Destrehan Manor overlooks the east bank of the Mississippi River several miles above New Orleans. In a contract, translated from French and still on file at the local courthouse, it is written that in 1787 “Robert Antoine Robin de Longy and Charles [Pacquet], free mulatto, have agreed … that the said Charles, carpenter, woodworker and mason by his trade, obligates himself to construct … a home of sixty feet in length by thirty-five feet in width . . . for the sums and price mentioned hereafter . . . one brute Negro, a cow and her calf … fifty quarts of rice in chaff, fifty quarts of corn in husks and one hundred piastres [dollars].” Pacquet took three years to complete the house. DeLongy died in 1792, enjoying his house but a short time. His son-in-law, Jean Noel Destrehan, acquired the house in 1802. He was a wealthy Creole who, while serving in the Louisiana Legislature, helped write the state constitution.
The plantation first raised indigo, corn, and rice. But Soon they converted to growing sugarcane, a much more lucrative crop after Etienne deBore discovered an inexpensive method of granulating sugar in 1795. During Destrehan’s lifetime the plantation grew extensively.
Like many planters along the Mississippi, Destrehan was as interested in having a large family as he was in producing sugar. The solid brick garconnieres, somewhat attached on both sides of the main house, were additions to accommodate the increasing family. These two new units, though slightly asymmetrical in size, conformed so well with the original West Indies-style architecture, they seemed part of the structure.
In 1823 Stephen Henderson, a wealthy Scotsman, took Destrehan Plantation over. He married Lelia Destrehan; her death preceded her husband’s though she was only half his age. Henderson died in 1838, leaving a most complicated will. Because the will was contested by his surviving relatives, most of its provisions were set aside by the Louisiana Supreme Court. Henderson had directed that upon his death his slaves be emancipated, given an acre of land, a mule and a cow, or, if they chose, given passage to Liberia. The litigation over this and other then controversial philanthropic provisions in the will continued for years, and most of the estate went for legal fees.
In 1839 Judge Pierre A. Rost, another son-in-law of Jean Destrehan, acquired Destrehan Manor. Rost began an extensive renovation, altering the house’s West Indies appearance to conform with the then-popular Greek Revival style. Great white pillars were formed by covering the earlier wooden colonettes with brick and plaster. The original bousillage entre poteaux (Spanish moss and sand between posts) walls were lathed over, plastered, and scored to resemble granite stones.
One of Destrehan’s outstanding architectural features is its high-peaked West Indies-style roof. Three smallish dormer windows and two asymmetrical chimneys jut out from the roof. The original heart-of-cypress, handhewn beams are visible throughout the house. Also in the house is a large marble bathtub said to have been a gift from Emperor Napoleon I to Jean Noel Destrehan.
Many noted guests were entertained at the manor house during the years the Destrehans and their descendants occupied the property. Two of the most famous were the Duc d’Orleans, who became king of France, and the renowned pirate-hero Jean Lafitte, whose ghost appears during stormy nights pointing to where he hid some of his treasure.
Union forces seized the house during the Civil War and turned the property into a Freedman’s Bureau colony, housing hundreds of newly freed slaves. The property was returned to the Rost family through presidential intercession in 1866, and remained in the family until 1910.
Since 1914, Destrehan has been the property of various oil refining companies that still utilize some of the acreage. In 1972 the manor house, devastated by neglect, vandalism, and the elements, was donated to the River Road Historical Society. This dedicated, nonprofit group began an immediate restoration of the manor house and several acres of picturesque grounds. Today, Destrehan Manor House is open daily to the public. All proceeds from admissions, annual festivals, and profits from the charming antique and gift shop are dedicated to Destrehan’s continuing restoration.
For more information on the Destrehan Plantation read more at the Hotel Monteleone.