Completed a mere two years before the start of a war that decimated much of the antebellum South, Nottoway Plantation stands as a testimony to the strength of the Southern people. The South’s largest remaining antebellum mansion, Nottoway gazes over the mighty Mississippi River beckoning passersby to grace her halls once again to relive the magnificent splendor of an era gone by.
John Hampden Randolph was a man of great wealth and little humility. At least when it came to his home, that is. When he commissioned the building of the stately home in Iberville Parish, Louisiana, he boldly declared that no expense was to be spared. And why not? Randolph had made a fortune as a cotton planter, but his keen eye for business saw the sweet potential in the growing sugar industry. In 1844, after mortgaging his house and slaves for the loan, he had constructed the very first steam-powered sugar mill in the parish. Fortune seemed to be following him in sugar as it had in cotton, and Randolph was ready to reap (and show off a bit) the benefits of wealth.
The 1,020 acres for Randolph’s dream “castle” was purchased in 1855, and he quickly hired renowned New Orleans architect Henry Howard to begin plans for his grand home on the river. Four years later, Randolph, his wife Emily, and their eleven children moved into the massive 53,000-square-foot home. The house is estimated to have cost Randolph $80,000 to build, and, vain as ever, he burned the plans for the home so that nothing similar could be built to compete with the beauty and grandeur of his beloved Nottoway.
Sparing no expense as he had declared, Nottoway was everything one would expect and more from the vast wealth many planters saw before the War. The three-story home faces east to capture the best view of the mighty Mississippi River flowing nearby. The house was designed in the Greek Revival and Italianate styles, boasting sixty-four rooms and fifteen-and-a-half-foot ceilings. The breathtaking white ballroom was admired by many (as one can imagine, the Randolph family enjoyed entertaining), with its Corinthian columns and hand-cast archways. In addition to the beauty and expanse of the home, it was quite advanced for its time. Nottoway was designed with three modernized bathrooms with running water, and the entire home was lit with gas lighting.
The exterior of the home was as impressive as the amenities it offered inside. With wings flanking either side of the central facade with upper and lower porticos highlighted with ornamental iron railing, the mansion is surrounded by twenty-two square columns. Leading to the second floor, twin granite staircases curve upward to the lower portico. The double staircases were common in pre-War architecture to offer separate entries for men and women as to protect a lady’s virtue as she ascended the staircase.
Although Nottoway was able to escape the harshest realities of the Civil War that consumed and split the nation, the Randolph family was not. The eldest Randolph son, Algernon Sidney, died at the Battle of Vicksburg. Nottoway was spared a disastrous fate when Mrs. Randolph signed her oath to the Union after Northern soldiers fired on their land. One column was hit with grapeshot, but the family was allowed to keep their home.
Following the war, Randolph began to see the signs of the end of an era. With abolition and a struggling Southern economy, he began to sell off parcels of his land that boasted more than 10,000 acres at its peak. Upon his death in 1879, Nottoway sat on less that it had started with, only 800 acres, a sign of a dwindling way of life, no longer supported by the harsh realities of slavery. Ten years after her husband’s death, Nottoway had become too much for Mrs. Randolph to care for, and the grand home sold for $30,000 less than it cost to build.
Over the following century, Nottoway had many an owner walk through its hallways. It is unlikely that any felt as strong of an affection for the home as its original inhabitants, and Nottoway was in need of many repairs before its current owner bought it in 1985. Now a resort where the wealthy go to relax and unwind, it sits not far from the bank of the river, remaining one of the few symbols left of an era that saw great wealth and grandeur unlike any time since.
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