Look at the above picture, and tell me you don’t find it haunting, evocative and sad. This is obviously a grand house of the Old South, fallen into ruin. Photographed in the 1930s, this place has magnificent architecture, including grand Greek columns, huge arched windows and a turret. This was undoubtedly the home of a very rich family in the era before the Civil War. Many things come to mind when you see a picture like this: hoop skirts and Southern belles, gently waving cypress branches, and the hell and horror of slavery that made it all possible. It’s all gone now–this place, which was called Belle Grove, no longer exists.
This is the inaugural venture in a new series of articles I want to do called Lost America, featuring photos and brief stories of architectural and historical treasures in the United States that are gone forever–torn down, burnt down or otherwise vanished from our landscape. This series was inspired by a two-volume book series called Lost America by Constance M. Greiff, published by The Pyne Press in 1971. It’s really a superb collection of architectural history, and also fascinating and sad. I’m not quoting anything directly from Lost America, and all the pictures I’ll show you here are in the public domain, but all of them are to be found in the pages of these wonderful books.
Belle Grove was the quintessential antebellum southern plantation. It was owned by a sugar planter, one John Andrews, who had operated a plantation on this site in Iberville Paris, Louisiana beginning in the 1830s and eventually owned 150 slaves. He started the construction of this house in 1852 and it was finished five years later–just four years before the outbreak of the Civil War that would bring this social and economic system to an end. Needless to say, Belle Grove was built by enslaved African-Americans. Their sweat, tears and blood suffused this place while it was still in existence, and, as was the case with most American monuments built by slaves (including the White House), they never got proper credit for it. The house was built of brick, covered with plaster. You might think it was white, especially if you’ve seen Gone With The Wind, but Belle Grove was actually pink.
Belle Grove plantation house, built just before the Civil War, was literally falling down when this picture was taken in 1938. It ceased to exist entirely only 14 years later.
The house managed to survive the Civil War intact (which most grand plantation homes did not), and in 1867 Andrews sold it to the Ware family who lived there for many years. Obviously it was too expensive a place to maintain without unfree labor to cut down the costs. It’s unclear when Belle Grove was abandoned. Constance Greiff in Lost America claims 1914, and I’ve also heard 1924 or 1925. Certainly by the era of the Depression, when these photos were taken, the house had fallen into ruin. Its decaying remnants were finally destroyed by arson in 1952.
As magnificent as this house must have been in its heyday, I suspect this was a very sad and foreboding place for much of its history. The legacy of slavery is hard to wash away from the landscapes and lives that it touched. Belle Grove is a monument to a vanished era–and one that definitely belongs in the past, though not forgotten.