A Pointe Coupee couple spent 50 years gathering French Louisiana material culture and putting it “all together”
By C.E. Richard
Visitors arriving at Maison Chenal might be left a little disoriented. The 18th century Creole cottage in Pointe Coupee is quite unlike the houses we’re accustomed to these days.
Coming out from under the moist shade of low-hanging oaks and into the sun, I stepped through a gate in the jagged cypress pieux fence and hesitated, unsure where I should look to find the front door. Characteristic of Creole architecture, the placement of doors, columns and the chimney were subtly asymmetrical, and even the steps leading up to the porch were off-center—not by mistake, but by design. There was no modern lawn, no front walk directing me to a central entrance. Rather, visitors to Maison Chenal are greeted by a formal garden, laid out in angular beds and interlaced with gravel paths. The beds were all precisely planned, but the wooden planks and privet hedges that bordered them could barely restrain the lush, riotous growth. Here, the sun was bright and hot, steaming off the remainders of that afternoon’s summer downpour, and the air was fragrant with the scents of jasmine, sweet olive and Cherokee rose. I lingered, breathing it in, when the homeowner, Jack Holden, emerged from among the cool brick pillars that raised the cottage high above the ground. After I introduced myself and remarked on his lovely garden, Dr. Holden invited me to follow him up the front steps to the gallery.
“You can appreciate it better from up here,” he said. It was true. From the gallery, the gardens below were striking, a beautifully peculiar blend of orderly cultivation and chaotic increase. Jack’s wife, Pat, greeted us on the porch and led us inside.
“They’re parterre gardens,” she explained. Everything planted there was meticulously modeled after drawings and descriptions of Louisiana parterres found in 18th and 19th century archival documents. European settlers came to Louisiana and planted their gardens to resemble the ones they knew in France, patterned according to a carefully controlled geometry.
“They were designed to be viewed from above,” Pat continued. “Now, that worked perfectly here in Louisiana because all these homes had elevated galleries.”
But Louisiana is not Europe.
“In France, the plants were there simply to enhance the design. But here, the growth of the plants often overpowered the design.” To the Holdens, this juxtaposition of Old World refinement with the rustic wild is what makes Maison Chenal’s gardens an ideal expression of Creole character.
“Creole is not English or American or German or African or French,” Pat said. The term is notoriously difficult to define, even for native Louisianans. “It’s more ‘a la francaise’ than anything else, although it can be parts of each. It’s frontier reality with a French flair. That’s how we live in it."
Living in History’s Midst
Many aspects of the couple’s life at Maison Chenal would seem familiar to Pat’s ancestors, Creole colonists who settled in 18th century New Orleans. Not only have the Holdens assembled what’s arguably the most comprehensive private collection of early Creole artifacts and architecture, but they’ve made their home in its midst, incorporating the objects of 18th and 19th century daily life into their own. More than mere showpieces, the things in their collection remain in use according to their intended purposes, allowing the Holdens extraordinary insights when it comes to understanding and appreciating the way of life enjoyed by early Louisianans.
“It started in a very thoughtful way,” Pat recalled. “We began this project 50 years ago when our third daughter, our last child, was born. We decided we wanted to do something that we could do together. Something we could build our lives around.”
In the 1960s, Pat left her job in social work to care for their children. Jack was busy launching his medical career. But he also possessed the almost obsessive drive of a collector, Pat says, while she was a tenacious researcher by nature. Their shared love for old things animated these character traits and informed their lives together.
“I had a very busy career and active lifestyle, so we would have dates going to Hill Memorial Library at LSU together,” Jack said. There, the young couple would spend their time browsing archival documents and trying to unravel one mystery or another surrounding items they were adding to their collection.
“We read countless inventories, countless narratives about Louisiana and we tried to weave all that material together,” Jack said. It was quite a challenge. Writings about early Louisiana were mostly concerned with politics of the era, current events, agriculture and business; all the big affairs that history textbooks focus on.
“But we were really interested in the objects that people lived with,” Pat said, noting that the more personal aspects of history tend to be overlooked, and studies of Creole material culture are especially scant compared to what’s been done with America’s Anglo colonies on the East Coast.
One of the few scholars devoting attention to the subject at that time was Tulane University’s Sam Wilson (1911-1993), an architecture professor who has been called New Orleans’ “dean of historic preservation.” His accomplishments include rehabilitating the Cabildo, the Ursuline Convent and the Pontalba apartments. At the time, Jack was in New Orleans, completing his residency, when he and Pat signed up for a few evening classes with Professor Wilson. What they learned would direct their own preservation efforts for the next half century.
“An underlying theme of Sam Wilson’s courses was his concept of tout ensemble,” Jack said. “The idea that everything should blend together integrally.” This approach to preservation emphasizes that historic objects should be assembled in relation to each other so that, more than just a collection, they comprise a context.
By way of explanation, Pat is fond of quoting the French writer Antoine de Saint Exupery: “What is valuable is a certain ordering of things; that civilization has to do not just with things, but with the invisible ties that join one thing to another.”
The Holdens find Creole culture so compelling because it’s the product of unique combinations, a retention of Old World identity that was transformed by the conditions of the New World—Louisiana’s landscape, climate and available resources—and by the different settlers encountered here. These evolutions are encoded in their material culture and can be deciphered, the Holdens said, if we devote sufficient time and attention to the small, ordinary things of daily life.
“So it’s more than the objects themselves that we’re interested in,” Pat said. “It’s how they’re connected to the way people lived.”
Understanding the way they lived began with a look at where they lived.
“We said, ‘Let’s find an old house, let’s fix it up and we’ll go from there.’” The couple wanted a very particular kind of historic home, however, quite different from the grand antebellum plantations visited by tourists. “We didn’t want Tara. We didn’t want the big Greek Revival mansion. We wanted the more vernacular, plebian architecture of the people. It was rarer and more proportional. So we started looking for a house.”
In 1974, the Holdens purchased land along Pointe Coupee’s Bayou Chenal, a former channel of the Mississippi River once connected to False River. The next year, they relocated onto that land a Creole cottage, built sometime in the late 18th century and renovated in 1820, and named it Maison Chenal. Once commonplace, Creole cottages have all but vanished from the Louisiana landscape.
The house, which once belonged to Julian Poydras, one of Louisiana’s founding fathers, wasn’t much more than a crumbling ruin when the couple began rehabilitating it. They worked to restore the cottage to its 1820 condition, guided by painstaking historic research in every detail. The Holdens and their children took up residency in the home in the early 1980s, and by then they’d already acquired many of its furnishings.
“We tried to involve our children from the very start,” Pat said. “We would give them certain pieces of furniture that would be their own, or we’d have them help with the restoration of the house.”
Maison Chenal was only the beginning, however. Along with furniture, ceramics, silver, weavings and tools, their collection expanded to include more and more period-specific architecture, such as outdoor kitchens, an overseer’s house, a garconniere cottage, a pigeonnier, and various other historic buildings spread out over 75 acres.
“Some people rescue stray dogs,” Pat joked. “We were the rescuers of threatened buildings.”
Of special note is the LaCour House, an unusually large building that’s counted among the earliest extant structures in the Mississippi Valley. Precise dating of the LaCour House is difficult, but several elements suggest that it was once part of the original military post from Pointe Coupee’s founding. Large enough to feed a small garrison, the salle, or dining room, features long tables that were once in the Ursuline Convent. Today, the Holdens gather their extended family all together there for big holiday dinners.
“Anyone who’s done some historical research knows how exciting it is to find something new that sheds some light,” Jack said. “We really relish those moments. And we’ve had a lot of them.”
The smallest discoveries are no less important to the Holdens than grander finds.
“One of my favorites is the goldfish bowl over there,” Pat said, gesturing to an antique glass globe placed on a table beside a sunny window. It contained two gallons of water and a pair of goldfish. The Holdens acquired it and only later discerned its significance when they happened upon a traveler’s account of his visit to a New Orleans home in the early 19th century. It described a two-gallon glass globe housing two golden carp, imported from France.
“Then later we found this French painting,” Pat said. She showed me a small print that depicted a scene matching exactly what the traveler described and identical to Holden’s arrangement. Getting this goldfish bowl right was important to the Holdens. Apparently a common feature in both French and Creole homes, it’s a small detail, perhaps inconsequential in the eyes of some historians, but even picayune aspects of domestic practice can signify much about our Louisiana forebears.
“Now look at all the information you get from that,” Pat continued excitedly. “You get to know that these Creoles are not just people hacking out an existence on some frontier land—they were, of course—but they also wanted to bring something of that French way of frivolous beauty to it.”
The Holdens’ work is the product of intense passion, combined with dogged research. “You take one element and you pursue it, learn a great deal, and you finally come up with something that puts it all together,” Pat said. Tout ensemble.
To illustrate, Jack recounted the extensive detective work surrounding a curious wooden paddle they’d acquired. Its purpose eluded them.
“It finally dawned on us that it was a peel for an outdoor baking oven,” Jack explained. This led to more questions, particularly about how baking was done in the colonial era—an essential aspect of everyday life. Across Louisiana, they chased rumors of ancient outdoor ovens but found nothing. Made of mud, none survived, making the ovens’ use and operation something of a mystery. So the Holdens set out to ascertain everything they could about the ovens the Creoles used to bake their French bread and galettes. In time they learned enough to construct an accurate replica of their own. Their son-in-law uses it to bake homemade pizzas when the family gets together for special occasions, Jack laughed.
“We don’t want to retreat to the past, or say that the old days were better,” Pat concluded. “It’s just that, as human beings, we need physical reminders to tell us that we’re part of a big continuum of all those people who’ve come before us, and that what they did made a difference as to who we are today. And therefore the big message is that what we do now makes a difference for those who come after us. That’s what we always told the children as we were spending so much time, energy, and money on these old things.” •
C.E. Richard is a writer, filmmaker and English professor at University of Louisiana Lafayette. He wrote Coastal Sketches, a book about the endangered and evolving Louisiana coast and its people, for the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.