The plantations of the old South are long gone, but many Southern plantation homes remain. These beautiful homes are architectural marvels, and some are even popular tourist destinations. Yet they also harbor a highly problematic past.
These dwellings gave the wealthy, white Southern families who built them scope to show off their money and influence. They favored the sort of elegant, dramatic architecture that evoked classical styles. Yet the impeccably landscaped grounds and spacious rooms required the endless toil of slaves to maintain. Although the majority of us now reject what our forefathers called “the peculiar institution,” many still crave the look of the Southern plantation home.
This style of architecture is — by definition — marred by troubling and tragic historical events. So, what elements made these vast estates unique? How does their history complicate their beauty?
Here, we’ll break down what you should know about Southern plantation homes and the stories behind them. Keep reading for a peek back in time.
History of Southern Plantation Homes
Plantation homes got their start in the 17th-century Colonial-era South.These large farms produced money-making crops, such as cotton, sugar, indigo, rice, and tobacco. The warm climate and fertile soil of the American South made it easy to grow these cash crops in massive quantities. However, these crops are labor-intensive and required lots of slave labor in order to turn a profit.
Each plantation contained a complex of buildings. The crowning jewel of a plantation complex was the plantation home.
The rest of the complex consisted of all the buildings necessary to keep plantation operations going. This included structures for storing crops and livestock. It also included slave quarters.
Before the Industrial Revolution brought modern farming equipment to the world, large amounts of labor were needed to grow large amounts of crops. Instead of paying farm workers, plantation owners chose to run their farms using the unpaid labor of slaves kidnapped from Africa, and their descendants.
The slave quarters on plantations were rough and inadequate, so few of these buildings survived to the modern day.
In stark contrast, the homes where the plantation owners lived were often a show of decadence and beauty. Many of these buildings still stand, showing an incomplete but striking piece of Southern plantation history.
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The period before the American Civil War when Southern plantation homes were most popular is known as the Antebellum era. In Latin, antebellum means “before the war.”
The main thing that defines this period is the rapid economic growth of the American South, thanks to plantations run by slave labor.
Although these vast estates were settled as early as the 17th century, the Antebellum era refers to the late 18th century until 1861. This is the period between the start of the 13 colonies’ independence from Britain and the beginning of the U.S. Civil War.
When the South lost the Civil War and slavery was made illegal at last, the economic system that depended on slave labor collapsed, and plantations along with it. However, many Southern plantation homes remained as a memory of this troubling era.
Plantation House Features
Not all Southern plantation homes were grandiose mansions. Some started out as practical farmhouses, while others were built to be decadent from the start. As plantation owners made more money, they often added to their homes to make them larger and more imposing.
What features define a plantation house? Let’s take a closer look at the architecture and design of these structures.
Many plantation homes used neoclassical elements inspired by ancient Greece and Rome. In architecture, this period is Greek Revival.
One of the most popular neoclassical elements was pillars in the front of the house. These homes had boxy designs with symmetrical elements. Many houses also used white and natural colors to mimic the look of the stone used in classical architecture.
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Most Southern plantation homes included wide balconies that wrapped all the way around the outside of the house. This was a place for wealthy plantation owners and their families to sit outside while staying in the shade.
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The windows on plantation houses were usually symmetrical, evenly spaced, and large.
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The grand entrances to a plantation house cemented its palatial feel. Large entrances in the front and back were also symmetrical and positioned in the center of the house, to give the balanced look popular in neoclassical design. Pillars typically flanked the front entrance.
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Many Southern plantation homes featured large, landscaped gardens, including bushes manicured into geometric shapes to highlight the house’s symmetry.
Plantation Homes Today
All of these grand design elements stood in shocking contrast to the shacks and villages where slaves lived in bondage.
Many Southern plantation homes have been kept in pristine condition and are now tourist sites. In the past, tours of these homes glossed over the atrocities of slavery, instead focusing on romanticizing the lives of the slave owners who ran the plantations.
Hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed several plantation homes when it hit the South. This led some people to ask: Are plantation homes worth preserving, considering what they stood for?
Plantation houses have an important history. They mark an interesting time in American architecture, but more importantly, they mark a disturbing time in the past that should inform our future.
Today, some people are turning plantation homes into historical sites that offer chances to learn about the tragic legacy of slavery, as well as the excesses of the antebellum South. This makes the value of preserving Southern plantation homes clear.
Would you restore a Southern plantation house? Leave a comment and let us know what you think.
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