Book Signing: Une Belle Maison

Une Belle Maison: The Lombard Plantation House in New Orleans’s Bywater details the rise, fall, and eventual resurrection of one of America’s finest examples of West Indian Creole architecture and of the entire neighborhood of which it is an anchor. Through meticulous study of archives and archeology, author (and homeowner) Fred Starr presents fascinating insights on how residents of this working plantation actually lived. With concrete evidence the author covers everything from cooking and cuisine to laundering and gardening. 

It is a story about buildings but also about people. Since the pre–Civil War U.S. censuses never listed more than five enslaved persons, all of whom worked in the house, the plantation appears to have depended on hired labor, both African American and Irish. Eventually these groups came to populate the new neighborhood, along with immigrants from Germany, and then by new migrants from the countryside. The successful post-Katrina renewal of this neighborhood, now called Bywater, presents a striking contrast to other parts of New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. In this process, the preservation and restoration of historic architecture—especially of the Lombard plantation house—played a key role. 

Une Belle Maison is profusely illustrated with heretofore unidentified historic photographs and plans, and with color images by master architectural photographer Robert S. Brantley.

Fred Starr will be in New Orleans next week for two book events. He will be signing copies and talking about the book on
Click through for a brief Q&A conversation with Starr were he talks about the history behind the home and the collaborative restoration process.

What is the history behind the plantation house?

The Lombard Plantation was built and occupied by French immigrants through the nineteenth century; it was the seat of a large working plantation and truck farm that employed free African Americans and Irish laborers even before the Civil War.  Its focus changed constantly. For instance, in the nineteenth century alone it was part of the sugar industry, then the hemp industry (which produced nautical ropes), the cattle industry, and finally citrus growing and truck farming.   
Besides the history of the home, what other focus does the book take? 

Through the lens of Lombard Plantation House, I show how historic preservation works and doesn’t work, and how, at its best, it can stimulate urban renewal.  This is exactly what happened in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, where a run-down area is undergoing a revival that has attracted the attention of the Wall Street Journal and other national media. Part of the infamous Ninth Ward, Bywater is thriving, thanks to hundreds of instances of the kind of civic initiative that was involved with the restoration of the Lombard Plantation house.

You are the owner of the Lombard House. What were the steps of the restoration process? 

I purchased this neglected treasure more than two decades ago, and gradually backed into the decision to fully restore it.  When I put down $110,000 for it I was buying only the house, and not even the front yard, which had a cinder block bar on it, or the back, where a decrepit shotgun house had stood since the 1930s, or beyond that, where slums abounded, thanks to the adjacent port. 

Only several decades later could I buy the dooryard or the site where the kitchen house once stood. Eventually, the project called on my experience as a historian and my years spent in the field of archaeology, as well as the skills of agronomists, chemists who could analyze fragments of historic paint, and technicians in many fields. This was a collective effort, with a band of friends uniting to bring back a true gem of American architecture, and one of the great West Indian Creole buildings in North America.

In the course of the work, master photographer Robert Brantley exhumed and identified rare photos of many nearby plantations, the very existence of which had been utterly forgotten.