Since winning the Oscar for Best Picture at the Academy Awards last Sunday, the film, “12 Years a Slave” has reappeared in the theatres all over the country for people like me who missed it the first time. The film was shot entirely in and around New Orleans and at four different outlying historic plantations–Felicity, Magnolia, Bocage and Destrehan. All four are open to the public for tours.
But these are not the only plantations to have starred in an Oscar-winning film. Last year’s Academy Award winner for Best Original Screenplay–Quentin Tarentino’s “Django Unchained“–was filmed on location at the Evergreen Plantation located on Louisiana highway 18, otherwise known as River Road. Evergreen is one of several historic plantations found on this two-lane stretch of road that winds along the southern side of the Mississippi, blocked from view by the large, earthen levee. I have driven this route many times over the years during my annual visits to New Orleans. Recently, I took friends on a day trip to see Evergreen. The trip takes only about an hour from New Orleans, if you don’t stop to see all the other interesting places along the way.
Evergreen distinguishes itself from many of the other plantations in that the 250-year-old property is the only intact, antebellum sugar plantation remaining in Louisiana. In fact, it is one of the few intact plantations in the South, according to our plantation guide. In addition to Evergreen’s ‘big house,’ there are 22 cypress slave cabins lining the oak alleé, more than any other plantation in the area. Some of these structures were built in 1830. And, our guide informed us, the cabins “have never been restored, only repaired.” Interior walls once divided the cabins into two separate living spaces for slave families but were removed at some point. Otherwise, they remain much as they did when as many as 200 people lived at Evergreen during the antebellum period.
The main house, prominently visible from the road through the big black iron gate, was built in 1790 by German immigrant Christophe Heidel. Heidel constructed his home in the Creole manner, with the main living quarters raised on pillars above the ground floor protecting it floodwaters. Christophe’s great-grandson, Pierre Clidamant Becnel, renovated the house in 1832 to reflect the then popular Classical Revival architectural style. The ground floor was enclosed, as was the back gallery.
A graceful, S-shaped curving double stairway was added to the front of the house. Other outlying buildings, known as ‘dependencies’ were erected including a pair of garçonniers, where the family’s adolescent boys lived and pigeonaires. A parterre garden was designed to be admired from the home’s rear gallery. A kitchen, a milking barn, a caretakers cottage, a carriage house and an outhouse for the owners were also built.
The plantation, however, began to decay 1930s when the Songy family, who occupied it then were forced to leave when the bank foreclosed on Evergreen. The once splendid sugar plantation continued to decline until a wealthy Louisiana oil heiress, Matilda Geddings Gray, purchased it and began to bring it back to life again in 1944. Gray’s efforts continued after her death with the current owner, her niece, Matilda Gray Stream, who inherited the plantation in 1971. Stream has received numerous awards for her preservation work on Evergreen.
Today, the plantation and its 37 buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. In fact, it was featured in Preservation Magazine‘s Summer 2013 issue where you can read more about the plantation, its history and restoration. (I am proud to say that I have been a long-time member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.)
Evergreen is not only a working plantation again, but an educational center where students learn about antebellum life, where archaeologists search for artifacts about its cultural history, where tourists can glimpse into the past and where filmmakers, like Tarentino and others, can create award-winning films of days gone by for the cinema.