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

Postscript: Requiem for a Greek Revival

For years, I’ve wrestled with the many stories that I wove together for this single article. Two of them in particular stay on my mind, but in very different ways. More on one of them in a moment…

But first, a bit of personal anecdote. For a long time, I thought I discovered The Cottage on a Sunday drive down River Road the first year we lived in Baton Rouge. In truth, my mother had first mentioned it to me years ago, while she read from Frances Parkinson Keyes’ novel, mentioned above. It seems my paternal grandfather’s late first wife had purchased a copy and kept it in her private Texas hill country library for my mom to discover decades later. After the story came out, my mother reminded me that she’d read the book and told part of the story to me as a child. In retrospect, I wonder how much of those stories of the Deep South compelled me to respond so strongly to the ruins upon first seeing them? The book is in my possession now, a reminder of how we’re all connected.

Back on track…Since I tend to find that people with whom I tell this story are interested in updates–especially with regard to the late Margaret Rosamond McMillan, here are a few:

– The McMillan murder case is receiving a bit of press again, thanks in part to Malcolm Shurman‘s new book, The Levee: A Novel of Baton Rouge (Academy Chicago Publishers, 2008). He’s also giving an interesting series of public lectures regarding how this case brought Baton Rouge into the ’60s. I’d be curious to know what he says, given that he’s an anthropologist by training. (I’ve ordered the book.)

– It seems that television-generated interest in old murder mysteries led to a revisiting of the story in 2005. That April, Chris White, a writer for the LSU Legacy, published an article, “Cold Case Files: Mickey and the Mysterious Murder.” There are a few interesting morsels in the story.

– An old article from 1960, The Dean and the Professor, is up now on the Time magazine site.

Life Magazine now has a few photos online from the investigation. Note that in the caption to the image of police inspecting the accused’s car, Mickey is referred to as “Dr. George Mickey” but Margaret Rosamund McMillan is not afforded the same respect. While retyping my story, I noticed the opposite is true here. It’s probably trivial and unintentional in both cases… and yet a telling clue as to how different people bring their own perspective/bias to stories.

Although I do not profess to know who killed McMillan, I do confess to feeling empathy for her plight as a young female academic at the dawn of the ’60s. Given the nature of the attack–a blunt instrument (perhaps a tire iron) was used to strike her head and there was no evidence of theft, it seems to have been a crime of passion. Or was it a premeditated act designed to look like a crime of passion? Hmmm… This was long before DNA tests. Just because blood matching her type was found on Mickey’s car doesn’t mean it was her blood–though it’s certainly provocative. Then again, who knows if he was anywhere near the car when the blood got on it.

– On a separate tangent and not so much an update as a footnote… A friend with whom I shared the ruins’ secrets once–long before this article was published–sought to encourage me and sent along a beautiful book, Vestiges of Grandeur: The Plantations of Louisiana’s River Road, by Richard Sexton. In it, the author/photographer includes this quote opposite a photograph of The Cottage:

“The scale of civilization and, indeed, of American frontier topography, was changing beyond the capacity of a temple form to control it…. [W]here those demands were least felt or most resisted, the old classic ideal could be longest retained in its romanticized form. The late Greek Revival plantation houses of the Deep South best embodied that condition and intention. Their softly gleaming column screens furnished the symbolic image around which Southern apologetics of the immediately pre-Civil War period and Southern mythology of the interminably postwar period were both to be fashioned. The more in ruin, the more Greek they seemed.” – Vincent Scully, American Architecture and Urbanism