Game of Thrones

My favorite perk of writing historical fiction is exploring sites for my plots and characters. More often than not, the search leads to serendipitous flights of fancy that are great fun despite having nothing to do with the book. For example, when I started researching Creole Son about painter Edgar Degas’s visit to New Orleans, I needed a scene at a sugar plantation to introduce his inventor cousin Norbert Rillieux whose invention for refining sugar revolutionized the industry. The Millaudon plantation Degas actually visited was no longer standing, but since I lived in the French Quarter there were others nearby to provide the ambience I needed to write the scene.

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Lots of old homes line the Great River Road paralleling the Mississippi, and after some homework I headed for Nottoway near the town of White Castle. It had ceased being a working sugar plantation decades ago, but I totally forgot about Degas when I  learned that Nottaway had been part of a competition between two sugar kings to build Dixie’s biggest palace, no mean feat considering another king — cotton — had already catapulted nineteenth-century Louisiana to vertiginous wealth and dotted the landscape with dozens of grand mansions. I had to see the place for myself and I definitely wanted to know more about this antebellum game of thrones!

Louisiana sugar king John Hampden Randolph lost the race to build the South’s biggest plantation house.

Nottoway was the brainchild of John Hampden Randolph (1813-1883) of Nottaway, Virginia, whose father brought the family west in 1820. Struggling to succeed as a planter, Randolph and wife Emily lived in a four-room frame house, adding rooms and attics as the family expanded. When Randolph finally struck it rich, he wanted a home befitting a wealthy cane planter. Emily was quick to agree since the family now included ten children, but she never imagined her husband would build something grandiose enough to set the whole Lower Mississippi Valley abuzz.

Nottaway's 53,000 square fee included 63 rooms, indoor plumbing and an all-white ballroom.

Nottaway’s 53,000 square feet included 63 rooms, indoor plumbing and an all-white ballroom.

In 1856, Randolph contracted prestigious New Orleans architect Henry Howard, and the result was a 53,000 square-foot Greek Revival extravaganza with 64 rooms, 365 portals, an entrance hall 25’ wide and 15’ tall, a 20’x30’ dining room, and a ballroom running almost the length of the gigantic house. (After all, Randolph had eight daughters to marry off!) Because everything in the ballroom was white – woodwork, columns, chandeliers, marble mantles, friezes and an enameled maple floor – it was naturally dubbed the White Ballroom. Weather permitting, the orchestra played on the outside gallery, floor-to-ceiling windows thrown high so dancers could hear the music. If the ballroom grew too hot, the belles and their beaux waltzed through the open windows and onto the gallery in search of cool night air!

The celebrated White Ballroom helped Randolph marry off his eight daughters.

Nottoway’s heart was the glamorous White Ballroom where dancers often whirled outside to the spacious gallery.

Randolph knew success lay in the detailing, so Howard provided six staircase, twelve fireplaces with mantles of Italian Carrara and black Austrian marble, bronze chandeliers, and porcelain doorknobs hand-painted with roses, lilies or magnolias with matching keyhole covers. The most innovative feature involved two rooftop rainwater cisterns with a 10,000-gallon capacity to supply bathrooms on each floor. Such luxury was almost unheard of in plantation society. Nottaway’s heyday was as brief as it was dazzling, erased by the Civil War which also took the Randolph fortune. The family hung on but barely. Randolph died in 1883, and six years later Emily was forced to sell the place at auction. After the sale, she personally saw that the two hundred windows were closed before she swept through the White Ballroom, widow’s weeds casting a portentous shadow across the pale floor which had witnessed such merriment. With that, she descended the grand portico staircase and was gone forever.

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Nottaway is now a destination resort. The celebrated White Ballroom is on the second floor

Like so many other antebellum homes, Nottaway fell on hard times, but it was restored in the 1980s and recently re-imagined as a resort. It  reigns as the biggest plantation house in the South, but what happened to that rival sugar king who tried to outdo John Randolph? His name was John Andrews, and his formidable entry in the size sweepstakes had risen only a few miles down the Great River Road. Its name was Belle Grove, and its amazing secrets are revealed in my next post.

Forever fabulous Belle Grove was the plantation house that out-swanned them all.

Forever fabulous Belle Grove was the plantation house that out-swanned them all.

Part of a series about eccentricity, extravagance and ephemera in the antebellum South.

 

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Bebe
    Apr 18, 2014

    Michael, what a gorgeous story. I can just picture the white ballroom. And how many children did they lose in that huge place?

  2. vicki bucy
    Apr 20, 2014

    Hi Michael, I am one of the Belle Grove group members. Really enjoyed your story of Nottoway. Can’t wait to read the one on my favorite, Belle Grove.

  3. Karen Derderian
    Apr 20, 2014

    Next destination for me: Mississippi, being inspired by your glimpses into opulence and extravaganza in the old south. I too am anxiously awaiting to read about Belle Grove. Another job well done, Michael.

  4. Liz
    Apr 20, 2014

    This Yankee dame freely admits to enjoying your vivid descriptions of Southern palaces and practices and the people who inhabited them. Can’t wait to read about Belle Grove! Thank you so much for sharing your formidable knowledge and appreciation with your fans.

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