Historic Structures

Seven Oaks Plantation (Petit Desert), Westwego Louisiana

Date added: November 15, 2013 Categories: Louisiana House Plantations & Farms Greek Revival

At Westwego across the river from uptown New Orleans stands one of the most impressive of Louisiana's great Greek Revival plantation mansions. Only Oak Alley in St, James Pariah exceeds it in architectural merit among the surviving plantation houses which are completely surrounded by a colonnade running through two stories and with an upper gallery. But whereas Oak Alley stands beautifully restored behind its magnificent avenue of oaks in a lovely park-like setting, Seven Oaks, neglected by its railroad owners, is rapidly crumbling to ruin surrounded by huge black oil tanks and the remnants of its once beautiful oaks.

This was once the proud residence of a wealthy sugar planter, Camille Zeringue, undoubtedly a descendant of one of New Orleans' first settlers, Michel Seringue the contractor who built the first church of St. Louis and the first convent of the Ursulines, the former began in 1724 and the latter in 1727. The history of the plantation goes back even farther into French colonial history than does the family of the crumbling mansion. Originally it was one of the concessions granted on November 18, 1719 by John Law's Company of the Indies to Monseigneur Le Blanc, French Minister of State and his associates, the Marquis d'Asfeld, Marshal of France and Director General of Fortificationsj the Compte de Belle lsle, Lieutenant-General of the King's Armies; and Gerard Michel de la Jonchere, Treasurer General of the Military Order of St. Louis. These distinguished personages raised among themselves a sum of 1,00,000 livres for the establishment which included three land grants, one below New Orleans on the west bank known as the Chouachas, "Seven Oaks" then known as the "Little Desert" and a third grant at Natchez. The Little Desert was to be the depot for goods and slaves going to and from the other Le Blanc concessions and was therefore was one of the first to be developed.

The Le Blanc associates' first settlers for their three concessions or plantations sailed from the port of L'Orient, France on June 30, 1720, with their own troops in charge of the half-pay captain, Ignace Francois Broutin. He had no doubt been selected for the position by the Marquis d'Asfeld, as his military service had been with the engineer corps. Broutin later became the Engineer-in-chief of Louisiana and was the architect of the Ursuline Convent on Chartres street and most of the official buildings of the French colony. In a letter to Governor Vaudrauil in 1751 it was stated that Broutin "was then (1720-21) employed in the said concessions (and) improved and cleared the one called the Little Desert, which is the first establishment made in this colony by the said Marshals de Belle Isle and d'Asfeld".

In 1738 the "Little Desert" was sold by its original owners to the Sieurs Asaailly and Daunoy at which time it was described as "fourteen arpents of land frontage by the ordinary depth, situated at the place called the 'Little Desert", about one league above New Orleans on the other side of the river, with the huts, appurtenances and dependencies thereon".

From the 1754 inventory of Marie Payen, deceased wife of Claude Joseph Villars Dubreuil it would appear that Dubreuil the contractor for the King's buildings and works in Louisiana had purchased the plantation from Assailly and D'aunoy prior to 1754. Part of it was than called "Barataria" and was described as "containing sixteen arpents of frontage by the ordinary depth of forty arpents situated on the other side of the Mississippi River at about a league from this town adjoining and and above the Canal". This canal had been begun by Villars Dubreuil In 1736 to connect Bayou Barataria through Lake Ouachas (Salvador) with the Mississippi. In 1740 he wrote that "this canal has already been of great utility of the service of the King, having served for the passage of 20 boats constructed on the high lands of Barataria, intended for transporting troops of the Navy to the war against the Chickasaws".

According to the records of Dubreuil's succession In 1757 it would seem that prior to his death he had given this plantation to his son. For that reason only the one arpent of land containing the canal was included in the inventory of the succession. About 1772 the plantation was sold at auction to Pedro Delille Dupart. This sale was probably more of a legal transaction than a transfer of possession, for in March 1775 Dupart sold it to a son-in-law of villars Dubreuil, Jean Louis Trudeau, the act of sale stating that "I, Don Pedro Delile called Dupare ... sell really and In fact to Don Louis Trudeau who was Alcalde of this city, a plantation named Little Desert with about twenty arpents of front on the river, and a depth of forty or more, some two leagues distant from this city, situated on the other side of the river, bordered on one side by the land named ---- , and on the other by that of Louis Harang ... that belongs to me by having bought it at the auction, sale of the goods of Don Claudio Joseph Villars . . ." The sixteen arpents of Dubreuil's property called "Barataria" containing the canal was sold in March 1772 to Francisco Bouligny. The Spanish Judicial Decords of 1773 contain lenthy litigation regarding rights to the canal involved in these sales.

Trudeau, who was probably the father or brother of the noted Spanish Surveyor Don Carlos Laveau Trudeau, owned the Little Desert until 1735 when he sold twelve arpents of it to Alexandre Harang. Harang in 1794 sold part of the land to his son-in-law Michel Zeringue "with all the buildings which are constructed on it, their implements, utensils groves and fences . . . with the expressed condition that Mousieur Lebreton shall enjoy the canal which passes by said land while he is a neighbor".

Michel Zeringue died in 1816 and the plantation was inherited by his widow Josephine (called Josette) Harang. lt now contained thirty four arpenta, the title being confirmed by the American Government in 1812. There were various transfers of parts of the property among members of the Zeringue family and in April 1830 Camille Zeringue sold an arpent of land fronting the river to the Barataria Canal Company, and a half arpent along each side of Bayou Sainet (Segnette) "with the right to cut trees as necessary to construct the locks of the canal which it proposes to cut through the land . . . as well as his rights on the canal which exists". This canal still exists, known as the Company Canal at Westwego.

Camille Meringue who had been managing the plantation of his mother and sisters since 1813, eventually came into full possession and his extensive holdings, extending from the Company Canal almost to Nine Mile Point are shown on Zimple's map of New Orleans of 1834. A house is shown in the approximate location of the present one, and was probably the old house of his sister Marie Anne Azelie Zeringue widow in first, marriage of Jean Baptlate Dorsino De Blanc, in second marriage of Joseph Lombard. In an inventory of 1823 it was described as "a Master house about sixty feet square having eight rooms including two offices, bricked between posts with front and rear gallery, roofed with shingles".

The present house must have been built by Camilla Zeringue about 1840, judging from its architectural character. Perhaps the name "Seven Oaks" was gitven to it at that time. Its plan is almost identical with that of the Saulet house (Mercy Hospital) on Annunciation street, completed in 1834. Oak Alley which is more like "Seven Oaks" in its exterior, was built between 1837 and 1839 by George Swainey but it is unlikely that both these houses were the work of the same builder. Perhaps it was the work of the builder of the George A. Waggaman plantation at Avondale which was built in 1839 by Francis D. Gott from plans and under the superintendence of William Brand. No records of the actual date of building or the name of the builder of 'Seven Oaks' have yet been found.

The house is an excellent example of the style of the Greek Revival as adapted to the Louisiana plantation house. The house is large and almost square in plan, the front and rear colonnade containing each eight columns, with seven columns for oach of the ends, a total of twenty six massive brick columns of the Doric order. The heavy wood cornice follows classic proportions and supports a huge pyramidal slate roof. Atop the roof is a rather clumsy belvedere from which a magnificent view of the city and the river may be obtained. It is said that originally there was an open deck with a balustrade, a sort of widows walk as at Oak Alley, but this was replaced by the present belvedere during the time of the War between the States. Certairly with such a balustrade the house would have had a much more graceful appearance. Two dormers on each side of the roof give light to the immense unfinished attic.

The principal entrance originally faced the river. The doorway opening into a large entrance hall, is in the center of the facade, and a similar door at the opposite end of the hall opens to the dining room. This is the largest room in the house and was once the finest; occupying the major part in the center of the rear of the house, with a small room at each end. Another large doorway similar to the entrance opens from the dining room to the rear and is flanked by two smaller French casement doors. At each end or the room is a fireplace, each of which once had black marble mantles of the period, but these are said to have beon ripped out when the house was occupied by troops during World War I. Over the dining room table hung the usual punkah, the early version of a ceiling fan. The plaster cornice in this room has disappeared, although the original cornices are still to be found in most of the other rooms.

At the front of the house flanking the entrance hall are two large square rooms each with a fireplace, and behind each of these rooms is a stairway. The one to the right leads up from the entrance hall and continues to the attic. The other, on the other side, is a sort of service stair and leads directly up from outside. This stair arrangement is like that originally found in the Saulatt house, but the location of the dining room on the central results in a more impressive plan form.

On the second floor the hallway extends from front to back with the four bedrooms each occupying a corner of the house. The difference in plan of the floors of the house requires an odd maniculation of the chiminey as the fireplaces at each end of the dining room are actually under the centers of the two rear bedrooms. This necessitates the flues being carried across in the wall below the second floor level, a most unusual arrangement. The four huge brick chimneys then extend up and project symetricaily through the roof.

Camille Zeringue continued to reside on his plantation and to cultivate his extensive sugar fields until his death. Then in 1891 it was aquired by Sheriff's deed by the Citizens Bank which sold it the following year to Pablo Sala. In 1898 it way bought from him by A. A. Lelong. Charles T. Goniat acquired it in 1906 and sold in 1912 to the Missouri Pacific Railroad.