|Houmas House with its "grieving" oak trees|
Houmas House outside Gonzales, Louisiana, owns a different vibe, one of luxury, elegance and a lively history. The property’s story dates back to the 1700s when two New Orleans businessmen, Maurice Conway and Alexander Latil, purchased the land from the Houmas Indians and built a small home facing the Mississippi River near an ancient Houmas mound. Later, Gen. Wade Hampton of South Carolina would purchase the property and expand the original French Provincial residence before leaving the home to his daughter Caroline and son-in-law Col. John Preston. It was the Prestons that created the enormous house visitors view today. In 1857, Irishman John Burnside took over the plantation and enlarged its acreage for sugarcane and later Col. William Porcher Miles expanded its production even further.
Today, the home with its multi-columned Greek Revival exterior is known as the “Crown Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road.” New Orleans businessman Kevin Kelly purchased the mansion in 2003 and has turned the site into one of the finest wedding venues in Louisiana. The property now includes the award-winning Latil’s Landing Restaurant, a la carte dining options in the magnificent Carriage House, the Turtle Bar located in the former garconniere and several cabins for overnight stays. The 38-acre grounds feature oak trees dating back to original owners but also exquisite formal gardens under the current landscaping staff, including fountains, statuaries, a Monet-style garden with waterfall and other endless floral spots for photographs and the saying of vows.
Visitors to the Crown Jewel wouldn’t expect ghosts in such a stately place, and our tour guide for the night admitted that the spirits of those gone before do linger here, but he preferred to focus on the history and luxury of the house. And he had every right. The house is filled with antiques, artwork and historical objects, including a 19th century casket and an antique vampire killing kit. But curious minds like me wanted to know more.
A staff member once spent the night in a second-floor bedroom and awoke to find a tall, shadowy figure standing in the doorway gazing toward her bed. When she turned to follow his line of sight, an elderly woman as clear as day was lying next to her in bed, her arms folded across her chest and her eyes closed. She uttered questions in fright, then looked back toward the door and the man had disappeared. Thankfully, so had the old woman.
Other visitors have seen what appears to be a young girl and many believe her to be the daughter of Caroline and Wade Preston, who died at the age of 12. There’s also an account of an angry spirit coursing up a shaft between the first and third floors, moving through the bedroom used in the film, “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte” starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland.
Kelly’s not one to believe in ghosts but one night he noticed his dogs staring off to the corner of his bedroom. The two labradors followed an invisible object across the room, their gazes in sync, until whatever they were staring at disappeared inside a mirror.
The magnificent oak trees leading up to the house remain from the house’s original days but half of the trees were removed for the building of the Mississippi River levee in the early part of the 20th century. Although they have ample room to grow and prosper, they bend toward each other, as if in grief.
Want to learn more about the house’s ghost history? Special haunted tours are offered at 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. nightly through October. But don’t worry, they include the house’s unique history, architecture, artwork and more.
Here’s what I suggest. Arrive early and enjoy a spirit of another sort in the Turtle Bar (I highly suggest the Old Fashions) and either relish in the unique space or peruse the lighted pathways throughout the gardens. After the tour of the mansion, enjoy dinner in either The Carriage House Restaurant or Latil’s Landing. For a truly special evening, stay overnight in one of Houma House’s cabins, luxurious accommodations in a peaceful setting and yes, no ghosts on that side of the property. At least, we didn’t encounter any.