Coming home

Landscaper restoring plantation to former glory

­— For years, landscape designer Michael Hopping rented a house on a plantation in West Baton Rouge, but he was always looking for his own “old house.”

“For one reason or another, the houses I attempted to get didn’t happen,” he said. Then one day about 2005, he got a call from a friend who lived in Convent. She told him that a Louisiana Creole-style house in St. James Parish was going on the market.

Even though Hopping said he did not want to move to St. James Parish, he made the hourlong trip to see the house. Immediately he was intrigued by its foundation that was unlike any he had ever seen before.

“When I saw these enormous blocks of cypress supporting the house, that did it,” Hopping said. “Except for the exterior piers around the house, the entire house is supported by stacks of enormous hand-hewn cypress blocks.”

Locals called the one-story frame house Little Texas because it was said that a Texas regiment camped there during the Civil War. “That’s only a rumor,” said Hopping. “I have done a lot of work trying to substantiate that name, and there is nothing about it in the courthouse from the 19th century.”

Hopping said he tried to like the name Little Texas, but he just didn’t. Sometime last year, he decided to rename the house Perique, for a type of tobacco grown in the parish.

Hopping’s Perique, which is one of two featured homes on the sold-out Friends of Magnolia Mound Plantation Petite Antiques Forum, was built sometime between 1835 and 1840 by Wilhelm Schexnayder. During the Civil War, Schexnayder lost the plantation. In 1863, it was purchased at sheriff’s sale by newlyweds Florian and Julie Brignac, who raised 15 children there. “Even though this was a small plantation, it was every bit a plantation as the big ones,” Hopping said. Over the years, the owners grew sugar cane, cotton, perique tobacco and, during the Great Depression, vegetables. It had its own sugar mill and its own cotton gin.

“In 1928, after the Great Flood (of 1927) when they were building the levee system, the house had to be moved back from the river,” Hopping said. “It was rolled on logs and pulled with mules to the present location.”

From 1863 until 2000, the house remained with descendants of the Brignacs until it was sold by the nieces and nephews of the home’s last Brignac descendant, Marie Genre Donadieu, a teacher at the elementary school within walking distance of the home. Donadieu had lived in the home for most of her life.

The house and six acres were purchased by James C. Poche, of New Orleans, who had roots in the area. However, within a few years, Poche put the house on the market.

In 2005, two weeks before Hurricane Katrina, Hopping signed a purchase agreement for the house. Unfortunately the seller’s New Orleans house was destroyed by flooding following the storm, and he and his wife were forced to move into the home Hopping had agreed to purchase. For 15 months, until the sellers bought another house in New Orleans, Hopping waited to see if he was going to get the house. Finally, in November 2006, Hopping took possession of the home and in January 2007 began the restoration.

“The house was in terrible condition, but the best thing about it was that it was all here,” Hopping said. “The basic original home was here and in good condition. I had an engineer look at it, but it did look pretty shabby.”

Hopping calls his restoration a work in progress. He redid the electrical work and plumbing, installed a sprinkler system and added central air and heat.

Working with furniture and decorative arts expert Don Didier, Hopping selected colors for the interior and exterior of the home. The beige color of the interior trim is the home’s original trim color as is a gray used in the exterior. The other colors are typical of those that would have been used on a Creole house of the same period.

The interior rooms are painted with milk paint, a wet application that requires from six to eight coats. New Orleans friend Mercedes Whitecloud taught the process to Hopping’s painters. “She was a general spirit booster,” he said.

Hopping grew up in Oklahoma City and graduated from Oklahoma State University with a degree in horticulture. He came to Baton Rouge in 1971 to attend graduate school at LSU in landscape architecture. After two semesters, he went to work as a landscape designer.

“I fell in love with old Louisiana partially through knowing Mr. (A. Hays) Town and Steele Burden early in my career,” Hopping said. “Both of those men played a real important role in helping me learn about old Louisiana.”

In the early 1990s, Hopping started collecting in hopes that he would one day have an old Louisiana house. He has many collections including fine Louisiana furniture and artwork.

“I can set the table with New Orleans silver, Paris porcelain and old French glassware, and it would be fairly typical of what might have been served in the dining room,” he said. But Hopping said he has to be careful not to make his home “too fancy.”

“A house like this was never a real fancy house,” he said. “I probably have pushed the envelope on that. I have to hold myself back and keep things understated and a little more simple.”

Two or three years ago, Hopping had a chance encounter with a Brignac descendant who had knowledge of the family and the home. The connection came when Hopping’s housekeeper found two of Donadieu’s nieces on the back gallery trying to get a look at what was being done at their family home. They were returning from a visit to the grotto at St. Michael the Archangel in Convent, where they went to pray for one of the women, Lois Ristroph, who was terminally ill.

Hopping later visited Ristroph at her plantation home between Plaquemine and White Castle about a month before she died. “It was miraculous the information she shared with me,” he said. She wrote out the entire Brignac family tree and showed Hopping old photos. She told Hopping that she had been at the home when it was moved back from the river in 1928.

“Her parents feared for her safety, so they locked her on the back gallery, and she rode on the move,” Hopping said with a laugh.

In his career in landscaping, Hopping has designed some of the area’s most elegant gardens, but he’s still thinking about what to do with the landscaping at Perique.

“If this house had had a garden, it would have been very small,” said Hopping, who has a book containing watercolors from the 19th century of many of the River Road plantation homes. The front of his home was very simple with citrus trees and an occasional live oak.

“It was very simple and straight-forward,” he said. “They all had picket fences. The fences were everything.”