After your visit to the local plantations, and hopefully you had at least a look at both Laura and Oak Alley, perhaps some extended learning or even a little virtual spelunking is in order!
Located on the river road between Laura and Oak Alley plantations, Le Petite Versailles was established in the late 1830’s as the St. James (sugar) Refinery plantation by the founder of the Oak Alley plantation’s sugar cane operation, Valcour Aime’. The plantation home, built in the Greek Revival style, resembled Oak Alley’s mansion more than Laura’s, yet it was the English garden that set Le Petite Versailles apart from the other plantations. The surprising association of English gardens with French mansions likely began with Josephine Bonaparte’s introduction of the English style garden to French aristocracy some years earlier. The development of the grounds at Le Petite Versailles began in earnest in 1842 when boxwood hedges were planted. Valcour augmented the boxwoods with ornamental plants from France, the Orient, the world, and of course the local region. Fruit, herb, and other bearing plants were imported, and skill at preparing these edibles was carefully acquired. A rivulet, La Rivière, was dug from the Mississippi River to a new lake in front of the house. Brick bridges were constructed across La Rivière, and at one corner of the lake a small fort was built, complete with canon. This fort, named St Helene’ for the island prison where Napoleon had been imprisoned, was a favorite play spot for the children! Exotic and local birds roamed the grounds, and less compatible animals from around the world were housed in a zoo. In keeping with period practice, faux archaeological remains were included in the gardens, in this case imitation tree stumps with piles of oyster and clam shells almost covering them. These stumps and shell piles impersonated the food preparation site ‘kitchen middens’ that the local natives had previously (and concurrently) left along the bayous and rivers. The grandeur of Le Petite Versailles plantation was complete, and Valcour Aime’ would soon win a $10,000 bet that he could host a proper continental dinner party, from ‘wine to cigars’, solely supplied with produce from his own plantation!
All that remains of this once grandest plantation is hidden, perhaps fittingly, in an English looking copse. Amidst the trees the remains of Le Petite Versailles include ruined brick bridges, some statuary, and the faux kitchen middens, which are indiscernible from the real ones found in the area!
And the virtual spelunking… a walk into the ‘Valcour Aime cave’, the plantation’s surprisingly complex, deep, and high brick-lined ice cellar is posted on YouTube.
Perhaps when you return to New Orleans you can wander into that copse!