A century after Destrehan Plantation was sold to an oil company and turned into a refinery, a substantial land purchase this month marks a giant step in efforts to reclaim the historic property for the public.
The Destrehan Plantation site in St. Charles Parish tripled in size when the River Road Historical Society, the nonprofit group that now runs the tourist attraction, bought eight acres of land surrounding the antebellum home.
As part of the purchase agreement, another 14 acres of the original site have been promised as a donation to the historical society starting next year, according to a representative from the Azby Fund, which has funneled more than $2 million into the ongoing preservation effort for the plantation.
Nancy Robert, the society's managing director, said the acquisition will facilitate a substantial expansion planned for Destrehan Plantation.
The plantation's master development plan calls for six on-site bed-and-breakfast cottages, a new administrative center and a maintenance building, all scheduled to be finished by 2018.
If all goes as planned, the eventual 26-acre site will also offer expanded parking and a small event rental facility for birthday parties, weddings and the like.
The master plan was finalized four years ago but will be able to come to fruition only because of this year's purchase, Robert said.
"This is a major accomplishment for the River Road Historical Society," she said.
In addition to being one of the oldest remaining homes in the Mississippi River Valley, Destrehan Plantation's main home is considered one of the most historically significant buildings in the River Parishes.
Located near the town of the same name, the landmark property was constructed starting in 1787, when Louisiana was still under Spanish rule. The home is in the traditional French Colonial style, with Greek Revival architectural details that were added later.
The plantation's namesake, Jean Noel Destrehan, bought the land in 1792 and started producing sugarcane when other crops failed. Over time, Destrehan became one of the largest sugarcane producers in the region.
The plantation owner would also become an important political figure after he was sent to Washington to ask Congress for statehood following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
The plantation played a significant role in the area's history of slavery. It was once home to 200 slaves, including some who were executed after a famous slave revolt in 1811.
The plantation would stay in the Destrehan family and its heirs for generations, but in 1915 it was sold to the Mexican Petroleum Corp. Over the next 40 years, the land became an oil refinery, owned by multiple companies.
The refinery closed in 1958, and the plantation house, which had been used as a clubhouse and administrative office, was abandoned.
By 1971, the home had fallen into severe disrepair. Recognizing the need for historic preservation, the oil company that then owned the property, Amoco, donated the Destrehan Plantation house and about four acres of the surrounding land to the River Road Historical Society, according to Robert.
"I don’t know if it would have been saved if it hadn't been given to this society," she said.
Opportunity to expand the tourist attraction first came in 1991 when 14 acres of land were licensed to the historical society by BP, which had bought Amoco. These days, that land is home to the plantation's mule barn, administrative office and two of the planned Creole cottages.
Further expansion, however, had been limited until some of the former plantation land was bought by P&L Investments, a Washington, D.C., company that purchases contaminated properties and turns them into viable commercial venues, according to Michael Liebaert, the managing director of the Azby Fund.
P&L sold the eight acres to the River Road Historical Society on Oct. 6, Liebaert said.
Robert said part of the land will be used for a parking lot. The society's board is also considering developing the land for an RV park and some of the planned Creole cottages.
Altogether, Robert said, the purchase and the land development will cost the society $500,000.
The Azby Foundation, which was started by a Destrehan family descendant, Herbert Harvey Jr., is contributing $350,000 to the project. The historical society is soliciting donations to help fund the remainder.
Liebaert said P&L has promised to donate the 14 acres of land that previously had been licensed by BP; it is slated to get tax benefits in exchange.
He called the forthcoming expansion and the tourism it will attract "vital" to the future of St. Charles Parish.
"The plantation is the biggest tourist attraction in St. Charles Parish," Liebaert said. "There are bigger plantations and prettier plantations, with more furnishings, but you can’t match the history of the Destrehan Plantation."