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Design Rediscovered - Ladue News: Design

Design Rediscovered

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Posted: Thursday, December 6, 2012 12:00 pm

What are the odds that a grand plantation in St. Francisville, La., would have St. Louis connections? Well, in this instance, pretty good.

Rosedown Plantation, built in 1835 by Daniel and Martha Turnbull, remained in their family for 120 years—until their last surviving granddaughter, Nina, died in 1955. The house was named after a play that the Turnbulls saw in New York City upon returning from their European honeymoon. The house was built in the Carolina-tidewater style with a formal neoclassical columned façade framing the double front galleries.

Regarding the local connection, it was none other than the New York decorating firm of McMillen Inc. It was owned and operated by native St. Louisian Eleanor McMillen Brown, who was hired to do the restoration for the new owners, Mr. and Mrs. Milton Underwood of Houston, Texas. McMillen Inc. was the leading interior design firm in the country at that time.

Mrs. Underwood was visiting Natchez with her garden club when she heard about Rosedown. Looking through the gates, she fell in love with the property and called her husband, telling him that she found a plantation she wanted to buy. He said, “Buy it.” The next day, she did.

In 1956, Mrs. Underwood undertook a project that would take eight years and more than $10 million to fully restore the home and gardens to their former glory. Her motto was said to be: If there is a better way to do it, do it that way. If you can’t find what you need, have it made.

Brown oversaw but delegated the work to Albert Hadley Jr. and Ethel Smith. (A side note: It was during this project that Hadley made the decision to leave McMillen Inc. following the project’s completion.)

When Nina Turnbull died, she left the property intact as far as contents were concerned, so the first thing Hadley did was have Mrs. Underwood build some outbuildings on the property to put everything in storage during construction. This was in line with Mrs. Underwood, as she was clear that she wanted a restoration—not renovation—for the home. The Underwoods opened the home to the public in 1964.

In the mid-50s, when only the ultra-wealthy were buying period antiques and access to them was often through a decorator, period restorations could be a challenge. In the case of Rosedown, the competition was Boscobel, a home on the Hudson that was being restored by Mrs. Lila Acheson Wallace. At least one shopping excursion for Hadley and Mrs. Underwood was a disappointment, due to Mrs. Wallace having visited the antique shop and spying the perfect period piece first!

The Underwood family owned the property until 1994, when it was sold to a Georgia businessman. In 2000, he sold the home and its contents to the state of Louisiana. The house has been brought back to its former glory and once again open for tours. For more information, visit rosedownplantationhome.com.

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