As our series American Style continues, we’re looking at architecture and design across the United States of America. In a country famed for being a cultural melting pot, American homes are exemplified in homes and styles that stretch from Polynesia through to the Caribbean, and from ski lodges to log cabins.
Arguably the most diverse architectural palette on the planet, American Style offers no shortage of inspiration.
Today we take you to the Deep South, to Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana, home of the “Antebellum” Plantations.
A beautiful reminder of a dark past
It’s easy to have a romantic’s view of plantation architecture, thanks to the classic Gone with the Wind, but plantations that stand today represent a difficult and stormy part of America’s past, one more closely tied today to movies like The Help and 12 Years a Slave.
It would be wrong to write of the grand architecture of these homes without acknowledging that many were built upon fortunes created through slavery, oppression, and cruelty. Let us be mindful of this as we reflect on this grand era of American design.
A time and place
These enormous palatial plantation homes sprung up after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, through to the years just before the American Civil War, which is where “Antebellum” comes in — it’s Latin for “Before the War” — and it tells us these homes are of a unique time and place in American history. “Antebellum” is not a specific style of architecture, it is instead a time for architecture (1800 through 1865) that occurred in the American Deep South. These homes are a nod to the time before America became the “United” America it is today.
Like America itself, the homes reflected a variety of influences — such as Federal or Adam House Styles, Classical Revival, and Greek Revival.
Unlike the Pueblo homes of the Santa Fe Style I wrote about last time, these Antebellum homes are not reflecting the landscape around them. Instead, they were making a huge statement. These homes competed with the giant oaks of the South, and they wanted to stand out with a stately display of wealth and glory.
It’s their very scale that would bring about the demise for many of them, once slavery came to an end. For those that remain today, the upkeep of the homes and their often-sprawling grounds can take a village. Look at the infamous Oak Alley, a plantation that thrived on its pecan harvest until life after slavery made it unfeasible to run. Today it is cared for by a non-profit foundation.
Similarly, maintained by Mississippi’s Daughters of the American Revolution, Rosalie Mansion in Natchez is a beautiful 1823 example of Greek Revival. It is famed for General Grant commandeering it in 1863 for use as the Union’s headquarters, showing just how much these grand homes really are a piece of America’s troubled history.
While they’re of several different styles, these enormous Antebellum Plantations share some traits.
Enormous grand foyers are a given. They would feature sweeping open stairways where one could really make an entrance. Opulence was a watchword.
Grand porches, balconies (upstairs too), and verandas came covered, and would often run the length of the home, making a fine place to recline in the evening time or hide from the sun on hot Southern days.
A Southern belle needs to be the belle of the ball, and that’s why you’ll find formal ballrooms in most plantation homes. Similarly, grand dining rooms were also the norm. After all, entertaining was a lot more budget-friendly during the pre-war slavery days, and it’s reflected in the sprawling designs of these homes, where seasonal parties were held regularly.
The facades would usually be symmetrical, too, regardless of the style. One large, cohesive, grand design that had no illusions about the first impression it was making. Part of that impression came from giant pillars that added volumes to the imposing stature of these homes.
Inside, it’s also common to find extensive mastery of plaster work, wood work, elaborate floors, vaulted ceilings, massive built-in features like shelving, fireplaces, bench seating, and more.
A disappearing heritage
A part of who America is, these sprawling homes are fast vanishing. Difficult to upkeep, they’re also found throughout in Hurricane Country, and the weather gods have not been merciful.
As climate change leads to bigger, stronger, more frequent storms, some of these homes are vanishing in their wake. Hurricane Katrina, for instance, brought the end of a number of landmarks in Biloxi.
Where homes still stand, often the grounds are not what they once were, so the true visual impact of this palatial architectural style is something worth seeking out where it still survives, in protected properties like the famous Oak Alley.
The heartbreak of America
American Style reflects everything from colonial influence to oppression and revolution. This region fills a grand part of our architectural legacy, where the homes epitomize grand Southern lifestyle while being peppered with signs of deep conflict and a fight for a people’s freedom.
Bold, beautiful, excessive, and inspiring, the plantation homes that survive in America’s South are indeed a dramatic player in our American Style, at once both a reminder of the high cost paid for freedom from slavery and a sign of how far we’ve come.