WEYANOKE — C.B. and Mary Cleland Owen always knew they would come home to West Feliciana.
After years of living in different parts of the U.S. and in Europe, the Owens purchased Retreat Plantation from a cousin in 2002 and began a restoration under the guidance of two noted preservationists — New Orleans architect Frank Masson and local contractor W.J. Brown, both now deceased.
“We were living in Chicago until 2009,” Mary Cleland Owen said. “We did the home at a very leisurely pace.”
Last year, the Owens completed an addition of a keeping room, modern kitchen and master bedroom and bath, designed by architect Coco Treppendahl with construction by Peggy Gammill, of Gammill Construction.
Those attending St. Francisville’s 44th annual Audubon Pilgrimage on March 20-22 can tour Retreat to see how a nearly 200-year-old plantation home can be adapted to modern living without losing its historical integrity.
The original house is a raised story-and-a-half Anglo-Creole-style structure with two large front rooms and two smaller rooms with an open loggia between the back rooms. A narrow stairway leads from the loggia to an upstairs hallway, which opens to two bedrooms.
The one-story addition is connected to the home through the dining room and the loggia, which became a small library and butler’s pantry.
Years before, the loggia had been closed in by two of Mary Cleland Owen’s female cousins.
“They did the work themselves,” C.B. Owen said with a laugh. “There wasn’t anything they wouldn’t do.”
Local historians originally dated the home to 1823, but the Owens believe it was probably built some 10 years earlier by Stephen Cobb, who lived there with his wife, Sarah Bingamen Cobb, until his death in 1819.
“His estate mentions the building of a dwelling,” Mary Cleland Owen said. “Although the home is different from neighboring Rosebank and Live Oak, it reads earlier than 1823.”
Cobb’s widow later married Capt. Clarence Mulford, who was stationed at Fort Adams in Mississippi, just north of Retreat. He named the property Soldiers’ Retreat.
“Mulford had the distinction of being part of the detachment of men sent from the fort to capture former Vice President Aaron Burr, who was accused of the treasonous act of plotting to secede a portion of the Louisiana Purchase from the United States,” Mary Cleland Owen said. “Burr was captured and tried but found not guilty, although many people feel he was not innocent.”
When Sarah Mulford died in 1859, the house and property as well as other holdings in the parish were sold at auction to Elizabeth Leatherbury Randolph Percy, Mary Cleland Owen’s great-great-grandmother. Family members have lived in the home ever since.
Even though Retreat is on the Tunica Trace, it does not face the road.
“It was built on an old road that went to Pinckneyville,” Mary Cleland Owen said. “Everyone comes to the back, thinking it’s the front.”
“It faces Little Bayou Sara, which surrounds half of the property,” added C.B. Owen.
The front entrance features a wide gallery that overlooks the plantation property, which was originally some 3,000 acres.
Early occupants grew indigo, then sugar cane and finally cotton.
Floors, mantels and a few pieces of furniture, including an armoire in the parlor, are original to the home.
The property is filled with bulbs that bloom all during the year.
“My cousin said that in the ’20s they had a bulb farm up here,” Mary Cleland Owen said.
Working with Ellen Kennon, an expert in historic paint colors, and designer Patrick Tandy, the Owens used colors and fabrics to reflect Retreat’s origins and history. They are in the process of completing a parterre garden designed by Michael Hopping.
The house was almost in original condition when the Owens purchased it, and they have tried to maintain as much of its character as possible in their renovation.
Their “chief cheerleader” and resource for “all things 19th century” is their neighbor and friend David Floyd, director of the LSU Rural Life Museum.
“It is wonderful that the house had hardly been touched over the years,” Mary Cleland Owen said. “We wanted to honor all those generations of the family who lived here.”