Poplar Grove is one of the West Side’s fine old plantation homes, housing the furnishings, collections and memories for five generations of the Wilkinson family.
Hidden among the trees just one mile south of the old Mississippi River bridge, the 132-year-old structure was built not as a house, but as the Bankers’ Pavilion for the 1884 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition of New Orleans. It featured separate parlors for ladies and men so the bankers and their families visiting the exposition would have comfortable places to relax during the fair, which ran from December 1884 until June 1885.
In 1886, the galleried pavilion was purchased by Joseph Harris and moved upriver by barge to its current location. Harris never lived in the building, but convinced his cousin Horace Wilkinson to move there to manage Poplar Grove. Wilkinson later purchased the plantation and, with his wife, Julia Merwin, raised three children in the home.
Four generations later, the Wilkinsons’ great-great grandson, Steele Wilkinson Buckholtz, and his wife, Lauren, call Poplar Grove home. Their 23-month-old son, Steele, sleeps in the same room in which his great-great-grandfather was born.
Designed in the Victorian style by noted New Orleans architect Thomas Sully, the home features a blend of Chinese, Italianate, Eastlake and Queen Anne elements to reflect the interests of the period.
“I just love this house because everything in it is a memory,” says Lauren Buckholtz.
The home is being featured on tour in the Friends of Magnolia Mound Plantation’s 16th annual Petite Antiques Forum on Thursday, Jan. 28.
Each Wilkinson generation has left its mark on the stately old home, including the newest family owners who recently updated the kitchen to remove some of the changes made over the years. They also reconfigured the master bathroom, adding a shower and incorporating an old six-foot tub they found under the house.
“We opened up the old kitchen cabinets and took down the ceiling tiles and wall board, and what was there was the original old bead board,” says Lauren Buckholtz. “We made this kitchen look like it would fit in.”
The home has been evolving ever since it came up the river all those years ago.
Shortly after it was moved to the current location, it was raised on brick pilings to about 8 feet because of the possibility of flooding. Fireplaces and chimneys were added, and a cupola on the top was removed sometime in the early years.
As with most river plantation homes, Poplar Grove faces the Mississippi, not the road behind it. It originally had a deep lawn sloping to the levee but because the levee has been moved back several times over the decades, most of the front lawn is now gone.
Family members love to tell stories about the modifications made to the home, including the addition of an old four-room cottage Julia Wilkinson added in the early 1900s. After years of asking her husband to move the cottage to the main house, Julia Wilkinson took matters into her own hands when her husband was out of town. She got all of the workers from the plantation sugar house to raise the cottage on pillars adjacent to the main house. Later, the gallery was enclosed to combine the two structures.
One of the most famous family stories concerns the building of the present River Road, which could have easily come through the middle of the house or in the small area between the house and the levee. It took some southern entertaining and gentle pressure to have the River Road take a westward turn to avoid Poplar Grove.
“My great-grandfather got them to build the road on the other side of the house,” Steele Buckholtz says.
He believes that the center hall in the front part of the house was added after it was moved to its current location.
Although the house is filled with treasures, Lauren and Steele Buckholtz live in every inch.
“We really use this house,” she says. “The baby rides a tricycle through the house.”
She especially loves the garden, which over the years has been lovingly maintained by family members including Steele Buckholtz’s mother, Ann Wilkinson.
“Ann will go through and say, ‘I remember when my grandmother planted this tree or when my mother planted this bush,’” Lauren Buckholtz says.