We often hear stories in the preservation community about the great victories when buildings are saved. But there are many buildings that aren’t saved, lost to the destructive forces of nature and man, only to live on as a memory. About 30 years ago, a preservation battle was lost in St. James Parish, just downriver from The Cabin Restaurant. Welham Plantation was torn down, only to survive in photographs and the memories of those who were alive to appreciate its majestic beauty. Below is an article written by Hal Ledet in a 1979 and published in the L’Observateur, chronicling the lost battle to save Welham. It truly is a sad story, but one that we can draw lessons from:
In Thursday’s pre-dawn darkness, Marathon Oil Co. bulldozers demolished 144-year-old St. James Parish antebellum Welham Plantation House, thereby ending a three-year effort by preservationists to convert the house into a permanent historical landmark. Welham and 2,300 acres of adjacent land were bought in April 1975 by Marathon Oil, based in Findlay, Ohio.
Marathon razed the structure because “it was in disrepair, it was being trespassed and we felt that it was a fire hazard,” company spokesman Mike Russo said Friday.
Marathon’s move took preservationists by surprise. The company had restored another historic plantation home, San Francisco, at a cost of $2.5 million. “We assumed an obligation to restore San Francisco,” Russo said. “We set up a foundation, and it it being operated by the River Road historical society.”
The Welham plantation home was another matter, he said.
“In the course of a year, it was falling into a state of disrepair, people were constantly trespassing; it was a fire hazard; people were sleeping there and camping out,” he said. “We had an incident where somebody was inside looking at it and fell through the stairs.”
Mrs Sandy McManus, secretary of the River Road Historical Society, said the two-story cypress and brick house was in excellent shape. “I really believe someone could have moved in there tomorrow,” she said. “If we could have gotten that house, it would have taken just a small volunteer team to clean it up and make it usable.”
Russo said no decision has been made on what the land will be used for, but the riverfront property fits into future plans. “There was a decision that the house could not be moved, so we made the decision to demolish,” he said.
St. James Parish Clerk of Court Edmund Kinler said he felt betrayed by Marathon vice president Charles Barre. “They must have started (demolition) about 5 a.m. I thought Barre had given his solemn word it wouldn’t be demolished.” When he heard the bulldozers action, police jury President Paul Keller made hurried phone calls to various state officials including Gov. [Edwin] Edwards, hoping for a last second reprieve. His efforts were too late, Keller said. “By that time, everything was gone.”
The St. James Police Jury in 1976 passed a resolution requesting Marathon to donate the plantation to the River Road Historical Society, but the oil company made no move to do so.
The Louisiana Landmarks Society also was dismayed at the razing of Welham. The society several years ago urged that the house be used as an office or in some capacity to insure its preservation, but got no response, according to Mrs. Martha Robinson of the Landmarks Society.
The land tract upon which Welham sat was once owned by Andre Bernard, who purchased the property on May 4, 1805, almost 174 years to the day when the house was demolished. The exact year in which the house was erected is unclear, according to historical society records, but estimates are that it was built shortly after the 1836 sale to the Welham-Goodbury family.
It was in 1836 that the Welhams mortgaged property to the Citizens Bank of Louisiana to obtain $34,000. “Possibly, this mortgage financed construction of Welham House,” the society says.