Monday, June 13, 2011


During a whirlwind visit to New Iberia, Louisiana recently, we lunched with Mike Richard, owner of Rip Van Winkle Gardens at Jefferson Island near Delcambre, Louisiana.  He commissioned me to rewrite and update a book about Rip Van Winkle Gardens (formerly called Live Oak Gardens) which I had written back in 1991.


Mike has reworked the gardens and added a rookery for roseate spoonbills since I last visited the island, and he took us for a ride through the nursery section of the gardens and the rookery where we got a close look at these colorful birds nesting in the trees.  An entrepreneur, Mike owns 250 acres of a thriving nursery, a contracting company, and the Rip Van Winkle Gardens, which includes the Joseph Jefferson house, a treasured tourist attraction of south Louisiana.  He’s also a lively raconteur and host and kept up a running commentary about the island, the gardens, and the old timers who have lived on Jefferson Island for at least five decades. We sat on a glass-enclosed porch of Café Jefferson, which overlooks Lake Peigneur, safe from the 100-degree heat and humidity of a hot June day in south Louisiana, and I enjoyed chicken/sausage gumbo made from a dark roux, a salad, and a crème brulee cheesecake that did serious damage to a diet I’m pursuing.... but I appeased my sweet tooth.


As he has sold out of the copies of the book I wrote about the gardens, Mike says he wants to answer the demand of tourists seeking a new book containing information about the Joseph Jefferson house, the island, and gardens.  I’ll research and add to the material used in the first volume and look forward to working in the Rip Van Winkle Gardens during the cooler months of October.

The Jefferson mansion, an imposing white house that sits on a high hill of Jefferson Island (once known as Orange Island), was built by Joseph Jefferson, the actor who portrayed Rip Van Winkle in 4500 stage performances.  Jefferson had searched for the place to build a house as a winter residence because he was a sun seeker … “thin and quickly chilled,” according to writer Francis Wilson.  Jefferson built the Louisiana mansion as his retreat between theatrical seasons.  He also owned homes at Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts, Hohokus, New Jersey, and other places he sought out for relaxation from a demanding acting career.  A hospitable man, he entertained notable visitorsactors, writers, even President Grover Cleveland, at his island home during the late 19th century.


Although Jefferson Island is referred to as an “island,” this is a misnomer as the property contains mostly intermediate salt marsh and rock salt.  Jefferson’s imposing home sits atop a hill, a white frame, octagonal, two-story building (three levels, counting the cupola) with verandas on three sides and square columns connected by a balustrade of filigree wood on top.  In the center of the roof, a rectangular cupola containing four dormer windows, juts above oak treetops.  This third level of the home, the cupola, houses a studio room which served as the place where Jefferson often painted landscape art.  Light filtered in from a skylight in the ceiling, and Jefferson had a panoramic view of the countryside from this level. 

Visitors to Orange Island had to make the twelve-mile trip from New Iberia, which took five hours, to reach the handsome home, a combination of Moorish, Steamboat Gothic, French, and Southern plantation architectural styles.  My favorite room in the house is the elegant dining room of cathedral Gothic design.  The room has a carved beamed ceiling decorated with Moorish trim and has been refurbished with green silk wallpaper.  Like most of the rooms in the old mansion, it’s filled with light—throughout the house, diamond-shaped window panes let in light, creating an atmosphere of cheerfulness and hospitality.


One of Jefferson’s innovations to the house was the creation of an air well from hallway ceiling to top floor that provided natural cooling.  Hot air escaped through the top of the well and pulled cool air down through the windows of rooms with 12-foot ceilings.  The mansion faced southeasterly to catch southeast winds which drifted into the long hall.  Twelve foot ceilings in all the rooms contributed to the cooling effect.  The 12 x 40 feet hall was flanked by “daytime” and “nighttime” rooms on either side.  Pickled cypress walls in the hall were painted by artists using the faux bois (false wood) process and resemble mahogany.  Jefferson also created a smoking room where wildlife paintings by A. Pope, Jr. decorated the walls and added a library (in 1991, this library contained a display of coins found on the island in 1923 and supported the idea that the pirate Jean Lafitte buried treasure on Jefferson island).  A back parlor boasted three misty scenes painted by Drysdale, the famous Louisiana painter.  Jefferson built a two-room cottage at the rear of the house where he slept because he harbored the superstition that if a man built a home late in life and slept in it, he would die within a year.  Jefferson was 41 when he built the home but the life expectancy of a man was 49 years during the 1800’s!  It is believed that Mrs. Jefferson visited him in the cottage.

This sketchy description is only the tip of the iceberg about the Joseph Jefferson home, and I didn’t tour the gardens while visiting the island, so there’s more to be told.  The book I’ll write in the Fall will give readers a more comprehensive view of this beautiful property.  Meanwhile, you can find guests sitting under slow-moving ceiling fans in white rockers on the long veranda of the Joe Jefferson mansion, perhaps chatting about the gardens they have strolled through and savoring the peaceful ambience of a home known for its hospitality and generous levels of light.

Photograph of dining room from LIVE OAK GARDENS written by Diane Moore,  Acadian House Publishing, Lafayette, Louisiana, 1991.
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