The Grits Carlton
Sunday, March 3, 2002
It was the quintessential plantation home, straight out of Southern Central Casting: 22 tall white pillars, arching double stairways, wrought iron banisters and even elegant, emerald green draperies that could easily have been made into a gown for a desperate Scarlett O'Hara.
And the best thing about Nottoway Plantation -- one of the premier surviving "great houses" along the Mississippi River, about 1 1/2 hours from New Orleans by car -- was that we were staying there for the night.
The Great River Road, as it is called, stretches for 45 miles through eight parishes (counties) along both sides of the Mississippi, from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Several dozen historical houses line the river, from the days when the Mississippi was the mass transit option of choice. Not all are open for overnight stays or even tours, but you can see them from the road. A River Road drive makes a great side trip from New Orleans -- and the slow pace of plantation life makes it the perfect antidote to the revelry of the Big Easy.
I had saved Nottoway -- considered one of the best stops along River Road -- for last on my Louisiana trip, as a reward for my husband and 14-year-old son. We had spent several days scouting locations and poring through photo archives for a public television documentary on the Gillis W. Long Hansen's Disease Center, a place I've been reporting on since 1989.
The center, on a former 300-acre plantation in the town of Carville, has treated people with leprosy for more than a century. It's now a school and National Guard outpost, but about three dozen elderly patients remain along with seven Daughters of Charity, a Roman Catholic order of nuns who continue to minister to the patients -- a tradition that goes back to 1896.
In the course of my research, I'd stayed several times in the center's main house (also called Carville), a plantation home designed by Henry Howard, a renowned New Orleans architect in his day. It is a Spartan, somewhat spooky, place -- especially when the power went out during an electrical storm and I was the only guest. But Carville -- named, by the way, for Democratic gadfly James Carville's family, who ran the post office down the road -- had mostly been turned into an administration building. It was possible only to imagine glimpses of its former grandeur.
Then I heard about Nottoway -- a plantation home also designed by Howard and located across the Mississippi from Carville in White Castle. What better way to get a picture of what Carville might have been like in its heyday?
Built in 1859, Nottoway has long been maintained as a family home and now a bed-and-breakfast. It has 65 rooms (including closets), making it one of the South's largest antebellum homes. Commissioned by transplanted Virginian John Hampden Randolph for his growing family, which ended up numbering 11 children, Nottoway was the Trump Palace of its day.
Randolph got into a friendly competition with a fellow Virginian, John Andrews, who was building his own home nearby. By the time Nottoway, so big it's nicknamed the White Castle, was finished, it was the winner hands-down. The place included a 10-pin bowling alley, a ballroom, coal-burning fireplaces, gaslights and 365 doors and windows, so that a different one could be opened on every day.
Today, Nottoway has a friendly staff that is eager to please. After we arrived on a recent rainy evening, the bellman took our reservation for dinner; arranged for delivery of sweet potato rolls, coffee and juice in our room the next morning (our "pre-breakfast," as we came to call it); and transported our luggage to our room in the Overseer's House. Or rather, rooms.
We found fresh flowers on the mantel of our high-ceilinged, mustard-colored suite, which was filled with antique furniture and gilded mirrors. There was an oversized brass bed for my husband and me and a mahogany day bed in the adjoining room for our son, who said with surprise, "Hey, Mom, this is nice."
A private veranda ran the length of the house, with rocking chairs overlooking fields. After depositing us and our luggage, the bellman returned a few minutes later with a welcoming sherry for my husband and me.