Rosedown mansion: The house that time remembered (1964)
A great romantic restoration: The editors proudly present a House & Garden exclusive
After a century and a quarter, Rosedown stands in the Louisiana sun as the triumphant realization of a house that, until now, never was.
It had a beginning not unlike that of a hundred plantations along the fertile lower reaches of the Mississippi. It had a middle period that was, alas, also characteristic — a long, slow, irreversible decline. Suddenly, it has acquired both a present and a future.
Now Rosedown has a complete and valid history. It is the history of a nobly conceived house. It is also the reflection of the several and changing worlds in which it has found itself and of all the people whose lives it touched — or could have touched.
It is, stated simply, the history that might have unfolded if the dreams of 1835 had all come true. Somewhere along the line, the dreams had faded.
Yet when the present owners, Mr. and Mrs. Milton R. Underwood, bought the substance of Rosedown, they also took title, perhaps without at first realizing it, to the old dreams.
Thus, what started seven years ago as a simple restoration has ramified into the dramatic regeneration that is documented on these ten pages.
This is scarcely a typical story, and you may not encounter its like again. But it is for this reason, as much as because Rosedown is so wondrously beautiful, that we present our report.
Welcome to Rosedown
The welcome is immediate and timeless both from the house across the boxwood garden above, and inside the fanlighted entrance hall.
The original stair, of Santo Domingan mahogany, spirals, still firm, creakless, and without a blemish, against the modern duplicate of the early nineteenth-century wallpaper bought in France by William Turnbull and his wife, who built the house. The border and dado are also copies.
The bust of the Turnbulls’ son is a classic conceit in marble. A nineteenth-century English rug embellishes without hiding the original cypress floor planks that are all but unmarked. The 1810 mahogany bench honors no period, but is characteristically at home here.
In the parlor
Just up the river from New Orleans came both the spirit and furniture of Rosedown’s intricately lovely parlor. The red silk velvet, of course, is new, but the tufting reproduces exactly the remnants that clung to the original pieces.
The black marble mantel, like all the others, is original to the house. Porcelains and china, mostly Worcester, Rockingham, Sévres, are replacement choices, all exquisite of their kind.
The Aubusson carpet dates from 1800. Original valances and tiebacks needed only refurbishing. Martha Washington’s own needlework firescreen came to the Turnbulls from Custis kin.
The Rosedown mansion’s music room
With overtones of an older harmony, the music room states its fastidious theme in blue and gold. You turn from the square rosewood piano that Chickering made for the house to face this Regency sofa, a pair of chairs covered in nineteenth-century brocatelle and a fantastic gilded console.
The wallpaper matches the parlor’s and, like it, was copied from an original buried half-a-dozen layers deep. Valances and serge-like wool draperies, also found in the house, needed only to be refitted for these windows.
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The breakfast room
The beginning of any Rosedown day should have been breakfast served here — although there is doubt about the first use to which this room was put. In any case, the wallpaper is a copy of the room’s original one.
The breakfast furniture, from Brighton Pavilion, and bought for the Underwoods in England, is in mint condition, its painted blossoms untouched by time. Surprisingly, the chandelier is wood and crystal.
White silk curtains, gold threaded, from India, are crowned by silk taffeta valances. Regency mirror is surmounted by an eglomisé panel, flanked by Vieux Paris urns celebrating nature’s bounty.
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The main dining room
Hub of the house, and family headquarters, Rosedown’s dining room is centrally located, just behind the relatively small entrance hall. Here, the newlywed Turnbulls entertained.
The last blood kin to live there (there were ten children, eight of them girls), dined, worked, finally broke ranks here. The furniture has always been here (the chairs may be Duncan Phyfe), although part of the table and many chairs needed rebuilding.
The punkah keeps its original frame, but part of the needlework (the eagle followed a design by Audubon who once tutored here) is a replacement. The original mirror reflects one of the two Sully portraits of the Turnbulls. The superb Baccarat crystal was acquired later.
The master bedroom
The original owners of Rosedown slept here in an airy bedroom above the parlor in which a massive rosewood bed is but part of a set made for the room by Mallard of New Orleans.
An apt embellishment to one corner is the Sheraton swan cradle brought from England by Mrs. Underwood.
Chief glories of the room are the four Louis Philippe armchairs and matching side chairs still covered in their original printed velvet. Here, too, the wallpaper is a copy of the original. The bedspread is antique lace.
An almost-presidential bed in The Henry Clay Room
Henry Clay almost slept here because the Gargantuan mahogany bed, teas part of a set made as a gift to him for use in the White House.
After Clay lost the presidency to Polk, the bed was shipped to Rosedown, to remain for a century in the wing built to receive it. When examined after twenty years of disuse and neglect, the whole headboard and one 11-foot post had been hollowed by termites that had come through the floor.
The incredible cornice was gap-toothed, but the tester lining remained salvable. The rejuvenation of the Henry Clay room is a triumph of the new Rosedown’s renaissance.
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The future of the Rosedown mansion gleams in its revitalized past
You could move into Rosedown tomorrow. The miracle of its apparent readiness to rejoin the mainstream of normal living is due not only to its past, but to the way in which vision and practicality brought the past up to date.
When Mr. and Mrs. Milton R. Underwood first acquired the house — almost casually, as it happened — nothing seemed in the wind except an obvious restoration of a near ruin.
Then, in addition to calling in McMillen, Inc., to execute the interior restoration, the owners made several very important strategic decisions.
First, the Underwoods decided to set up an efficient shop on the place, where carefully chosen craftsmen could do the physical restoration work when and as it needed to be done.
Second (and in our experience, this is unique), it was decided that every element of the structure and every object in its inventory of furnishings would be restored, not just in the image of its original condition, but to be just as usable as if it were brand new.
(This means, for instance, that all chairs can be sat on, that drawers can be opened and closed, that shades may be raised and lowered, and books read — even that eggs from the refrigerator can be fried on the electric stove in the kitchen.)
Third, and capping the climax, the functioning house and all its contents are protected by the most modern of air conditioning systems from the blighting effect of the muggy Delta climate. (This climate, as much as economic and social change, hastened the decline of many great Delta plantations.)
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Precise hardware choices to keep in character of the plantation home
The many facets of Rosedown’s regeneration — both as a museum for artifacts and as a mirror for ways of living — are almost impossible to catalogue. They involve such matters as chandeliers, floors, cornices, moldings, leader heads, cupboards, books, clocks, washstands, shutters, fire irons, china, glass, locks and bellpulls, to mention a few. They all fit precisely into the picture.
The upper hall, for example, contains the only original chandelier left in the house. (The others had disappeared over the years and had never been decently replaced, or, in some cases, replaced at all.) The extraordinary grace of the stairway is especially evident from this vantage.
Protective measures for Rosedown Plantation
Scarcely less important to the future preservation of all the love and toil that has gone into Rosedown is the automatic sprinkler system that has been installed in every room and corridor (supplied by a new reservoir on the grounds) and modern electric wiring and lighting installation controlled from a central switchboard under the hall stair.
Every candelabrum and sconce and all the real candles they hold have been wired to simulate candlelight. The effect is so natural that the mechanics of achieving it are likely to go unsuspected.
It need scarcely be added that all the pumps, compressors, signals and alarms that alone can ensure the preservation of this enormously intricate and costly project depend upon a safe and unfailing source of electricity.
(We use the word “safe” because many an old house has burned because of makeshift wiring. Rosedown may have been lucky: except for a single electric wire run in under the dining room window, there was no current in the house until the rebuilding began.) Lightning rods have also been carefully installed.
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For a child, now as always, this small room, handy to the servants’ stair, kept its original wallpaper and its original bed, desk and matching chairs. Whole generations of toys found in the house are being restored for display.
More than rebuilding — re-creating
The recreation of the interiors, which followed the complete rehabilitation of the shell, is what the Rosedown story is primarily about.
The advice of McMillen, Inc., and their help and co-operation were forthcoming in every aspect of the design, selection of furnishings and materials, rehabilitation of all decorative adjuncts from the original purchase that were deemed usable as well as the actual installation of all the furnishings and fixtures.
The original inventories and bills of sale, meticulously kept from the beginning by Mrs. Turnbull as the house was built and furnished, proved invaluable as guides. Coincidentally with the construction and the basic interior work went the restoration of the pieces of furniture selected for re-use.
This is where the new plantation woodworking shop came in. Set up only a few hundred yards from the main house and manned by devoted craftsmen, who often had to invent ways to do things when the established rules proved inadequate, the shop was responsible for all the rebuilding, re-veneering and refinishing of furniture, shutters, moldings, cornices and the like.
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Now a card room, this small apartment (where visiting children could once have gone unheard?) is distinguished especially by the rare Baccarat amber crystal. Four Belter chairs are covered in French velvet, the valance is rose needlepoint, the table cover of printed serge over green velvet.
Restoration or replacement, as needed
Where it was possible or appropriate, original Rosedown pieces were restored, rebuilt or replaced. Where inferior substitutions had been made during the estates declining years, new pieces (new old pieces, that is) were sought the world over and brought to the house.
It is in this particular, Rosedown’s story assumes its unique place among all “restorations.” For the new owners assumed the responsibilities that generations of Turnbull descendants might have assumed over the decades — replacing a worn-out artifact here, adding a fine piece they liked there, bringing the best of accessories, art objects, paintings or silver from travels everywhere.
Had the course of Rosedown run as it was initiated, it would have remained, through the years, the changing, vital, exciting place it is today. And we suspect that the changing aspect of Rosedown will continue — despite the fact that modern science has made feasible preservation of the present establishment for many years to come.
While the Underwoods’ present plan is to open the plantation to the public when the gardens bloom this spring, members of the family will continue to add treasures that appeal to them. We hope it will be so, and that Rosedown’s new day will be a long time waxing.
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Library bookcases of French walnut (there are three of them in all) were made in France for their particular places in this room. On the shelves, the books remain unchanged.
The grounds of Rosedown
Speaking of the gardens, while the plantation as a whole is a working enterprise of great size, the public aspects of the grounds comprise a magnificent but traditional allée of Carolina live oaks (festooned with that hoary member of the pineapple family known as Spanish moss) and two five-acre gardens flanking the allée and house.
Here, enormous camellias well over a century old spread their glossy green and lovely flowers above fields of caladiums. Giant magnolias match the live oaks for magnificence, sweet olives seek sunny clearings.
Amaryllis and achimenes make unlikely but pleasant companions about a latticed gazebo, a boxwood parterre design has emerged before the double galleried facade where the old one had died away. An old pigeonnier draws the visitor’s bemused eve across the new storage pond. All this vital landscape rejuvenation has been in the hands of landscape architect Ralph Gunn since the project’s inception.
To say that the renewal of Rosedown is a labor of love is not enough. It is that, of course, but it is an extraordinary example of the way in which a great house and great times in America can be brought back to fruitful and promising life.
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Black mourning stripes above the classic portico off the library memorialized the death by drowning of one of the two sons in the last generation of the family to live in the house.
North porch detail
No least downspout lacked its richly ornamented leader head, but one of the myriad niceties of architectural detailing.
MORE ABOUT ROSEDOWN MANSION: Louisiana State Parks | National Parks Service