If you go to New Orleans to investigate the roots of Judah P. Benjamin, the former Senator from Louisiana and Secretary of State of the Confederacy, you may wind up disappointed. His Bellechasse Plantation was razed in March 1960 to make way for government buildings, and his townhome in the French Quarter is now a strip club called Temptations.
A highly successful attorney in New Orleans, Benjamin in February 1833 married Natalie St. Martin, who was from an aristocratic creole family. The couple lived from 1835 to 1845 in an elegant townhome on 327 Bourbon Street. Then, in 1844, in a bid to impress his wife, Benjamin bought a sugar plantation in Belle Chasse, a town south of New Orleans on the Mississippi River. He promptly converted an old creole home on the site into a 20-room, Greek Revival-style mansion.
A rusted bell is all that remains from Benjamin’s 300-acre plantation, where he raised sugar, experimented with new refining technology, and made a fortune that he eventually lost by signing on a friend’s note. The bell sits atop a small marker along Route 32 in Belle Chasse, now a southern suburb. Benjamin, the older brother of my ggg grandmother, who also once lived at Bellechasse, reportedly had two hundred or more silver dollars melted into the bell to give it its beautiful tone.
Situated next to a public library and a high school football field, the monument notes that it doesn’t even sit at the exact location of Benjamin’s former plantation house. That would be 1100 feet away, to the north-northeast, close to the ferry landing. A local remembers the mansion resting on the site of the current waste water plant, which looks like it may have been built in the 1960s.
A search of the Louisiana archives, though, reveals that the mansion was moved from its original site in 1934. The 20-room house was originally constructed 1000 feet from the levee, but over time the river almost reached its door. The Judah P. Benjamin Memorial Foundation bought the property in 1924, with the goal of turning it into the “Mount Vernon of the South.” Ten years later, the association moved the main building, placing it by the ruins of an old sugar house, and facing it away from the river, toward the street.
The association raised enough money to repair parts of the plantation home through the years. But by 1960, after a last-gasp effort to restore it failed, the once statuesque structure had turned into a gloomy eyesore. Unfortunately, the U.S. Historic Buildings Act, which created financial incentives for restoring historic buildings, wasn’t passed until 1966. It may have helped keep the building around.
According to architectural history books, the three-story home had a simple spacious interior, with large rooms on both sides of a central hall. Along the right side, a grand mahogany stairway with a subtle curve rose to the third floor. The hallways were 16 feet wide, with correspondingly high ceilings. White-enamel interior woodwork, silver-plated locks and door knobs, crystal chandeliers, and marble fireplaces adorned the interiors.
Porches, 15 feet deep with square cyprus columns, wrapped the house. They led to formal landscaped gardens. Flagged walks, flanked by Pittosporum hedges, created a path between garden beds of various shapes–circular, square, and crescent-shaped. Sage palms, lingustroms, laurestinas, and fine cedars shaded the walks. A wrought iron fence enclosed the grounds.
The Benjamins entertained lavishly at Bellechasse, which was even the site of a sugar symposium. Fine furniture, paintings, and bronzes filled the home. They were all confiscated by Union troops after the Civil War.
The plantation is pictured in at least two books– J. Wesley Cooper’s ”Louisiana: A Treasure of Plantation Homes” (Southern Historical Publications, 1961) and W. Darrell Overdyke’s ”Louisiana Plantation Homes: Colonial and Ante Bellum” (Architectural Book Publishing Company, 1965).
Getting to Benjamin’s in-town home on Bourbon Street is no easy matter. Party-goers flood the street, carrying cocktails, and enjoying street “artists.” This visitor’s attempt to take pictures of the old building, now a strip club, was rudely interrupted by the G-string-clad rear-end of a stripper backing out of a club across the street. Luckily, the visitor escaped unscathed.
But the experience only emphasized the current tawdriness of Benjamin’s formerly magnificent old home. It was difficult to appreciate the bracketed cornice and decorative frieze on the Italianate style side townhouse. One could get only a cursory glance of the cast-iron balcony, from which Natalie could talk to her friends below, with its notable bow-and-arrow design.
Benjamin’s bid to impress his wife with fine surroundings didn’t work. After living at Bellechasse for roughly a year, while Benjamin spent most of his time working in town, Natalie grew bored and left with her daughter for France. Though the couple remained married for the rest of their lives, Benjamin would only see his wife and daughter on his annual summer trips to France.