An Exercise in Restoration

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San Francisco Plantation House
An exercise in Restoration
Samuel J. Dornsife

San Francisco Plantation Antebellum House

At least two notable places in the United States of America are named San Francisco. One of these is the Louisiana plantation on the east side of the Mississippi river about midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Built in the early 1850s by Edmond Bozonier Marmillion, apparently following one of the destructive levee breaks known locally as ‘crevasses’, San Francisco Plantation House was essentially completed by the time of his death in 1856. [1] Whether the present building occupies the site of an earlier house on the property is not known: but some old foundations do exist beneath the house. Stylistically, at least, the four chimneypieces could have been brought to San Francisco from an earlier house; in fact, their paint sequences start with the same first coats as does the rest of the wood trim in the respective rooms. As built and restored, the plantation house is a curious combination of the old-fashioned and the up-to-date, since the chimneypieces and the floor plan reflect a taste that was outmoded in Louisiana by 1830, while the design of the exterior indicates early recognition of contemporary 1850s fashion.

As is common in the area, the main floor of the house rests on a high brick ground storey which at first included a series of brick piers and at least three enclosed spaces; the dining room [102 on the architectural plans (Nos. 2a and b]: a storage room [108]: and the wine cellar [110]. Evidence indicates that before the house was entirely completed, much more of this storey was enclosed creating rooms 104, 105, 106, 107 and 109.

In the years following Edmond B. Marmillion’s death, the house was occupied by his son, Valsin: his son, Charles: and Valsin’s family which consisted of his wife, Louise von Seybold and three daughters[2]. Charles Bozonier Marmillion served in the Confederate army and was twice a prisoner of war. Antoine Valsin Bozonier Marmillion managed his father’s estate, which is 1856, the year of E.B. Marmillion’s death, included eighty slaves valued at sixty-six thousand dollars. Valsin died in 1871 and Charles, presumed to have been long in poor health, in 1875. Louise Marmillion and her daughters went to Germany to live after she sold the plantation. Research has discovered their burial plot purchased in the 1890s, in a Munich cemetery.

Louise von Seybold Marmillion sold San Francisco plantation to Achille D. Bougere in 1879. The Bougere heirs, in turn, sold the plantation to the Ory family in 1905. The Ory family retained ownership until the plantation became one of a group of land parcels acquired by the Energy Corporation of Louisiana Limited, as the site for a refinery in 1973. The assembled property, including the then nearly completed refinery, was purchased by the Marathon Oil Company in September 1976. The Plantation House is owned by the San Francisco Plantation Foundation and is operated by the River Road Historical Society. During Marmillion, Bougere and Ory ownership, San Francisco plantation remained a viable cane sugar plantation where the crop was not only grown and harvested but also processed.

Although San Francisco had been tenant occupied for many years, the occupants were most sympathetic to the fabric and had endeavored to maintain it to the best of their ability. During the tenancy, the house had been open to the public.

Fortunately, the house suffered no irreparable remodeling during its one hundred and twenty years existence. Modern bath and kitchen equipment had to be removed before restoration. Sometime early on in the house’s history, the screens of doors had been removed from between rooms 201 and 202 and from between rooms 202 and 206. Some of these doors were used when the upper portions of the twin stairwells were enclosed; others had disappeared. The stairwells were reopened and the screens of doors replaced. One staircase had been removed and, traditions says, subsequently given to the husband of an Ory daughter for use in a house in New Orleans. The missing stair was rebuilt using the existing one as a model. In the late nineteenth century areas 101 and 103 were enclosed to provide additional sleeping space. These were reopened during restoration.

Over the years, the original kitchen and many other dependencies had disappeared. Old photographs clearly show a series of one storey building on the down-river side of the house and at first it was thought that one of these might have been the kitchen. Later, evidence of cupboard construction of a service pantry type was found only on the up-river side of the house 104, indicating that most likely the kitchen had been on that side also. However, archaeological work in the grounds to establish locations, sizes and functions of auxiliary buildings has not been done to date.

In the initial phase all wood trim, inside and outside the house, had been carefully checked in a multitude of small areas to learn the sequences of paint layers in each area and to establish the exact colour of each layer. Test scraping on woodwork and walls inside the main floor revealed that, when first built, the woodwork had been painted a pale shade and many of the walls had been covered with wallpaper. After a short period, this wallpaper had been removed and the house was redecorated with five lavishly painted ceilings, considerable strong colour on the walls and much grained and marbled woodwork. The quality of this unusual decoration and the fact that much of it survived, or was salvageable, led to the decision to restore the house to this phase of its existence. Twice immediately preceding the Civil War this plantation had an outstanding sugar crop. Profits from these years could have paid for this extensive and costly redecoration and it has been so dated. Other reasons for pre-1861 dating are the Civil War and its aftermath when financial and political uncertainty produced a continuously declining economy and would have made this sort of expenditure impossible during the later years of Marmillion ownership.

Although this redecoration was done in a time of prosperity, tradition says that upon the completion of the work; Valsin Marmillion commented that he was ‘san frusquins’ or ‘without a red cent’ in the patois of the area. It is from this comment that the later name of the plantation is supposed to have been derived. ‘St.Frusquin’ first appears as the name of the plantation in the annual crop reports of 1860/61; and ‘San Francisco’ first appears in the crop reports of 1879/80.

Tradition also says that the decorative painting in the house had been done by Dominique Canova[4], a fresco painter[5], working in the New Orleans area in the 1840s, 50s, and 60s. Again by tradition, Dominique Canova claimed to have been a nephew of Canova, the sculptor, but there are indications that his name may actually have been Casanova and changed to Canova as a matter of possible profit and prestige. In any case, the restoration painters pointed out that, as indicated by variations in painting technique and brush strokes more than one artist had worked on the decorative painting.

After the decision to restore San Francisco Plantation House to the time of the ornate painted decoration, attempts were made to expose as much as possible of the original work. In some rooms only small areas of graining and marbling were successfully scraped to that level; in others almost all the original was exposed. Room 205 has the original graining and marbling on about seven-eighths of its wood trim. In room 204 about half the original was successfully exposed. In every room at least a small portion of the original graining and/or marbling was not painted over during restoration so that comparison between the original and restored surface can be made at any time. Three frescoed ceilings had been obliterated by over painting. Tradition says that one of these, 203, had been painted with a design incorporating nude human figures that became offensive to the maiden ladies who later lived in the house. This tradition proved to be false as that ceiling design includes no nudes. No mention recalled the other two over painted ceilings, 102 and 204. These remained to be discovered during the archaeologist’s work.

After a variety of trials, it was established that with present technology it was impractical, if not impossible, to remove satisfactorily the over painting from 203 and 204. In these rooms the outline of the fresco design could be seen and drawn with the aid of a strong raking light; so only enough scraping was done to indicate colours. In 102, however, the over painting was removed successfully and the entire original frescoed ceiling exposed for restoration.

The painted door-panels in rooms 203 and 208 had never been obliterated although the stiles and rails had long and frequently been painted over. Stripping to the decorated layer proved to be impossible here also, so only enough scraping was done to establish colour and to provide a trim surface for the new work. Again a raking light provided the means of seeing and tracing the patterns; simple stripes on the door of 208, but rinceau vines and leaves arranged in panels on the doors of 203.

The exterior of San Francisco, restored as near as possible to the original, is a far cry from the common conception of the pre-Civil War white-pillared southern mansion. All the exterior stucco is painted with an ochre-tinted lime wash. The ground floor stucco is scored to simulate stone blocks and these scorings are accentuated with white penciling. Woodwork on the ground floor is a light yellow green with shutters and lattice painted a brilliant cerulean blue. All exterior doors except the pair unto the service yard are grained and varnished.

The wood trim on the main floor exterior is painted a slightly darker light yellow green than that on the ground floor. Star ornaments over the front door are picked out in brilliant yellow. Exterior doors onto the front gallery are grained and varnished and the louvered blinds are painted the same brilliant blue as the ground floor shutters and lattice. On the other side of the hose is a cistern – like a large wooden barrel – placed on a one-storey-high brick foundation and capped with a dome of decided Oriental appearance. The rain water from the roof was collected in these cisterns for drinking and washing purposes as the high water table invariably causes ground water to be contaminated beyond fitness for these purposes. The brick foundation is painted with the same ochre-tinted lime wash as is the stucco on the house proper, while the wooden water container repeats the brilliant blue of the blinds, shutters and lattice.

This brilliant blue has its most dramatic effect on the attic storey where a continuous band of louvered blinds encircles the building in combination with the heavy brackets that support the ‘umbrella’ roof. There is no glazing on this level and these louvered blinds provide an unceasing air circulation through the attic storey – a tempering device of great merit in so extreme a climate. The windows in the central lantern are glazed with coloured glass.

Mrs. Frances Parkinson Keyes used San Francisco plantation house as the setting for her novel ‘Steamboat Gothic’. Artistic license allowed her to place a ballroom in the attic storey. It is a glorious space – very like a Piranesi drawing – but the closely spaced horizontal beams are no more than five and a half feet from the floor; so dancing in this level would never have been possible. It is unfortunate that extremely narrow and steep stairs make this area impossible to show to visitors.

Wall surfaces inside the ground floor are mostly coated with the same ochre-tinted lime wash as is the stucco outside. Woodwork in the dining room, 102, and in room 107, is grained and varnished. The original function of 107 is unknown. It may have been a plantation office although common usage would place the ‘office’ in a building detached from the house itself. It may have been a breakfast room or a smaller and less formal dining room. The grained woodwork would seem to indicate an attempt to ‘dress up’ this room rather more than the other storage rooms on this floor; in 104, 108 110. Lead pipe has been re-installed following these patterns and suitable sinks have been placed beneath the faucets.

The wine cellar, 110, has iron bars fitted into the window embrasures instead of glazed sash. This room contains what are believed to be the only remaining pieces of the original plantation furniture; the wine rack and the bottle-drying table[6].

Room 104 had wood pegs sunk into the walls for the support of China- pantry type cupboards, so china cupboards were installed here at the indicated locations. Since none of the originals remained, the form of these is based on surviving examples in other area houses. The storage room, 108, is divided unequally by a thin partition. The larger area contains faucet and sink as well as two large pottery jars sunk into the earth floor. Similar jars occur in other plantation houses, but exact information as to their function has been lost; the most likely suppositions being that they were used for the storage of eggs in waterglass, olives in brine, or pickled pork. The smaller area has built-in shelves and bins for the storage of staple foodstuffs. All floors on the ground storey are of brick except that of the dining room which appears to have been of red painted stucco. Each has been repaired or replaced following available evidence.

The dining room, 102, is the largest and most nicely finished room on the ground floor. Each of the six glazed double doors is surmounted by a fanlight. All woodwork in the room is grained light oak and varnished. The trompe l`oeil ceiling painting was restored after the overpainting had been carefully removed. This, with its painted mouldings and painted pseudo sunken panels, is the most architectural of the frescoed ceilings in the house. This dining room ceiling and all the ceilings on the main floor are not plastered, but are made of flush cypress boards.

There was no evidence of any original vented heating equipment on the ground floor. Since fireplaces exist only in four rooms on the main floor, the family must have lived very much huddled together in a small area on cold days. All of the wooden chimneypieces evidenced severe charring around the edge of the firebox , indicating that large fires had been kept burning in them for long periods of time.

Although available inventories for the plantation house are obviously incomplete, a billiard table was listed in every one – becoming an ‘old’ billiard table in the latest – but no indication was ever given as to its location in the house. The rear area on the ground floor, 109, was chosen as a likely location and a table and accessories installed there. The twins inside staircases rise from this ‘billiard room’ to the rear gallery on the main floor. Here, as in other area plantations with similar spaces, the treatment is that of as porch or enclosed gallery rather than that of an inside room. The window shades and the floor is covered with a reproduction of a mid-nineteenth century ‘kamptulicon’ or floor cloth. An 1852 Wheeler and Wilson sewing machine is in the room as is one of the cast iron, swivel, spring-rocking chairs made by the American Chair Company of New York and exhibited at the Crystal Palace in 1851.

Every door on the main floor of the house, whether inside or outside, except the main front door, has a transom above it. Normally in this climate one would expect these transoms to be movable to allow for air circulation even though doors were closed. Surprisingly, only one of these transoms had ever been hinged and, even more surprisingly, this one and all the others had been nailed shut since the house was built. The louvered blinds in the attic storey must have done their job of tempering the sun’s heat very well.

Since Charles and Valsin Marmillion shared ownership of the house, the restoration assigned each of them to one of the two larger bedrooms. Charles’ on the up-river side of the house, 209, is furnished with a single sleigh bed, a large wardrobe, a ‘Beau Brummell’, a wash stand and an invalid’s chair along with smaller accessories. The invalid’s chair has a reclining back and a pull-out footrest. The woodwork duplicates the original. The carpet was specially copied from a ‘Velvet Brussels’ carpet of the period and the draperies and bed hangings are made of a specially reproduced toile de jouey, black on natural, with vignettes based on Scott’s ‘Lady of the Lake’.

The down-river rear bedroom, 211, duplicates the graining and wall colour of 209 and contains a typically New Orleans rosewood mid nineteenth-century bedroom suite with a half-tester bed. This is considered as the room occupied by Valsin and his wife. Bed and window hangings are made of a suitable reproduction English chintz of the proper period and the ‘Velvet Brussels’ carpet was specially copies for use in this room. The pot de chambre,c. 1845, here is really a wc as it contains a water tank and a flushing mechanism within the same box-like case as the toilet bowl and the waste receptacle.

Next to this is the boudoir, 208, where the original painted ceiling survived albeit in rather poor condition. The design around the perimeter of the room is of trellis and leaves against sky. In the centre, also against sky, float three putti with a large basket of flowers. The origin of these designs was discovered in a periodical intended for the practicing fresco painter – ‘Manuel de Peintures’ published by A. Morel et Cie in Paris beginning in March 1850. The trellis ceiling appears in March 1859 and the putti with the flat basket of flowers in March 1858. At San Francisco, however, the putti show Negroid facial features and skin colour; a most unusual treatment. As with the ceiling, the floral garlands in the door panels had never been covered and were in poor condition. Ceiling and door panels were restored, as was all other such work in the house, by methods similar to those used in the restoration of an easel painting. The surface was cleaned and stabilized before being coated with varnish. All touch-up and infill was done on top of this varnish. After drying, the completed restoration was again varnished to even the sheen across the area.

The boudoir daybed is one of the finer pieces of New Orleans rosewood furniture in the house. Other pieces in the room include a rosewood Duchesse and a rosewood reading stand, a chaise longue and a goose-neck rocker. The hangings are of blue silk taffeta.

The adjacent cabinet, 207, retains only small areas of original graining and marbling. All had been covered and in this room the overpainting was very resistant to removal. The carpet in the boudoir and cabinet is of standard loop-pile ‘Brussels’ construction. The boudoir one being a custom colour arrangement of a commercially available and suitable pattern while the cabinet floor is covered with a specially commissioned reproduction.

Room 202 is furnished as though it were occupied by Valsin’s children. The graining in this room was the most elaborate in the house. Stiles and rails of the doors and flat portions of the architraves are grained with a strong pattern somewhat like kingwood or zebra wood in a reddish colour; panels of the doors are grained bird’s eye maple; mouldings on doors and architraves, as well as the cornice, are grained curly maple. The bird’s eye panels have a black arabesque design centered in each. Two of these panels are original. A similar arabesque design, in blue rather than black, borders the ceiling and forms a centre medallion. Hangings are of a suitable reproduction chintz and the carpet in this and the adjoining cabinet [205] is copied from one of seven surviving samples of carpets exhibited at the Crystal Palace and now in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

More original graining and marble remains in 205 than in any other room of the house. Woodwork is grained curly and bird’s eye maple; chimneypiece and skirting boards are marbled grey. To duplicate the original, the walls were painted a strong orange and glazed with green in plainly visible brush-strokes or streaks. The outstanding piece of furniture in this room is a Pleyel piano.

The reception area of the house has another specially reproduced loop-pile ‘Brussels’ carpet in paneled pattern. Walls and woodwork in both 202 and 206 are painted a pale sea green as is the woodwork in 201. The walls in 201, the up-river drawing room, are a brilliant light purple and the ceiling and frieze neither of which had been overpainted, are painted with a delightful composition of flowers, birds, jewels and scrolls. Belter-type rosewood furniture is in this room.

Almost every inch of the ceiling and trim of the down-river drawing room is painted with an elaborate combination of designs that defies definition. On the ceiling and frieze, sea-horses and dolphins alternate with leafy vines and Etruscan vases while stags hold in their mouths the tips of garlands that start from female heads painted to represent the seasons. Door-panels repeat the seasonal motif with one solid and one French door painted with motifs representative of each season: spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Stiles and rails of the doors are painted with rinceau vines and leaves against a chocolate ground. Mouldings are picked out in red and blue. The walls are rich gold. Some minor motifs from this assemblage also appear in the available but incomplete file of ‘Manuel de Peintures’.[8]

The hangings in the drawing rooms are made of a green and gold damask or a lighter green taffeta with a brocade stripe. The reception room, 202, has only one piece of furniture; a large round pouf in the centre of the floor. Terracotta copies of Canova’s dancing girls stand on Verde Antique marbled pedestals on either side of the frontis piece.

All windows and bed-hangings throughout the house were copies from surviving examples or from printed designs of the period.

With the exception of that in 203, the lighting fixtures throughout the house were specially made. Illuminating gas had not been introduced to the house until late in the nineteenth century. Although the use of kerosene spread rapidly after the first oil well was drilled at Titusville, Pennsylvania. In late 1859, kerosene and kerosene burning lamps were not universal until after the Civil War. Lard oil fittings of the type most common in the 1840s and 1850s could not be found for purchase, so originals were borrowed to use as moulds for the reproductions. These reproductions were manufactured of cast brass with an ormolu finish.

The Charles x candle chandelier in 203 is an antique of the period and is made of bronze in antique and ormolu finishes.

Antique drapery pole-ends are also found to be very scarce. One pair of a king, and indeed, few of these, seemed to be as much as was available anywhere. The drawing rooms alone needed ten pairs Again, originals were borrowed for reproduction and the firm who did them not only copied the shape and form but also duplicated the original gold-leaf colour in each instance, so that no two patterns are the same colour gold.

While much remains to be done to complete ideally the restoration of the house and grounds, what has been accomplished provides a visual feast for the visitor. San Francisco Plantation House is open to the public every day of the year except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.


[1] The down-river drawing room. 203.

[2]E. B. Marmillion bought the plantation 10 March 1830 for $99,200 from Eilsee Rilleaux, a ‘free man of colour’.

[3] Louise von Seybold’s place of birth is not known. After 1721, so many German families were living along this part of the east bank of the Mississippi that it became known as the ‘German Coast’. Valsin is not listed in the 1850 census and so could not have been living at home at that date. He may have been on a ‘grand tour’ in Europe and met his wife there. This supposition is not documented, but other European trips made by Valsin are.

[4] ‘Domenico’ Canova is documented as working in New York City e. 1830; as teaching art at Jefferson College, La. in the late 1830s and as working in New Orleans after 1840. See the New York Historical Society’s, ‘Dictionary of Artists in America’, Yale University Press, 1969 and ‘A Dictionary of American Artists, Sculptors and Engravers’, William Young, Cambridge, Mass., 1968. New Orleans records document the work he did in the dome of the St. Louis Hotel, the Soule residence on St. Louis Street in the Vieux Carre and St. Alphonsus’ Church. A newspaper article describing the work in St. Alphonsus’ appears in the New Orleans Times for 9 September 1866.

[5] ‘Fresco is used in this article in the nineteenth-century sense – term indicating decorative painting.

[6] Bougere family tradition says that, when they sold to the Ory brothers, they removed the furniture to another house in LaPlace, La. This is confirmed by Ory tradition which says they purchased an empty house from the Bougere family. Unfortunately, fire destroyed the LaPlace house and contents.

[7] The four vignettes in the Toile are identical with ones in the scenic wallpaper ‘La Dame due Lac’ or ‘Vues d’Taose’ by J. Michel Gue’ (1789-1843) and published by Zuber et Cie of Rasheun, Alsace c. 1827.

[8] An octagonal room decorated similarly was in the Robb house in the Garden District of New Orleans before the demolition of that building in the 1950s.