In the same family since 1894, this Gothic masterpiece now offers tours

For years, the architectural exuberance of the castlelike structure, surrounded by sugar cane fields along Little Bayou Black, has been looked on with amazement and wonder. Could the interior of the private home on La. 311 hold the same magical charm as its exterior?

Ardoyne, Scottish for “little knoll” due to its setting on Terrebonne Parish’s highest elevation, is now open for public tours, and visitors can see that the inside is just as wondrous.

John Dalton Shaffer, already the third generation of sugar planters in the area as well as a state senator, completed Ardoyne in 1894, having sent his frail wife, Julia, on an extended European stay to restore her health and promising to build her “a little cottage” during her absence.

A magazine image of a castle in Scotland was the inspiration for New Orleans architects W.C. Williams & Bros. Skilled carpenters executed the design during breaks from the sugar cane harvest, with wooden pegs, hand-hammered nails and red cypress and pine cut on the land and sent upriver to be milled in St. Louis.

When Julia Shaffer first beheld the soaring 75-foot tower, bays, arches and fanciful Victorian gingerbread, she was said to have been “a little cross,” but not so much as to keep the couple from producing five children whose descendants reside today in the house considered one of the state’s largest and most elaborate examples of rural Victorian Gothic architecture.

There are 12 fireplaces and 21 rooms lit mostly by original hanging gasoliers, including seven bedrooms, several furnished with Prudent Mallard four-poster beds.

In the dining room, a Duncan Phyfe sideboard and immense cabinets hold china belonging to President Millard Fillmore’s secretary of war, an uncle several times removed.

The enormous entrance doors open onto a 60-foot central hall, with 16-foot ceilings of cove molding, and an immense carved staircase, which retains the original painted treads. Its barge-board walls are papered with hand-stamped wallpapers and hung with priceless artworks, including Audubons, Drysdales and original Gilbert Stuart portraits of family relatives George Washington and his adopted daughter, Nellie Custis.

The octagonal plantation office, where workers were paid in tokens good only at the plantation store, is full of Civil War correspondence, cookbooks dating to the early 1800s, ledgers and important records.

On the screened mosquito porch is half of an early barrel used to ship sugar, still clearly marked with the owner’s name and the 1849 harvest of 360 hogsheads.

There’s even a plantation ghost, Uncle Benny, who stomped around upstairs looking for his well-worn boots until they were relocated to an antique wicker-backed wheelchair downstairs.

The present owner’s grandmother, the late Margaret Shaffer, was “the heart and soul of Ardoyne,” a gifted artist, fine seamstress, inveterate collector and great character fond of colorful language. It’s said she could cuss like a sailor. Examples of her handiwork grace most rooms.

After her death at age 93 in 2007, grandson Lee Shaffer and wife Susan, upon his retirement from the U.S. Air Force, took over Ardoyne, where they live with Lee’s aunt (another Margaret, retired longtime parish librarian) and several of their sons.

Lee is the great-grandson of Ardoyne’s builder John D. Shaffer, and he and Susan both feel strongly about sharing this significant legacy of Terrebonne Parish history.

They have enthusiastically taken on the challenge of bringing a historic home back to life and livability, enhancing plumbing and electricity and climate control, carving comfortable light-filled living space out of a dark upstairs that previously held mountains of broken furniture and thousands of vintage books.

Already visitors from many states and several foreign countries have enjoyed touring the house, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been used in films like “Crazy in Alabama,” “Deadline!” and a Lifetime movie “Tribute.”

The Shaffers plan to host special charitable fundraisers like Easter Eggstravaganzas and Pirate Days on the grounds, plus retreats and receptions, photography and other special events.