1859. James Morris Morgan recorded his boyhood memories of that fateful day in a 1917 memoir, Recollections of a Rebel Reefer:

“The Princess had just drawn out into the stream, and… a great column of white smoke suddenly went up from her and she burst into flames… Men in skiffs… were rescuing the poor, terror-stricken creatures and bringing them ashore…. As fas as the burned and scalded people were pulled out of the river they were seized by the slaves and, screaming and shrieking with pain and fright, they were rolled in flour. Some, in their agony, could not lie still, and, with white sheets wrapped around them, looking like ghosts, they danced a weird hornpipe while filling the air with their screams. Suddenly, to my horror, one of the white specters, wrapped in a sheet, his disfigured face plastered over with flour, staggered toward my hiding place (and said), “Don’t be afraid, Jimmie, It is me. Mr. Cheatham. I am dying, hold my hand!” The ghostlike man [cried a cry] which seemed to wrench his soul from his body. He shivered for an instant, then lay still.”

The Civil War brought more suffering to The Cottage, as if the pain of human slavery were not enough for any single geographic spot to bear. Union troops seized and converted the house into a hospital for malaria-stricken soldiers.

“There are still Union graves about one hundred yards behind the house,” says Reynaud. “There is a slave graveyard on the property, too.”

After the war ended legend has it that Frederick Conrad’s employee, Angus Holt, returned to The Cottage, became a recluse, and died, only to be transformed into a spectral caretaker. Ghost or no, whether or not Holt was a real person in the first place has been debated.

“That he really existed is not really important. The story of Holt’s return would have reassured people that things would be okay again after the war. Stories like that function to heal communities. Of course, it would be interesting to learn if the tale was told differently in black and white communities,” observes Maida Owens, director of the Louisiana Folklife Program.

Naturally a protective ghost would keep the curious away from any lingering malaria germs, as well as the house’s contents.

“Such legends function in many different ways, for protection, for order,” says Owens. “They can also reveal our worries and values.”

Interest in antebellum life brought The Cottage fame in the twentieth century. The entire property was restored and opened to tourists in the 1920s. Later, in 1945, best-selling author Frances Parkinson-Keyes wrote a lengthy novel, The River Road, in which both The Cottage and downtown Baton Rouge figure prominently. While living on the property and conducting research, she encountered local landscape legend Steele Burden at work renovating the gardens. The year after its release, The River Road was the third best-selling fiction book nationwide.

The Cottage also enjoyed mid-century fame in celluloid, serving as a set for at least two films, including Band of Angels, the 1957 movie version of Robert Penn Warren’s book. The presence of celebrities such as Yvonne de Carlo and Clark Gable in the area caused a stir. Reynaud confirms it is The Cottage pictured behind de Carlo and Gable on the movie’s poster, making the home’s facade part of then-popular culture.

“I saw the movie being filmed at the house and met Yvonne de Carlo. Of course, because of segregation, Sidney Poitier (another of the film’s stars) didn’t come to Louisiana,” says Reynaud. “But Clark Gable came to my house for dinner.”

“My mother, Myrle, repeatedly tried to get on the set to see [Gable],” says Jimmy Boudreaux, a lifelong Louisianan who remembers passing The Cottage frequently as a little boy. “Finally, she drove out to my grandmother’s house, cut limbs off of the ligustrum shrubs and loaded them into the back of her station wagon. She and my aunt, Olive, drove to the set. At the guard’s station, Mother rolled down the window and called out, “Scenery!” It worked.”

In 1958, the house enjoyed a high-profile mention in a National Geographic article, “Land of the Louisiana Sugar Kings.” The story mentions that a corporation had been formed to protect and renovate the property, further preserving it and thirty adjacent acres for posterity. Within two years, however, The Cottage was rubble. It burned to the ground on Thursday, February 18, 1960.

“My mother got the call in the early morning hours. There was no water source for the firefighters to use, and the top two floors were wood. I was eight and that was the first time I remember seeing my mother cry,” says Reynaud.

According to the Morning Advocate, a caretaker discovered the blaze at 2:30 am the day after a grand jury visited the property while investigating the January 10 murder of Dr. Margaret Rosamond McMillan, a University of New Orleans professor whose body was discovered nearby. Her skull had been shattered.

The sensational inquiry generated interest from Baton Rouge to Berlin. LSU administrator George H. Mickey was the primary suspect. Mickey was McMillan’s former [supervising] professor, and he admitted publicly to having helped her secure a job in New Orleans not long after he moved to Baton Rouge with his wife and family. National wire services reported that her wallet contained a photo of Mickey and an identification car listing him as the person to be notified in case of an emergency. Lacking an alibi, Mickey was arrested when blood matching her type was found on the fender of her car. In a scandalous twist, the case was dismissed. Mickey was released on bail and promptly relieved of his post as the dean of LSU’s graduate school and chairman of the zoology department. [More on this mystery can be found in my postscript.]

As for the suspicious timing of the fire, investigator discounted any connection. In the end, they attributed the blaze to faulty wiring and an electrical storm, despite claims that the house had recently undergone a thorough inspection.

“My mother suspected a vagrant or hobo burned the house,” says Reynaud. “Arson was another possibility. Several plantations burned in the area around that time.”

Whatever the cause of the fire, none of the structure was salvageable. Jim Bailey, Jr., Reynaud’s uncle, described the fire in the Morning Advocate as an “atomic mushroom” of flame and smoke “more impressive than anything ever filmed in Hollywood.” The paper’s editors bemoaned the loss of the house with an elegiac line:

“To the old residents of the city, it is as much a part of them as the Old War Skule campus, the Old State Capital, and the river itself”

Today the ruins still hold appeal for passersby, particularly for their romantic formal arrangement. Within the last decade, two LSU students, one in painting, the other in landscape design, have used the site as a point of departure for their graduate level projects. The lore of The Cottage lives on, too, through several paranormal Web sites. As progress makes its inevitable march down River Road, bringing subdivisions and convenience stores in its wake, the spectacular stories to which the site has born witness survive. For those of us interested in Baton Rouge’s stories past, this is reassuring. After all, the stories from The Cottage are final testaments to the many spirits, real and imagined, who once trod this stretch of River Road.

Postscript

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