Afton Villa – Yesterday’s Gift to Today ~ French Gothic Chateau 1790-1849
Author not written in book
Down in the story-book country of West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, on the road of Old Tradition, is one of the South's most glamorous homesteads— Afton Villa. Widely renowned for its distinguishing feature of being a house within a house, this intriguing example of French-Gothic construction commenced its versatile career more than 165 years ago in "Audubon's Happy Land."
A cherished pioneer house, enclosed within the splendor of a French-Gothic mansion, Afton Villa has survived periods of vigorous living, gracious entertaining, war's depredations, cultural attainments, desolation, and abandonment.
It stands today, a symbol of the union of Old World architecture and Kentucky tradition with the romance of the Deep South. Nowhere among the Nation's vast heritage of antebellum homes is there one that can compare with Afton Villa. A spirit of individuality and enduring vitality is reflected by its strength of design. Supreme durability, plus loving and affectionate effort down through the years, by those who desired to recapture this spirit, have preserved it as Yesterday's gift to Today.
Tourists— either on the pilgrimage which works its way among the old homes, south from Natchez, Mississippi; or those who choose quicker routes from New Orleans, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana— eventually arrive at Afton's gateway.
The entrance with its crescent-shaped approach from the highway is the visitors’ first introduction to the estate. Originally, the large posts were foundations of a great arch for the carriage gate and two smaller arches. The gates and all the panels of the enclosure were of cypress, carved in Gothic designs.
Some years later, the erstwhile owners of the property had the arches taken down. From an acorn lodged on top, a tree grew to such a size that it was thought the additional weight made the gateway dangerous to use. Not only were these fears for its stability' groundless, but untold difficulties were encountered in wrecking it. Like the other structural work of Afton's architects, the entrance had been built for "Time and Eternity."
Once these huge front gates unwittingly saved Afton Villa from pillage during the Civil War. When the Federal gunboat which shelled St. Francisville was still hovering in the Mississippi River, foraging parties were sent out. One of these parties paused in the presence of the structure's massive dignity, and unable to distinguish the house in its woodland refuge, concluded that this was a cemetery.
Some few years after the present owners purchased and completely restored Afton Villa, the expedience of the times and the progress of this modern generation required the original entrance to Afton Villa be destroyed to make way for a modern highway. The same landscape Architects who restored the formal gardens near the house, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Landry of Port Allen, Louisiana were called in to design the new entrance.
The original gateway was copied as nearly as possible with the new entrance following the Gothic style contemporary to the main building. It was designed after research on the French Chateau that must have influenced the original French architect.
Now an old gray-haired Negro, humble yet dignified in frock tail coat and tall silk hat— an authentic reminder of the days before the Civil War— bids visitors enter the avenue of live oaks and flowering shrubs that form a half-mile drive through landscaped gardens to the house. As the gates are opened by their genial keeper, the visitors step out of a matter-of-fact world into the charm and romance of a bygone age.
Overhanging, moss-draped branches frame the way through landscaping which conforms to natural surroundings. Afton stands atop a broad ridge between two ravines. Acre after acre had to be smoothed and leveled before shrubs and flowers could be planted. More than twenty acres of ground were transformed into one of the finest gardens in the South.
To the left of the house, one looks across the stone terrace, down the wide steps, into an exotic little formal garden which is a sort of preface to the large and pretentious sunken gardens extending with a wide sweep below it. Laid out as a maze, this little paradise with its riot of color— camellias, sweet olives, fuscatas, lilies, azaleas, and gardenias—often confuses guests to the amazement of the hostess.
The customary greenhouse supplies out-of-season flowers and fruits to maintain year-round color and fragrance throughout the estate. Another feature of the landscaper's careful planning is the network of "French drains," which underlies the whole surface of the park. This system, constructed of brick, is still functioning and preventing erosion on the rolling slopes.
Shut in by hedges, in sacred privacy, at one side of the gardens is a tiny cemetery. David Barrow, Afton's owner for fifty years, lies buried here beside his first wife and two of their children. The graves of David's father (born in 1766) and mother are here. Marking the graves of Alexander Barrow, David's uncle, is a marble shaft erected by the Congress of the United States. This Senator Barrow died in office in 1846. He was one of Louisiana's early national figures and was spoken of as the handsomest man in Washington.
At the end of the half-mile avenue from the entrance, one arrives at the house itself. Its massive cypress timbers, thick walls, and rugged construction have enabled it to withstand the inroads of time and neglect.
The main wing, built directly in front of the old house, two stories in height, has an impressive sweep of groined arches, fluted columns, and intricate handiwork on its face. On either side of the elaborate front entrance, recessed terraces afford easy access to the twin sun parlors. Octagonal towers, three stories high, at either end, are topped lay battlements and copper turret guns which now serve as rainspouts. Original plans of the house called for a moat, it is said, and the architect had to be persuaded to abandon this idea due to the menace of the mosquito.
The second huge wing extends to the rear, over and above the original building, affording space for a beautiful ballroom, additional bedchambers, storerooms, and servants' quarters— making it a forty-room mansion.
French and Spanish influence in Louisiana changed the practical "porch" of the West, "Piazza" of the East, and "veranda" of the South to "gallerie," redolent of glamour and romance. The most striking of Afton's galleries open through French doors from second-story bedrooms at either end of the front wing. These add interest to the geometric lines of the exterior.
Let us enter the heavy, cypress doors with their imposing frames and Gothic carving. Their closing ushers us into the front hall where the morning sun, shining through the Cathedral windows of rich Belgian glass above the landing, makes a rainbow of color on the stairway's carved banister, a masterpiece of skilled artisans.
On the diamond-shaped glasses of the window, the belles of yesteryear scratched with their engagement rings the still legible names of their betrothed.
With the treasured array of carved rosewood and mahogany furniture imported from France, carefully selected for each room, where heavy cathedral chairs of carved Flemish oak for the reception hall. Two of these chairs are serving ecclesiastical purposes in the Grace Church of St. Francisville, gifts from Florence Barrow Fischer.
Resplendent in century-old decoration, the two sun parlors— one on either side of the hall— have never required restoration. Walls are done in an excellent imitation of soft yellow Italian marble, while the baseboards are of red basalt, lapis lazuli, and Egyptian marble. As a finishing touch, they are given an airy decoration of woodwork, elaborately carved, framing water color designs in each panel.
Beyond the sun parlors are large, square rooms with elaborately decorated ceilings of moulded plaster. One of these parlors is furnished with its original suite, a Louis Fifteenth masterpiece of solid pale sander. Each chair back is outlined by a wide carved border in openwork effect of marvelous richness and beauty, upholstered in damask of a dull gold color. The walls are adorned with four original Capo-di-Monte plaques. These represent the four seasons. Opening off this chamber is the ladies' powder room.
A smoothly operating system of solid sliding doors for most of the interior openings features doorknobs, imported from Dresden. Their exceptionally dainty designs and patterns in fruit and flowers are combined with keyhole covers of French silver-plate.
A vision of the legendary "groaning board" is seen in the dining room- one of the larger of the original four rooms. A luxurious Flemish oak suite, heavily carved with a gargoyle motif, bespeaks of feasting and good cheer.
The rosewood cabinet work was especially fashioned by Seabrecht. It is designed to fit the wall off-set formed by the sliding dood recess, and displays a set of Rockingham China over 125 years old and a Venetian Red hand blown glass-ware set of over 100 pieces.
Three Audubon originals grace the walls of the dining room, while in the adjacent music room two family portraits of the present owners dominate the walls.
A dual feature of surpassing excellence is represented by the two widely differing stairway structures of Alton Villa. The staircase in the reception hall and the spiral stair that rise to the peak of the tower excel in their contrasting features.
Winding gracefully three stories, giving access to the guest rooms and the roof, the spiral stair is less ornate, but more scientifically designed, than the former. The geometrical perfection of this unbraced structure is a marvel to woodworkers and experts who believe it would remain standing alone, should the surrounding walls be removed. This stair is one of a rare few by Allier, the renowned French designer.
Popularity of the ballroom is a challenge to the importance of the stairways and landscaped grounds. This ballroom provided a proper setting for the elegant balls of Afton fame. Its ceilings are bordered with a delicate and exquisite frieze in openwork pattern of grapes and leaves. A remarkable feature of this seemingly delicate ornamentation is the manner in which it has withstood the ravages of time and neglect. It has remained virtually intact, even through long periods in which the house stood abandoned. The furniture now in the ballroom is Louis Sixteenth. It is gold leaf, upholstered in velvet and satin. Each chair back has a different hand painted floral design. The mirrors in this room are matched Chippendales.
On the mantel, the Napoleon clock set of Sevres and bronze d'Or has bronze figurines supporting a vase, while two other hand-painted vases complete the set. This is one of several antique timepieces in the home.
The original master bedroom set consists of nine rosewood pieces including two children's beds, made by Mallard especially for Mr. and Mrs. Barrow. Also displayed in the bedroom is a hand-shaped marble bathtub that weighs fifteen hundred pounds.
At any hour of the day or night, one may conjure up with ease an episode from Afton's past. Whether it be in the sun-dappled garden, or on the moon-flecked galleries, or in the soft illuminated ballroom, the fantasies invariably possess the selfsame elements of moss-hung fragrance, affectionate youth, and carefree merriment.
THE STORY OF AFTON VILLA
The story of Afton Villa is the tale of settlers and builders; of pioneers in a rich, new world; of a beautiful daughter and charming wife; of a house built around a house, with unique and intricate ornamentation and massive walls; and of its restoration to its original splendor by the present owners.
It begins in 1790, when John Crocker built an eight-room house on a fifteen thousand acre tract of land. This estate was sold to Bartholomew Barrow for his son, David, in the early 1820's. Four years later, David was sent east to enter Princeton University. He never reached his destination, however, having eloped with Sarah Mosely, the daughter of a North Carolina tobacco plantation owner. They returned to Afton, where they lived until Sarah Barrow died in 1846.
Sarah and David Barrow raised two children— a son, Bartholomew, who was very handsome and for whom David bought Eldorado Plantation in Iberville Parish when he married Martha Sample; and Mary, who grew to be a very charming and lovely woman. She became locally famous for her singing of "Flow Gently Sweet Afton.” This imparted to the Barrow home the title of "Afton", while "Villa" is the natural appellation for its ultimate architectural style.
A year after the death of Sarah, David married Sue Wolfolk, a Kentucky belle from "Oak Hill" in Woodford County, near Lexington. This ushered in the most brilliant and vivid era of Afton Villa's colorful past. Sue's social perspective extended beyond the existing confines of David's abode. Although sentimentally attached to his modest home, David permitted Sue to build around and add to the original eight rooms. Not a wall nor shingle of the old eight-room house were touched, but were embodied in the vastness of the structure that became the new Afton Villa. Although intact, the original house can be identified with difficulty today, thanks to the skill of the craftsmen who accomplished the conversion.
Sue Barrow was doubtless influenced in her choice of French-Gothic architecture by two such examples near her native Lexington. One of these houses burned and the other has been remodeled to the point that it does not even vaguely resemble its original design. Consequently, Afton Villa is today the only home of this style in the United States.
It is believed that the Afton Villa plan was copied in detail from a chateau in France. This belief was substantiated by a soldier of the First World War who recognized it as a replica of the home in which he was stationed near Tours. He furthermore called attention to the shields of France and Tours that appear on the walls of one of the sun parlors.
A Skilled French architect and landscape gardener, as well as a workman from the northeast, remained in St. Francisville— not for months, but for years— while the walls and turrets slowly rose above the ground.
After this transformation was completed; during the hectic days of the Civil War; and until 1874 when David Barrow died, Afton Villa was presided over by its guardian angel Sue Barrow, under whose tender mercies its fame as a mecca of graciousness and hospitality spread far and wide. Guests were known to have tarried months at a time in the many-roomed, antebellum mansion.
Among the distinguished visitors was Robert Meyer, composer and orchestra leader from New Orleans. He wrote "The Afton Villa Waltz," which he dedicated to Mrs. Barrow. A copy of its first edition has remained in the music room.
Mrs. Barrow's young niece from Kentucky, Ada Meade, an heiress and orphan, came to make her home at Afton, and much of the elaborate entertaining was done in her honor. Her beauty, vivacity, and sweet singing voice made her the toast of the parish. In a later period, her daughter became prominent on the stage, starring in the light opera "Madam Sherry.” She was Ada Meade Saffarrans but adopted the stage name Ada Meade. A theatre in her native city, Lexington, still bears her name in recognition of her beauty and talent.
Beckoned by Afton's promise of charm and romance, visitors from New Orleans and the North found it convenient to make their leisurely way to the West Felician retreat by Mississippi River steamboat. It is told that on one occasion some of Afton Villa's parting guests met death, while others were seriously injured, when fire swept the boat that was taking them away.
David and Sue Barrow had four children. Twin boys, Joseph and John, died at the age of one year. Their daughter, Florence, who married Maximillian Fischer, was another very lovely and beautiful belle of Afton Villa. Their son, David, born in 1858, became an eminent surgeon in Lexington, Kentucky.
An example of Sue Barrow's resourcefulness is the time that one of the slaves reported Yankee soldiers were entering the grounds. Calmly taking charge of the situation, she proceeded to lock the outside doors with their large Norman keys. With unruffled grace and dignity, she then met the officer at the front door, presenting him with the keys in a basket. So overwhelmed was he by this gesture that he was prompted to a display of chivalry, ordering his men to disturb nothing on the place. Then with profuse apologies and regrets, he confiscated the horses as "contraband of war" leaving all else untouched. He even succumbed to the pleading of the children and returned their ponies.
The sweet sorrow of parting came to Afton Villa when, shortly after her husband's death. Sue Barrow returned to her native Kentucky-pausing in New Orleans to enter her son in Tulane University's medical school.
Serving, in the ownership of the Howell Family, as a finishing school for young ladies; and experiencing a period of disuse and abandonment, while owned by Smith Bowman— the old house received a new lease on life in 1915 when it passed into the possession of Dr. Robert E. Lewis of Chicago, who with Mrs.
Lewis, restored it to livable condition. His outstanding contribution, however, was the ardor which he applied himself to resurrecting the gardens. Taking cuttings from the oldest azalea bush, "The Pride of Afton," he established hundreds of this variety throughout the garden.
It was at this time, at the behest of tourists and travelers, that Afton Villa was first included in the Audubon and Natchez Pilgrimages and it embarked upon its present career.
In the year 1945, Afton Villa, was purchased by the present owners, the Wallace Percys. Mrs. Percy became imbued with the desire to possess Afton Villa when, as a Louisiana State University co-ed, she first entered its portals as a tourist. In renovating the beautiful old mansion, she has not changed the architecture. She purchased as much of the original furniture as she could find, had it restored to its former beauty and magnificence, and placed it in the rooms for which it had been first imported. She also acquired furnishings for the other rooms that might well have been picked by Sue Barrow herself.
History repeats itself— Afton Villa's walls once more resound to awakened notes of laughter and good cheer. It is today both a nationally known show place and a comfortable, livable home. The approval of others brings to the owners and their two daughters, Adelea and Wally, that greater satisfaction that comes only to those who share their treasures.
Afton's spell falls strongly as ever upon those who seek it. Theirs for the asking is the fragrance and romance of a century past. Amid lingering whispers of Spanish Moss and sighs of ageless oaks, come to their ears the muted voices of those who laughed, loved, and died here.
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