After a 10-month renovation project, the spruced-up Magnolia Mound Plantation house is reopening June 25 at a Renaissance Soir?e and to the public the following day.
The event will honor Winnie Byrd and Sue Turner, two preservationists who have been involved with the house since it was first saved from the bulldozer in the mid-1960s.
“Saving Magnolia Mound was one of the first projects that the Foundation for Historical Louisiana undertook,” Byrd said. “Evelyn Thom (the foundation president) realized that Magnolia Mound was something we should not lose.”
“It was the beginning of the interest in old things in Baton Rouge,” Turner said.
The home, which dates to the 1790s, is significant for its typical early Louisiana architecture and because it had been owned by members of at least three of Baton Rouge’s most prominent families - the Duplantiers, the Halls and the Harts.
In the 1960s, the plantation house was falling to ruin. Behind a screen of weeds and trees that blocked the view from Nicholson Drive, vandals and neglect had done massive damage.
“This old property had been hidden from the public,” Byrd said.
At the time, it was owned by Anna Belle Hart Anderson, who lived in the Hart House at the back of the property.
“She was determined she was going to find some people to purchase it,” Byrd said.
Her buyer, Al German, a developer from Midland, Texas, purchased the property for a high-rise apartment building.
In a 1999 Advocate interview, Elise Rosenthal, a member of the original board of Magnolia Mound, describes what she called “the Battle of Nicholson Drive.”
“In order to build the apartments, German needed the zoning changed from residential to multipurpose,” Rosenthal said. “Concerned citizens and the fledgling Foundation for Historical Louisiana saved the home by convincing the City Council not to rezone the property.”
The plan was that the city would buy the property and the Foundation for Historical Louisiana would do the restoration. Mayor W.W. Dumas supported the plan, but the city was unable to come up with the money.
As a last resort, BREC, represented by attorney Ashton Stewart, expropriated the property for a park. After much litigation and with funding from a Housing and Urban Development open space grant, the new owners were paid off.
In the years that followed, all sorts of stories have arisen about how the plantation was saved.
“I would like to put an end to the story that I tied myself to a tree or to the end of a bulldozer to save Magnolia Mound,” Turner said with a smile.
It took almost a decade to do the original restoration work and begin the collection of furniture for the home. But finally in April 1975, the home was opened to the public at a soir?e.
“The president of the foundation had come to us and said that it was time to invite the public to see the house,” said Byrd, who was on the Magnolia Mound board, which was chaired by Turner.
Supporters quickly organized a party, sent out invitations and got their friends to do the food and flowers.
“Of all the events Sue and I worked on all these years, that was the most successful,” Byrd said. “We had people begging to come at the last minute. It was wonderful to see the response from the community.”
Byrd and Turner never left Magnolia Mound. They have served on the board and worked with almost every project.
They are honorees and honorary chairwomen of the gala to celebrate the reopening of the historic home.
So much has been done in the 10 months the home has been closed.
“The roof was the main issue,” said Steven Fullen, director of Magnolia Mound Plantation.
With funds from BREC’s 2007 tax renewal, the roof was replaced, the old insulation removed and replaced with modern insulation, the subfloor was repaired and all the rotten or damaged wood replaced.
“We installed a new museum-quality air-conditioning system,” Fullen said.
All of the windows have new copper weatherstripping, and missing or damaged hardware has been replaced.
“We completely redid the painting on the interior and exterior using historic colors as determined by our historic finishes analysis done by George Fore,” Fullen said.
One of the biggest changes to the house was the removal of a 1940s addition that included a kitchen and bathroom. “We turned it back into the 1815 configuration,” Fullen said.
All of the shutters were repaired and rehung. The home was completely rewired, a new sprinkler system was installed and the wallpaper was conserved and repaired.
“We repaired any damaged historic pieces of wood in the house like the over-mantels, which had to be steamed to get the warp out and then put back up,” Fullen said.
Bill Palmer, BREC superintendent, was insistent that the project be done correctly, said Patricia Comeaux, executive director of the Friends of Magnolia Mound Plantation.
Architect Jerry Campbell was project manager for the first part of the project. “We contracted out as much as we could, since so much of what had to be done is specialized,” Fullen said. “The BREC guys did the most they felt comfortable with.”
Responsibility for moving and storing the antiques collection during the restoration fell to Karen Zobrist, chairwoman of the Collections Committee. She was assisted by Babeth Schlegel, museum registrar; Kenny Kleinpeter, chairman of the Friends; Comeaux; and H. Parrott Bacot, who has overseen the museum collection since the 1970s.
“With Babeth’s help, we cataloged everything in the collection,” Zobrist said. “A lot of physical work went on.”
Many of the pieces were sent to New Orleans for six months to be on display at the New Orleans Antiques Forum sponsored by the Historic New Orleans Collection.
“They lined the walls of the lecture room with pieces from our collection,” Bacot said.
Several pieces were sent to the West Baton Rouge Museum. The remainder were put in storage.
Large pieces of furniture were disassembled in sections. “We had 13 armoires,” Zobrist said. “We wanted to be sure all the doors got back on the right armoires. Everything had to be labeled and wrapped separately.”
The Collections Committee worked in teams. Schlegel had every piece in the house on a spreadsheet with miniature photographs for each item.
The small things were packed and stored at the Louisiana State Archives.
Everything will be moved back to the house for the soir?e. And once again the public will be able to visit one of the few remaining late 18th-century Louisiana plantation homes and its fine collection of period furniture and household items.
Gala Chairwoman Mary Boston and her committee have planned a party very similar to the opening soir?e in 1975.
The Magnolia Strings Quartet will provide classical music on the front gallery. Guests will tour the home, sip champagne on the back gallery and enjoy a French buffet and dancing to the music of the Ned Fasullo Orchestra in the cool, tented La Grange pavilion at the back of the property.
And welcoming the crowd, as they did some 36 years ago, will be Winnie Byrd and Sue Turner, who will be recognized as the plantation’s “most dedicated visionaries and stewards.”