New Roads — The 200-year-old LeJeune House in the heart of New Roads brought Randy Harelson home.
Harelson and his partner, Richard Gibbs, had lived for 16 years in Florida, where Harelson, a horticulturist, owned a plant nursery, and Gibbs was Rosemary Beach town architect and vice president of the Rosemary Beach Land Co.
“Generations of my family on both sides lived in Louisiana,” Harelson said. His late mother, Wessie Harelson, had moved from Baton Rouge to Florida near the end of her life.
“When Katrina happened, she and I just missed Louisiana so much that it hurt,” Harelson said. “We felt so much apart from our home.”
Harelson and Gibbs didn’t really expect much when they made their first visit to the LeJeune House, but they loved what they saw.
“The condition was very good,” Harelson said. “That was one of the happy parts about the house. It had never been abandoned. And because it was not abandoned, the maintenance had been done.”
In 2006, they bought the house, the oldest in the city of New Roads, and moved to Louisiana.
The LeJeune House was originally the main house for a plantation, which, with its outbuildings, occupied some 500 acres, most of what is now downtown New Roads. Over time the property was sold off as the town grew up around it. It presently sits on two acres on East Main Street, which runs along False River.
From its architectural details, Gibbs and Harelson are almost positive the house was built in the early 1800s but has been modified over two centuries.
“It is a Creole house with no internal hallways,” Harelson said. “It is brick between posts with bousillage (mud and moss) on the frame walls. The latest it would have been built is by 1820. We are so sure because it is a true Creole house plan.”
One of the most interesting details is that the French doors do not line up between the columns.
“There is no symmetry between the doors,” Harelson said. “It’s fascinating that that should be so unimportant. It shows that the house was not built for show but as a working home.”
All of the lumber in the home was milled by hand.
“We can still see in this house the original building technique,” he said. “It was built without nails.”
The home is said to have been built by Francois Samson, whose father, a French-born Spanish soldier, was dispatched to Pointe Coupee. Samson’s granddaughter married Jean Baptiste LeJeune. At least five generations of LeJeunes lived in the home, which was visited often by a famous cousin, Maj. Gen. John A. Lejeune, commandant of the Marine Corps for whom Camp Lejeune is named.
In typical Creole style, the home was originally two rooms on each floor with galleries on all four sides. Over some 200 years, it was renovated several times, including a major renovation believed to have been done by Francois Avernant, a French carpenter who came to the area in the 1850s. Experts believe that Avernant enclosed the second-floor side and rear galleries to create side rooms.
The original rooms contain some of the finest woodwork in the area including hand-done wraparound mantels. The walls of the main parlor, or salle, located on the second floor, are carved panels in a pattern that carries through in the large, heavy doors.
The ceiling is also divided into molded panels. Beautifully carved wood and glass transoms top the doors and windows.
In the 1880s, 11 LeJeune children lived in the home.
“The roof burned off in the 1880s,” Harelson said. “That’s probably when they thought about using the third floor. They had such a big family.”
One of the sons, Maxime LeJeune, wrote his name in pencil in the attic and carved it in a second-floor window.
In the early 20th century, the lower side and rear galleries were bricked in, a center front staircase was added and two dormers were replaced by one large dormer. Cypress columns were also replaced with heavy brick and concrete columns.
As late as the 1950s, eight unmarried siblings of the fifth generation — Anne, Valentine, Elga, Bernadette, Maxime, Anthony, Rena and Francis LeJeune — occupied the house. In 1978, two surviving brothers sold the house to Mike and Mary Champagne Rollinger.
Gibbs and Harelson are collectors of houses. At 22, while an architecture student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Gibbs bought his first old house, an 1840 Greek Revival.
“It was in the historic district in Providence, and I had to completely rebuild the foundation and first floor with sills and floor joists and floor boards,” said Gibbs, who grew up in Princeton, N.J. “It was a massive amount of work at 22 while I was still in school.”
He worked on the weekends and got help from fellow architecture students during the summers. A year after he graduated, he sold the house for three times what he had paid for it.
“I moved on to the next house,” he said. “In the next five years, I probably did about two houses a year. I kept moving. I lived in the house, restored the house, furnished the house and put it on the market.”
When Harelson and Gibbs met, they each owned a house. They decided to get rid of the two houses and renovate something else. They found an old summer house on one of the points of land that sticks out in Narragansett Bay. Their plan was to do it over and move on to something else, but they ended up staying 14 years.
They later moved to Florida and redid another house in which they lived for eight or 10 years.
Gibbs and Harelson are perfectly at home in New Roads. Harelson completed the text with Brian Costello for “New Roads and Old Rivers,” published by the LSU Press in 2012. The book, with pictures by Richard Sexton, spotlights historic Pointe Coupee.
They have filled their home with furniture from their families as well as Louisiana pieces they have collected over time. There are beautiful sketches done by Gibbs’ mother, who painted in Paris in the 1930s as well as collections of paintings, antique toys and books.
They added a barn, greenhouse and vegetable garden and have planted the property with heritage plants that would have been used in a Louisiana garden in 1850. And they carefully guard the 300-year-old registered live oak known as the Francois Samson Oak that shades the back of the house.