making a move
Hidden from Highland Road by live oaks, pecans and other native trees on an 11-acre site, Chêne Vert is a treasure.
Today, it is a stately example of an 1825 Creole plantation home, yet almost three decades ago, the house was slowly deteriorating as it sat unoccupied for 35 years on land 80 miles from its picturesque present-day Baton Rouge setting.
Cheryl and F. Wayne Stromeyer, serious scholars of Louisiana architecture, had been looking for an authentic old Louisiana house when they found the interesting plantation home, called Live Oak, on the site of a sugar-and-cotton plantation in the Opelousas-Washington area of St. Landry Parish. “We renamed the house ‘Chêne Vert,’ which is the French name for ‘live oak,’ because there were other historic houses called Live Oak in Louisiana,” Cheryl says. “When we first saw the house in 1983, I knew it was what we had envisioned. It was down a long dirt road in a field where cattle grazed. When we ventured inside, we discovered a Creole floor plan, without the center hall of the Anglo houses of the period. It’s an interesting plan where the front galleries and stairways serve in part as hallways.”
It was almost seven years from the first time the Stromeyers saw the house until they were able to work out all of the details to move it across the Atchafalaya swamp and the Mississippi River to Baton Rouge. “It was no small task to move it,” Cheryl recalls. “It took us three days to make the trip.”
Built by Benoit Vanhille, a soldier in Napoleon’s army in the San Domingo Campaign of the early 1800s, the house has been restored as closely as possible to the original while making allowances for modern utilities. “We researched and restored it as authentically as possible,” Cheryl says. “We even used the original hardware or a reproduction of what we found in the house. Then we used Louisiana furniture and decorative art objects, along with American, French and English antiques appropriate to the house and period.”
Although the house is a historic showplace, it’s the magnificent gardens that first greet you.
“The layout is based on an early-19th-century document from the New Orleans Notarial Archives,” Cheryl explains. “It’s a formal parterre garden in the French taste and features plants recovered from the original house site as well as antique roses and other plants from old gardens in the region.”
Gravel paths wind around the formal flower beds that are edged in dwarf yaupon, and a sundial has a place of honor in the center of the garden. The garden is surrounded by a white fence, and arbors covered with antique roses frame two of the five gates that provide access to the garden.
The kitchen in the main house has the essence of historical correctness, but it also embraces all of the 21st century’s conveniences. Of special note is the additional detached kitchen building with laundry facilities behind the main house that is fashioned with late-19th-century construction. It features a fireplace with a brick bake oven that provides for open-hearth cooking in the old manner.
Also on the property is an historic small bousillage (mud-and-moss) house that was originally on the property. Built in 1835, it’s an Acadian-type structure made of cypress that sits on cypress logs, some of which are original. Today it is a guesthouse furnished with Acadian cypress furniture and textiles.
The tout ensemble of Chêne Vert gives it true museum status for all who love historic houses, and yet it is a comfortable home that Cheryl and Wayne enjoy sharing with family, friends and historical groups. “It’s been a labor of love for both of us,” Cheryl says, and then adds with a smile, “and it will always be a work in progress.”