An Artist and his Mansions

Located on Bayou Teche near Jeanerette in St. Mary Parish, Albania was built between 1837 and 1842. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Imagine owning two Louisiana historic plantation mansions and an 1873 upstate New York mansion overlooking the Hudson Valley. Total square footage of the three properties: about 45,000. To hear artist Hunt Slonem explain it all, there isn’t anything strange about his multiple purchases, he simply has been driven by falling in love with each property in his never ending adventure to create interesting environments for himself. “I didn’t set out on a journey to own so many places,” the internationally renowned artist explains. “It just happened and with each purchase it was as if some mystical force was drawing me to the property.”

A freestanding three story stairway is featured in the center of the floor plan.

By the time Slonem visited Albania Plantation on the banks of Bayou Teche near Jeanerette in 2004, he already owned a grand home in New York state – the 28-room, Second Empire Cordt Mansion. “I had to have Albania the moment I saw it,” he says. The 12,000-square-foot mansion had fallen into disrepair from years of neglect but he could see past the fallen plaster from a leaky roof and the peeling paint on the exterior to what it once had been and could be again. “To me it was beautiful and pure. It was just waiting for me to restore it.”

The broad front porch overlooks a large grove of oak trees.

Built between 1837 and ‘42 by Charles Alexander Grevemberg, a wealthy sugarcane planter who spared no expense to create the three-story mansion in the Greek style built from cypress cut and milled on the property. The home has two distinct façades, one facing Bayou Teche and the second one along what was once called the Spanish Trail. For many years the Grevemberg family lived the good life on the vast plantation that contained its own sugar mill. Grevemberg was killed in 1862 while fighting for the Confederate army at Vicksburg.

Crimson walls, draperies and upholstery create drama in thelibrary.

At one time the plantation tallied 1,507 acres of improved and 5,000 acres of unimproved land. By 1885 the Grevemberg family fell on hard times. Isaac and Samuel Delgado, wealthy New Orleans brothers – sugar planters and bankers – held the mortgage on the property and foreclosed on it. The brothers never lived on the property but they continued the sugar mill operation there.

The large, antique, American-made diningroom table is surrounded by four Gothic chairs (from a collection of180 Gothic chairs owned by the homeowner) while the rest of the chairsare American antiques.

Samuel died first, leaving Isaac as sole owner of Albania. Upon Isaac’s death in 1912, he bequeathed Albania, along with the rest of his estate, to the city of New Orleans. The Delgado name is still well known in New Orleans for the legacy that funded the Delgado Museum of Art (now the New Orleans Museum of Art) and Delgado Community College. The city held Albania until 1957, when it was auctioned off to James and Emily Cyr Bridges who made it a showplace.

Emily was the daughter of Paul Cyr, lieutenant governor under Huey P. Long. She was a much-accomplished woman who flew her own plane and took great care of the plantation. She gave tours and frequently entertained in the restored mansion that she furnished with fine antiques. Her husband died in an accident in 1968. In time, Bridges shut herself away and in her grief she no longer took great interest in maintaining the property. She died in 2003; a year later Slonem turned off Highway 182 past a thick grove of oak trees and caught his first glimpse of Albania. He instantly knew he had to purchase it.

A collection of portraits by Hunt Slonem hangson the wall of the rear sitting room.

“Albania has that wonderful old smell of Louisiana – mildew combined with orange blossoms,” Slonem says with a smile. He has always loved the old mansions of Louisiana since his days as a student at Tulane University where he received a Bachelor of Arts Degree. He says he still cherishes his copy of photographer Clarence John Laughlin’s book Ghosts Along the Mississippi that he acquired after taking a class in architecture taught by Samuel Wilson, a well-known architect and preservationist. “Little did I realize.” Slonem says, “that someday I would own two Louisiana plantations.”

Internationally renowned artistHunt Slonem.

“Strangely enough, I would sometimes dream about owning a plantation and the house of my dreams always looked like Albania.” While taking on the task of restoring and furnishing Albania may have overwhelmed even the staunchest preservationist, Slonem made his second purchase of a Louisiana historic plantation mansion the very next year. “I had the same type of epiphany the first time I saw Lakeside and I didn’t hesitate to purchase it,” he adds. Located in Bachelor about an hour north of Baton Rouge in Pointe Coupee Parish, the 16,000-square-foot mansion was built in 1835.

 Slonem is a very successful artist. His art has solely funded his real estate purchases. With individual canvases selling for as much as $100,000, and paintings that are in the permanent collections of more than 80 museums, including the distinguished Whitney Museum of American Art, The Metropolitan Museum and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, he is considered one of the leading living artists in the world. More than 30 museums have had exhibitions of his work and he has had more than 250 exhibitions at prestigious galleries in the U.S. as well as in Paris, Venice, Madrid, Amsterdam, Oslo, Cologne, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

The bed is credited to William McCracken and belonged tothe Bridges, previous owners of Albania.

Slonem credits his friend Earl “Butch” Bailey with helping him bring Albania to its present state. “I just couldn’t have done without him,” he adds. “He is a close friend who shares my passion for Albania, which we both think is a true historic treasure.” Butch takes care of the plantation’s day-to-day operation, including having been on hand when it was used as a major location for the movie All the Kings Men.

Slonem has filled all of Albania’s rooms with fine furnishings and accessories of the period. His own paintings hang in almost every room, creating an interesting juxtaposition of his contemporary art with grand plantation furnishing of a bygone era. “I think it’s especially interesting that both Albania and Lakeside are not as well known as many other Louisiana plantations,” Slonem says. “To me, they’re two of the finest plantations homes in the state and I find great joy in owning them. Both have provided a new and revitalized inspiration for my work. They have opened a new and wonderful chapter in my life.”