“Let him who wishes continue.”

Louisiana abounds with tales of antebellum sugar kings and their baronial estates. For extravagance and tragedy, few eclipse Valcour Aimé, the “Louis XIV of Louisiana” and his home, Petit Versailles. Wondering what remained, I drove up the Great River Road some years back and found lush cane fields crowding the bones of what had been the grandest private garden in the Americas. The big house had been lost to a fire in 1920, but old photos and journals gave a glimpse of the grandeur that was.

frantois-gabriel-valcour-aime

Valcour Aimé, the “Louis XIV of Louisiana”

François-Gabriel “Valcour” Aimé was born into wealth in St. Charles Parish in 1798 but never rested on his lofty laurels. After buying a string of sugar plantations, he experimented with refining methods and developed a vacuum pan system revolutionizing the industry. By 1850, the “Father of White Sugar” was one of the richest men in the South with a product extolled as the finest in the world at the 1853 New York World’s Fair.

This rare image may have been Petit Versailles.

This rare image may have been Petit Versailles.

Aimé and his wife Joséphine had four daughters and one son, Gabriel, who was his father’s unquestioned favorite. The Aimés lived large, but their generosity to the poor and the church was as celebrated as their lavish lifestyle. Their pillared home was modest in comparison to such Louisiana behemoths as Belle Grove (see Requiem for a Queen, April, 2014), having only sixteen rooms, but it was perfectly-proportioned with marble floors, a solid marble staircase and generous galleries on three sides. A fourth side fronted a luxuriant courtyard, and the two rooms reserved for visitors were, understandably, never empty. In 1833, Aimé built a private railroad to carry guests across his vast property, and shortly thereafter, complaining that steamboats were always late, purchased one to dock at his landing. No one was surprised when it was christened Gabriel.

The artificial grotto lurks beneath the Louisiana jungle.

The grotto is a ghostly ruin swallowed by the Louisiana jungle. Photo: Richard Sexton.

But it was Aimé’s gardens where his imagination truly soared. Inspired by the English gardens of Empress Joséphine’s Malmaison, he summoned Joseph Mueller from Paris’s famed Jardin des Plantes to help create a garden from twenty acres of swampy wilderness. More than a hundred slaves dug artificial lakes and erected such unorthodox splendors as Roman bridges, fantasy ruins with oyster shell statuary, a hillock with a prayer grotto beneath and a toy fort complete with working cannon. (Visitors reported spirited mock battles when the children substituted oranges for cannonballs!) The hillock was blanketed with violets and crowned with a Chinese pagoda with stained glass windows and tinkling wind chimes. Exotic palms, flowers and vines were imported from Siam, Madagascar, Korea and India. Bananas, orange trees and orchids flourished, and hothouses yielded pineapples, papayas and mangos. Aimé even created a children’s zoo with peacocks, black and white swans, pet deer, rabbits and, of all things, a kangaroo shipped from Australia.

The children's fort crumbles atop the artificial lake.

The children’s fort crumbles atop the artificial lake. Photo: Richard Sexton.

Life at Petit Versailles remained serene until 1854 Gabriel succumbed to yellow fever at age 28. Aimé was devastated. Two days later, he wrote in his diary, “Let him who wishes continue. My time is finished. He died on September 18. I kissed him at five o’clock, also on the following day.” Aimé sealed the entry with wax, passed the reins of the plantation to a son-in-law and became a recluse. His time was devoted to prayer, reading the Bible and visiting Gabriel’s room where he placed a fresh rose every morning beside the bed where his son died. Aimé’s grief and despair deepened when he lost Joséphine and daughters Félicie and Edvidge in the following two years. He remained secluded throughout the Civil War, taking shelter alongside his family in the grotto when the place was shelled by Union gunboats on the Mississippi River. He was seen publicly only at Christmas Mass, and on one such occasion he was caught in a bitter winter storm and contracted pneumonia. Aimé died in 1867 at age 69.

Without this marker, few would know the grandeur that once flourished nearby.

As though disdaining a future without its vanquished master, Petit Versailles fell into decline and was soon abandoned. The fabulous gardens were strangled by the aggressive Louisiana jungle, leaving only a lone historical marker to indicates the majesty that once was. Aimé is gone but not forgotten. One wonders what he would think of a Mardi Gras doubloon honoring him as one of the “Great Men of Louisiana.” Since it was one-of-a-kind creation, I think he might approve.

sunev77

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

 

2 Comments

  1. Lola
    Aug 23, 2014

    Fascinating history… once again you unearth grandeur from the ruins.

  2. Glenn Falgoust
    Nov 11, 2014

    I have a copy the 1853 World Fair catalogue listing the participants and their entries but Valcour is not listed unless maybe as represented by an agent. Can you cite your reference to where Valcour’s sugar is extolled as the finest. Thanks.

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