Behind the Scenes of Louisiana’s Houmas House with Kevin Kelly
Houmas House isn’t your average Louisiana plantation home. Nestled midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, it has been voted the ‘Best Historic Mansion’ by USA Today and, with 21 beautifully decorated guestrooms to choose from – each one boasting unique décor – you could even spend the night in this historic spot. We recently caught up with quirky owner Kevin Kelly, and his two dogs Maggie and Sugar Baby, to find out what makes Houmas House so special…
Thanks for having us Kevin! Can you tell us a bit about the house and why you bought it?
I bought the house in 2003, and the journey for the past 14 years has been to restore the house and create venues here where people come to be entertained. It’s sort of like Disneyland for adults – I hate to say that, some people think that’s horrible, but that’s what it is! Kids are welcome, kids enjoy it, they love playing with the dogs and going through the gardens, but it’s really meant to be a place for adults to getaway, relax and forget the rest of the world exists.
What renovations are happening at the moment?
Our amphitheatre section is the new construction project. It’s partially built and work starts again on 15th June (2017), when we also break ground on our new museum, which will be all about life on the Mississippi. So it’s going to be about the commerce, the music and the folklore – meaning Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and that sort of thing.
There’ll be all sorts of exhibits about steamboats as well as life on the river. The river has changed over the years; prior to the Civil War, everything was big and grand and beautiful. Then the war came along and most of these houses were destroyed. We have a collection of paintings that show the plantation homes before and after. The artist who painted these was Minnie Davis, who was the wife of Jefferson Davis – the president of the confederacy – and the collection has never been seen before so this will be quite unique.
The work is set to take about a year and a half to complete. Both the amphitheatre and the museum will officially open at the same time, and the amphitheatre will be able to seat 4,500 people for big, grand concerts.
The house is full of treasures – what’s your favourite piece?
It’s almost always the most recent thing I bought… until another new piece comes in!
There’s a piece in the Oval Room which is a marble statue of a little boy holding a toy train. It’s a small, miniature train, but it’s a sugar train. On the plantations back in about 1880, they put the tracks all over the plantation to move the sugar cane from one part of the property to the steamboats, where it would be loaded to take to a mill. The sugar trains that were at Houmas House were sold in 1955 to Walt Disney – it’s the ones that are in California, the little choo choo trains. A friend of mine found this statue in Italy, and it’s probably my favourite piece right now.
What’s your fondest memory of your time at Houmas House?
There’s so many! I guess the most memorable was the grand opening, when I reopened the house after the renovation and could tell people about how my dogs got married here, as well as showing all the different things you can do. The property is large enough that you could have five major parties going on at the same time and you’d never know.
I also like to take care of the water lilies, so all the water gardens I personally take care of. I love getting in the water and swimming with the fish and maintaining the lilies. It’s just great therapy for me. I may be the owner, but I like doing the dirtiest, messiest job in the pond.
This one day, I was hungry, but really into cutting my water lilies, so I asked someone to ask the chef to send me lunch. I didn’t want to get out of the pond – to eat in the restaurant I’d have to have a bath, change my clothes etc., so I said, just send me my food in the pond. The chef got fancy and thought it was so ridiculous that I wanted to eat in the water that he went and got a big silver serving tray, a vase with a rose, a goblet of wine and a fillet mignon with a baked potato, and brought it to me in the pond. Some people who were just finishing a tour saw this happening and they came up and asked me ‘do you get this every day?’ I said ‘well of course’ and they said ‘my, this is quite something for someone to get every day!’. I replied, ‘well I’m a damn good water lily keeper, and if you want me to do the work you’ll have to serve me properly’. She asked if I have any special talents for this and I just told her that the fish love me – when I’m in the water they’re all nibbling on me – and when my dogs came bounding over to the pond she quickly realised I was the owner! It’s funny how people just get these expectations.
What’s the best thing about Houmas House for first-time visitors?
When you step from our gift shop into our gardens, you immediately get the sound of water because we have fountains and water features all over – we like to say these drown out the sounds of the rest of humanity. For the time you’re on this property, you hear the water, you hear the birds, you’re seeing the beauty of everything, and you just forget that the rest of the world exists… until you get in your car! Then you realise you’re not in heaven anymore.
So many people say to me that they don’t understand how they instantly get this peace when they arrive on the property. I guess that’s how I realised that that’s what we do here. And it’s the sound of the water, I think, that creates that feeling. The trees are 600 years old, many of the plants are over 100 years old, so it’s just a nice little ‘Garden of Eden’ that people can experience.
To me, I’m an architectural buff so I wanted this place for architecture, and I love collecting antiques. Often people think I was buying a Civil War plantation, but to me it’s just a beautiful estate. Some people love the gardens, some people love the architecture and I happen to like both.