Tuesday, October 19, 2010

BACK IN ”THE BERRY”

As we drove along Main Street for the first time after returning to New Iberia, and I saw the columns of The Shadows on the Teche, a National Trust antebellum mansion, my spirits lifted. Back in the 80’s, my good friend Morris Raphael wrote a biography of Weeks Hall, the man who restored this antebellum mansion and left it to the National Trust so that it would become the town’s principal treasure.

During the 80’s, I reviewed Morris’s book in an issue of “Louisiana History,” and the morning after viewing The Shadows again, I began to read the review about WEEKS HALL; THE MASTER OF THE SHADOWS. I had forgotten that Morris began studying the life of Weeks Hall as a pastime, and the pastime soon became a full-blown passion that resulted in a biography about one of Louisiana’s most colorful characters. Hall spent a lifetime restoring The Shadows-on-the Teche, often living on meager means so that the old mansion would not “fall on hard times.”

To capture the essence of Weeks Hall, Morris interviewed many of Hall’s relatives and friends, including nonagenarian Mrs. Anna Schwing who died before the book was published in 1981. Morris claimed that if he had waited a few months longer to interview people who knew Hall, many of the anecdotes in WEEKS HALL would have been lost, and the book would have failed to be authentic.

WEEKS HALL contains rare photographs of Weeks Hall, his paintings, scenes of The Shadows’ gardens and the old home, as well as family portraits. Morris captures the spirit of a man who “earned for himself the right the right to be called ‘The Master of the Shadows’”. Although many tales still circulate about Hall’s outrageous behavior as a prankster, Morris chose to include only the anecdotes that he could corroborate in the biography.

The white-columned brick plantation home called The Shadows was built between 1831-1834 by David Weeks who had made a fortune in cotton, indigo, and sugar. The Shadows was one of three brick structures built in Classical Revival style with eight columns on the front (an imposing structure when viewed from the street, but it is a narrow home, much smaller than tourists anticipate). Before the home was completed, David Weeks went on a sea voyage to New Haven, Connecticut seeking a physician for an unidentified disease and died while in Connecticut, never having lived in The Shadows. However, his wife, Mary, and her family enjoyed living there until the “late great unpleasantness,” the Civil War, occurred and Mary Weeks died, sequestered in a room on the top story of the old home.

Weeks Hall and his Aunt Pattee, descendants of David Weeks, inherited The Shadows in 1918 and when Aunt Pattee died, Hall became its sole owner. After living abroad for a few years, Hall returned to New Iberia in 1922 and found the old mansion in deplorable condition. Hall was an alcoholic, an eccentric, and a prankster, but he was adamant about the preservation of his mansion. Morris published the remarks Hall made about his restoration efforts in THE MASTER OF THE SHADOWS: “I have lived on this place, attending to it and building it. Nothing in life has meant, or will mean, more to me than this garden on a summer morning before sunrise. At all hours, no place is more tranquil nor more ageless. Its inherent charm to me has been in its placid seclusion from a changing world, and in that will be its value to others. This quality must be preserved…”

THE MASTER OF THE SHADOWS by Morris Raphael remains in print and is a valuable historical document about New Iberia’s most famous property. Several years ago I wrote a novel about Hall entitled SILENCE NEVER BETRAYS, which will probably never see the light of day, but I had fun writing it, and Morris’s book provided a lot of ideas for the fiction piece.

By the way, Morris is the author of at least 13 books and is presently working on a book about Civil War battles and anecdotes about Teche country which should be available in 2011.
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