An hour’s drive from bustling New Orleans lies the sleepy bayou outskirts of Darrow Louisiana where the Inn at Houmas House and Gardens stands. Formally as a historic residence, a working plantation, a movie set, and now through the dedication of one man’s generous resources, time and money, visitors can enjoy a serene setting surrounded by lush gardens, superb dining and shopping options, an outdoor amphitheater along with the Great River Road museum that showcases the local history of an era that was penned so aptly by Margaret Mitchell as “gone with the wind.”
Kevin Kelly is the owner of one of Louisiana architectural treasures, the Inn at Houmas House and Gardens was also known as the Sugar Palace. Kelly has painstakingly restored the Houmas House with expansive gardens, rare artifacts, and historical creditability. “The Houmas House is a historic estate, formerly the largest plantation in United States,” says Kelly “I am treating this more like an urban business than that of the rural historic house. I had to make it work and have a direction. I want you to come here to have a meal, to have a drink, to enjoy it and come back every couple of weeks.” An hour drive from New Orleans is well worth the time and effort to explore and meet an area that did leave from the landscape of American culture.”
“When I first took over the property people thought I was going to completely gut the house but that was not my intention. I bought this to create a place that was for entertainment. Just restoring the original color of the house created an uproar with the preservationist,” says Kelly. “As time has gone on, I have created a place that focuses on dining and relaxation. Those others on River Road who have not diversified due to the current political and health restrictions may close within the next year. My answer is to create something vibrant and welcoming. We fashioned delightful and gorgeous grounds for people to enjoy. Those who solely focus on the downside of the agrarian economic system, are not going to make it going forward. I diversified and I am doing ok, despite the current Covid restrictions.”
An epoch of the great Sugar Barons of the South and the agricultural business of harvesting sugar cane has forever disappeared like the ground fog across the swampy terrain. Ghosts of a by-gone area dimly appear along the banks of the mighty Mississippi where the great river road once pulsated with the sweat, and toil of many laborers free and enslaved in the production of sugar cane.
As controversial as the topic of American slavery in the South has become in recent years, there are touchstones of American economics that cannot be overturned by a bulldozer and a shovel. Along the Great River Road in Darrow remains the vestiges of that system. Many of the buildings and lands have fallen into disrepair but there are several historic buildings aside from Houmas that can be visited for those who choose to learn more about the past economic system and its obvious mistreatment of many within that system. The foundations were formed in an agrarian system that speaks of the social, economic stratification of a bygone era.
As mired in controversy as that system has been alluded to, there are those who desire that are being seen, digested and discussed with an attitude of historical perspective. Kelly urges visitors in taking take time to enjoy a place transformed into eye-catching beauty, entertainment, and good culinary options with an educational perspective curated by artist Jim Blanchard in his many stunning artistic and archival displays of the Great River Road museum.
Within its challenging environment, this was a land that was originally occupied by the indigenous Houmas Indians who sold the land in the mid 1700’s to Maurice Conway and Alexander Latil. Conway and Latil developed property dwellings but it was owner John Smith Preston that built the Greek revival mansion in 1840. Through the years, the property has had multiple owners, including the great Sugar baron John Burnside who transformed the Houmas into the largest sugar producer in 1857 using the 100,000 acres (about half the area of San Antonio, Texas) and hundreds of slaves in producing millions of pounds of sugar each year. All through its former history, the plantation system supported a strong economic force that was a part of the agrarian society.
With the ravages of Mother Nature and the Great Depression, the House fell into decrepitude but was once again revitalized by Dr. George B. Crozat of New Orleans who named it the Houmas House. Kelly bought the Houmas House in 2003 with the intent of transforming the property into a historical, educational, and premier tourism attraction along with fine dining venues, and deluxe overnight accommodations, and wedding and banquet facilities. Daily tours afford guests a rare glimpse into an estate and an economic structure that made up the cultural underpinnings of the South. Period dressed docents lead guests through the house while pointing out many artifacts that have been buying according to the historical period and some part of the original estate.
The Houmas House has been carefully kept and preserved with a vast collection of rare and expensive artworks, verdant gardens and several stunning restaurants including Café Burnside, the Carriage House with the Turtle bar offering a vast collection of fine wines and whiskeys, and a fine dining venue Latil’s Landing lauded as a Forbes 5-star dining destination with a soon to be opened casual dining and music hall. Also on the property are elegant overnight cottages noted as the Inn at Houmas for those seeking an extended visit with comfortable period furnishings, luxurious bedding, and L’Occitane en Provence toiletries. Houmas House is the perfect day trip from the rancor of Bourbon Street or an extended stay where the lush gardens and towering moss-covered oaks will have under the spell of old-world southern charm.
“We title this the crown jewel of Louisiana’s River Road primarily because of its importance. It is the Sugar Palace, a special place to see great artwork, water gardens, architectural gardens, and rare furniture collections,” says Kelly. “This is a place to see the culture of the Mississippi river; the folktale and commerce of the great river,” said Kelly. The museum was projected to be open in the spring of 2020 due to the worldwide pandemic the grand opening has been postponed for the spring of 2021. the Great River Road museum is open for visitors to take a tour as a major interpretive center for the Lower Mississippi River and the Lower Great River Road National Byway. Kevin Kelly is determined to preserve a part of history that defined the south for decades.