Requiem for a Queen

Belle Grove, 1857-1952

Belle Grove, 1857-1952

They said she sinned by ambition and was doomed from the outset, tethered to a world facing apocalypse. She listened to nothing save the siren song of destiny, a stone-and-iron fantasy that became the jewel in the crown of Louisiana plantation houses. No one had seen her likes before, nor would they see them again. She was Belle Grove, the fabulous queen of sugar king John Andrews, and she was born of a genteel rivalry to build bigger and better than anyone in the antebellum South. Her competitor, Nottaway (see Game of Thrones), was the work of John Hamden Randolph, another incredibly rich planter a short distance upriver. From sheer size alone, there was never any doubt that Belle Grove would take the sweepstakes as Andrews erected a palace to please a pharaoh. His wealth was so astronomical that he told architect Henry Howard (who also designed Nottaway), “Spare no time keeping a record of expenses, sir. Just build!” All this, mind you, in the nervous 1850s with the sabers of war rattling ever louder on the horizon.

canova2

Belle Grove’s architect was told to spare no expense, a dictate he clearly followed.

The construction site became an attraction in itself. The public gaped and gossiped as a massive Greek temple arose near the Mississippi River, showcased atop a twelve-foot foundation surmounted by stone steps sheathed in marble. Steamboats unloaded crates of ornamental ironwork from New Orleans and hand-carved capitals six feet high, along with other building materials so heavy that draft horses were replaced with oxen teams. Higher and higher the mansion soared until the peak of the slate roof surpassed six stories, and a grandiose entablature and pediment with exquisite dentil work rested atop fluted columns thirty-feet tall. Four floors encompassed some 60,000 square feet and boasted seventy-five rooms including a jail. The scale was unprecedented, but Andrews and Howard had yet another surprise. The brick-and-cypress walls were painted pink, then lavender and finally white to give Belle Grove a pastel underglow that became ethereal under the moonlight. The roseate lily was literally gilded when the Corinthian capitals were painted gold, while inside the mansion precious silver gleamed from dozens of doorknobs and keyhole guards. Who could have imagined all would disappear in less than a century?

Color-tinting shows how Belle Grove’s roseate walls and gilded capitals might have looked.

Not surprisingly, Andrews entertained on a scale befitting his pinkish palace. For his last and most lavish entertainment, a daughter’s night wedding, fifty guests and their servants were quartered in the house while five hundred more gathered on the lawn. While hundreds of candles glowed inside the home, hundreds more blazed in lanterns strung outside to create a twinkling wonderland beneath moss-draped oaks. Chef Imbert of New Orleans fame created a feast especially designed for the bride, including a pink nougat model of the house itself. Toasts were drunk, the newlywed sailed away, and the party was over in more ways than one. Andrews took his family to Texas to wait out the war, returning to Belle Grove only to concede in 1867 that he could no longer maintain his “pink elephant.” Purchased by New Orleanian Henry Ware, the house eventually entered — to the shock of an impoverished countryside –an even more glamorous phase. Ware’s son James married Mary Eliza Stone, a hostess extraordinaire famed for both her flame-haired beauty and exquisite taste. Determined to take her new home to ever grander glory, she scoured Europe for treasures, and once again Belle Grove’s landing groaned, this time with crates of fine furniture, paintings, tapestries and marble sculptures. Tales of Mary Eliza’s flamboyant behavior became the stuff of legend. The most repeated involved one of her dinner parties when, in the midst of coquetting, one of her diamond earrings flew to the floor. When several gentlemen made to retrieve it, she waved a hand and insisted that they not trouble themselves. “The servants,” she assured them with a smile, “will probably sweep it up in the morning.”

Belle Grove's self-destruction was swift and unrelenting.

Belle Grove’s self-destruction was perhaps inevitable, but she remained defiantly majestic to the bitter end.

Yet even the wealthy Wares could not survive hurricanes and freezes that devastated their sugar crops. In 1924, John and  Eliza sold their furnishings and fabled art collection at auction and retired from the world. The twilight of the gods was finally at hand, leaving Belle Grove abandoned and alone, an earthbound ship without a captain. Waiting to claim her was Louisiana’s subtropical jungle, a lethal combination of crushing heat and humidity, and relentless rain taking a ferocious toll. Roofs and walls sagged and split, the grand staircase collapsed, and voracious vines swarmed everywhere. Vandals took what nature left, carting off ironwork and hacking away bricks like vultures picking at a corpse.

The grandeur of the interior is evident, even in decay. One can only imagine the glittering life that once unfolded here.

In 1939, interest in Belle Grove’s tragic decline was revived after her photos appeared in House & Garden magazine, and again in 1948 with the publication of Clarence John Laughlin’s seminal book, Ghosts along the Mississippi. Alas, herculean restoration efforts were undermined by prohibitive costs, and the house was again forgotten. There would be no more reprieves, and the death knell thundered and crackled in March, 1952, when arson reduced it to a scorched shell. Declared hazardous, the remains were razed, titanic columns broken apart and buried as the house was erased from the face of the earth. A historical marker is all to remind the passerby of the grandeur that was.

There would be no rising from these ashes.

There would be no rising from these ashes.

Despite knowing the great house was gone, I made a pilgrimage one long ago November morning. The day was gloomy and very still, but as I approached that lonely marker, a sudden breeze bore the scent of crème brûlée. Some distant cane fields were being burned for harvest, and I was reminded of something French painter Edgar Degas said about New Orleans in 1872. “The perfume of the past,” he observed, “has not quite evaporated.” His words seemed prophetic as I stood there breathing in the sweet perfume of the magnificent queen spawned and vanquished by sugar. Then the wind shifted, and the scent, like Belle Grove, was gone.

All that remains…

There’s more lost Southern grandeur in my book, The Goat Castle Murder, due summer 2016.

 

 

 

 

8 Comments

  1. Bebe
    Apr 25, 2014

    More miracle writing, Michael. You tell beautiful tales that bring history to life.

    • Marie-Louise Ware Castillo
      Apr 18, 2016

      Look at the plaque that’s in the site Micheal the plantation was purchased first by Henry Ware the father of James A and John M. Ware …
      Henry was the first Ware to purchase the home from Andrews … He later sold it to his two sons , James and John.. Then James bought John’s share .. I know this because Henry Ware was my mother’s great grandfather and John M . Ware her grandfather .. I like it all but the facts need to be exact . James was not Henry Ware

  2. vicki bucy
    Apr 25, 2014

    Very nice. I appreciate your attention to Belle Grove.

  3. Linda
    Apr 25, 2014

    It’s so interesting to read these accounts of the past in a place I know little about. Thank you, Michael, for sharing the wealth.

  4. Karen Derderian
    Apr 26, 2014

    So haunting and provocative. Michael, you make the imagination work overtime with your historical words that wake us up to a bygone era. Thanks for the memories!!

  5. Ciji Ware
    Jul 30, 2015

    How did I miss this wonderful blog about Belle View? Of course, with a last name of “Ware” this had particular fascination…the Ware Family Lore has it that we all descend from Robert Ware (Weares, originally) from the border of Devon and Cornwall who sailed from Plymouth in 1642 and landed in….Plymouth, Mass. There are rumors that some other folks named Ware arrived later in Maryland…so maybe these “Southern Wares” sprouted from them. At any rate, Belle View’s story was beautifully told, Michael. Thank you!

  6. Winona Cross
    Sep 29, 2015

    This is lovely. The old pink lady has been brought back to life. I’ve drive past, or near, her many times on various outings when I lived in LA. I’m a NM girl who has spent many years in LA. Now, in the home state of my parents, OK. Wishing you the best at your booksigning with Ciji.

  7. MARK SULLIVAN
    Oct 31, 2015

    Beautifully written prose describing to perfection the decline of this vanished “Tragic Queen” as she is referred to in “Ghosts Along the Mississippi”

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *