By Sally Squires
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Nottoway is one of the few remaining plantation homes where guests can stay in the main house (for others, see the Details box below). That was tempting, until we learned that guests in some of those rooms have to vacate by 9 a.m. for daily tours. But we never regretted our decision, although if we return in warmer weather -- and without a son in tow -- we might opt for the Bridal Suite, which includes a private swimming pool and patio as well as a Jacuzzi and wet bar. And it's not part of the tour.
There's an elegance to Nottoway, but it's not necessarily fancy. We dressed for dinner in Randolph Hall, although most of the other guests were more casually attired -- no jackets or ties for the men, sweaters and skirts for the women. The large dining room felt like a throwback to the 1950s, with good but uninspired food (chicken, pasta primavera, fried shrimp, prime rib, roasted pork loin and crawfish étouffée), except for a gooey chocolate-chocolate torte that put a smile on our son's face.
After dinner, we wandered over to the main house, where overnight guests are allowed to tour unassisted until 10 p.m. A few fun facts: The house has 4,200 yards of plastering, more than 1,500 feet of cornices and was built with two 10,000-gallon cisterns for rainwater. We climbed the majestic stairs, with their mahogany railing, and tiptoed through a sweeping hall and into the music room, where the Randolph children were tutored. We peeked into the dining room, where the 17-foot American Empire table was surrounded by Chippendale chairs and set with Sevres china for 14.
Early the next morning, I sauntered down a brick path under magnolias and past clusters of banana trees and tried to imagine what life might have been like at Nottoway in 1859. Leaving the grounds, I crossed River Road to see the Mississippi and walk along a levee.
Along the way, the chirping of crickets and cicadas kept me company, and I felt a sense of some of the beauty of a bygone era. I watched a hunter, shotgun slung over his shoulder, stepping through knee-high brush along the river and whistling for his dog. A blue heron waded for breakfast in the bayou. Fields of green tufted sugar cane sprouted in neat rows between small clusters of houses. It was a wonderful reverie, until the hunter fired his gun, startling both me and the heron.
Back at the plantation, after our pre-breakfast, we wandered over to the main house for the full plantation repast of eggs, pancakes, waffles, grits, sausage, bacon, fruit, cereal -- enough food for two meals. Then we joined one of the guided tours that runs continuously at Nottoway. We inspected the dining room again, and the music room, where a Civil War cannonball that hit Nottoway is framed and hangs on the wall. We were ushered into a bright yellow sunroom with white wicker furniture, and toured the master bedroom where, in the bedposts, Mrs. Randolph had hidden family money from Union soldiers.
The plantation was spared from burning, we were told, because at least one of the Randolph daughters was courted by a Union officer. In fact, Union troops camped out at Nottoway for three weeks. The Randolph sons were off serving the Confederacy -- two died in the war -- but Randolph never officially declared allegiance to the Confederacy, according to a brief history of Nottoway. Toward the end of the war, he holed up in Texas with 150 of his slaves, but upon his return, he signed a loyalty oath to the Union. After the war, however, nearly all of the Randolph daughters married and moved from the area. One wonders if this was by choice or pressure from the surrounding community.
Like other notable residences of its day, including Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and George Washington's Mount Vernon, slavery is a fact that figures centrally in the history of Nottoway and the other great homes along the River Road corridor. The tour guides don't soft-pedal the issue, but they don't dwell upon it either, simply noting when asked that about 150 slaves worked at the plantation. They helped construct the plantation home and worked in the sugar cane fields. The cabins that once housed them are gone. Today, the staff includes a diverse group of employees.
Touring Nottoway, I imagined the elaborate, days-long parties that were common in these homes during the mid-19th century. Guests at Nottoway -- and also at Carville -- arrived by boat from the Mississippi and stayed for days because it wasn't so easy -- or quick -- to travel home. I envisioned the excitement when one of the Randolph girls married in the second-floor ballroom (still a popular site for 21st-century weddings), and pictured her discreetly looking to see if her ankles were covered in the mirrored "petticoat sideboard" as she waltzed around the room.
Six of the eight Randolph girls, I learned, took their wedding vows in this floor-to-ceiling white room, with its delicately carved crown moldings. But one daughter, Sally Virginia Randolph, wasn't so lucky in love -- her fiance departed and was never seen again. She etched her name in the window with her engagement ring and never left Nottoway. Her ghost, supposedly wearing a long red dress, is said to appear in the music room from time to time, still heartbroken and gazing out the window for her lost love.
We never encountered her ghost, but for us, Nottoway was a rare glimpse of another world. If we had come in the summer, we probably would have sipped mint juleps by the pool, which was not open during our visit. Had we not had a teenager with us, we might have stayed one more night. But as it was, Nottoway provided the perfect, quiet spot to rest up for our next stop: the French Quarter.
Sally Squires is a health reporter for The Post. Her documentary on the Gillis W. Long Hansen's Disease Center will be released next year.
You can cross the river only at key points. One is the Sunshine Bridge (I-10 Sorrento-Sunshine Bridge, Exit 182, to Donaldsonville), which will deposit you near Nottoway. Another is the Mississippi River Bridge at Gramercy/Lutcher, about halfway between New Orleans and Gonzales. Or take a ferry across the Mississippi at Plaquemine-St. Gabriel. Ferries run daily, every half-hour, from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fare: $1. Just remember that there can be a long wait at rush hour when the chemical plants change shifts.
A Carte Blanche Tour, available for $30 per person, allows entry to Nottoway, Laura and Oak Alley plantations. Carte Blanche is sold at each plantation.
Among the sights along River Road: