By Carol Anne Blitzer | The New Orleans Advocate
Time stopped in 1861 in the parlor of Butler Greenwood Plantation, just north of St. Francisville.
Now all of the furnishings of that room, one of the South's best-preserved pre-Civil War parlors, will soon travel to the New Orleans Museum of Art, where they will be reassembled as a permanent period room at the museum.
NOMA's acquisition of the 1861 Rococo Revival parlor includes the original furniture, curtains, carpet and accessories, which have been maintained in pristine condition for 153 years by generations of the plantation's original family. Nothing in the parlor has been changed or modified. It is exactly the way it was originally decorated.
Anne Butler, the seventh generation of her family to live at Butler Greenwood, is downsizing and passing the home to her son, Stewart Hamilton, who will live there with his wife, Laura, and their two sons, John Stewart, 2, and new baby Carter.
Butler wants the next generation to enjoy the home without the burden of maintaining family treasures, but she did not want to disperse the contents of the parlor that had remained intact for a century and a half. Her dream was to find a museum or educational institution to accept responsibility for the room.
"Every generation of this family has loved and appreciated the historic value of the parlor here," she says. "It is not without some sadness that I allow it to move on to a museum setting where its future is assured and where it can receive proper expert curatorship and be shared with the public."
Butler's West Feliciana Parish roots trace to one of the area's earliest English settlers, Dr. Samuel Flower, a Quaker from Pennsylvania who came to the St. Francisville area in the 1770s. When he died in 1813, he left thousands of acres to his eight heirs. His daughter, Harriet, wife of Louisiana Supreme Court Justice George Mathews, received the family residence, originally called Greenwood.
The Mathews lived at the home, which bordered Bayou Sara, and raised indigo, cotton, sugarcane and corn. They were among the state's major planters and slave owners.
"Harriet's husband was away much of the time on court business, so she ran the place by herself," says Butler, Harriet Mathews' great-great-great granddaughter.
After Judge Mathews died in 1836, Harriet Mathews continued to run the plantation assisted by her son, Charles Mathews and his wife, Penelope Stewart.
In the late 1850s, Harriet Mathews "modernized" the home by adding a wing and refurbishing the parlor. She ordered a rosewood parlor set of 10 pieces from the firm of Hubbell and Curtis, of Bridgeport, Conn. From C. Flint and Jones, of New Orleans, she purchased elaborate lambrequins - short draperies that cover the tops of the windows - and fine mirrors. Beautiful tapestry carpeting in the room is believed to have come from Meyer, Hoffman and Company, of Bayou Sara.
"She did all of this when they had the most money and the most people living here," Butler says.
Through the succeeding generations, the contents of the parlor were never divided. It was the intention of the family that the room remain intact.
"This is a family that appreciates history and understands it," says Butler. "Every generation understood that the parlor stays together and was not to be upgraded. This move to the museum is the next step for it."
Even though family members loved and valued the parlor, it was through the efforts of New Orleans attorney Paul Haygood and the Classical Institute of the South, an organization he founded and chairs, that experts discovered the remarkable treasure.
Through the institute, Haygood is working to locate and catalog important 18th and early 19th century furniture and other decorative arts in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. In the summer of 2011, the institute sent two graduate students from the Winterthur Program at the University of Delaware to search for and catalog pre-Civil War furniture and other decorative arts made in or purchased for use in the Deep South.
Butler Greenwood was one of the students' first stops. They mailed photos of the elegantly tasseled and trimmed lambrequins to a textiles expert who was overwhelmed by the condition of the materials. How could these possibly be original?
Butler had documentation including the original invoices, and when the experts saw the textiles and furniture, they confirmed that everything was authentic.
"They all rushed down to look at the parlor," Butler says.
Haygood was thrilled.
"Like so many of us, we knew this as a beautiful old home owned by friends, but none of us realized how significant and unique it was," he says. "It took people from afar to appreciate its astonishingly fine condition."
Hopefully sometime in 2015, visitors will be able to see and study the parlor in its new home. During 2014, experts at NOMA will work with conservators to clean and in some places stabilize the textiles.
"I want to stress that we will take a light touch, as these 150 year-old textiles are in remarkable shape," says Mel Buchanan, RosaMary curator of decorative arts and design at NOMA.
She is excited the parlor is coming to the museum.
"We at NOMA are honored to be a part of the parlor's history. Anne Butler's dedication to her family's story and determination to preserve the physical manifestation of that story has resulted in a special gift for Louisiana," Buchanan says.
Butler will soon move to one of the smaller buildings at Butler Greenwood, which will continue to operate as a bed and breakfast after the main house becomes a private residence no longer open for tours.
"It will be a home again with little children in it," Butler says.