For generations, the antebellum LeBeau Plantation house in Old Arabi was a landmark steeped in history and mystique, drawing those intrigued by its storied past and claims of paranormal activity.
Sometime late Thursday night or early Friday morning, seven men made their way to the home, abandoned for decades and boarded up behind a chain-link fence, and broke in to search for ghosts that are said to haunt it, St. Bernard Parish James Sheriff Pohlmann said Friday.
Shortly after they left, the home was engulfed in flames.
Despite firefighters’ efforts to save it, the 10,000-square-foot mansion was reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble. Its four chimneys and a handful of wooden posts were the only pieces that still stood by the afternoon.
“They were in there looking for ghosts, drinking, smoking dope, and for some reason they made a decision — a conscious decision — before they left to set this building on fire,” Pohlmann said. “St. Bernard lost a part of its history today, and these seven individuals are responsible for that.”
- Dusten Davenport, 31, of Fort Worth, Texas. He was booked with arson and simple burglary and criminal damage over $50,000.
- Joshua Briscoe, 20, of Grand Prairie, Texas. He was booked with arson, simple burglary and criminal damage over $50,000.
- Joseph Landin, 20, of Grand Prairie, Texas. He was booked with arson, simple burglary and criminal damage over $50,000.
- Jerry Hamblen, 17, of Dallas. He was booked with arson, simple burglary and criminal damage over $50,000.
- Joshua Allen, 21, of Grand Prairie, Texas. He was booked with arson, simple burglary and criminal damage over $50,000.
- Kevin Barbe, 20, of Arabi. He was booked with accessory to arson and criminal trespassing.
- Bryon Meek, 29, of Gretna. He was booked with accessory to arson.
Pohlmann said investigators believe the men were working together as door-to-door salesmen in the parish, though he could not say what they sold.
“We are sorting through a lot of information,” he said.
Firefighters responded to the three-alarm blaze just after 2 a.m. They had it under control within about 30 minutes, said St. Bernard Fire Chief Thomas Stone, but were unable to save the vacant building, located near the Domino Sugar plant along the Mississippi River.
“It’s a fire chief’s worst nightmare to have a historical structure burn down,” Stone said. “It was a beautiful building. We had people come out here and start crying. They are devastated by this.”
The first unit that arrived on the scene found the structure engulfed in flames. An additional 25 firefighters were called to the scene, mainly to help with what is called ember patrol.
Embers that floated through the air, almost like a tornado, landed on a nearby vacant home on Friscoville Avenue and ignited the roof, but that fire was quickly extinguished, Stone said.
The Fire Department, Sheriff’s Office, state Fire Marshal’s Office and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are looking into what caused the blaze.
The suspected arson on Friday that destroyed the building was not the first time someone lit a fire that caused extensive damage there.
On June 26, 1986, firefighters spent two hours battling flames that lapped through the roof. Joseph Meraux, who was among the largest landowners in St. Bernard Parish and who bought the property in 1967, restored what the fire damaged, but the work stopped when he died in 1992.
The building, which had essentially been vacant since the 1960s, once again became almost forgotten, though an important part of St. Bernard history.
‘A superb home’
The LeBeau Plantation home was built by Francois Barthelemy LeBeau, a wealthy New Orleans businessman with interests in sugarcane farming, railroads and banking.
LeBeau in the mid-1800s began to purchase the land that would make up his property, said St. Bernard Parish historian Bill Hyland. He bought one parcel in 1850 from the family of Claude Tremé, the founder and namesake of New Orleans’ Faubourg Tremé, and the next year bought another parcel from the Hiligsberg family, who operated a brickyard.
LeBeau had intended to build the home as a weekend retreat, Hyland said, and he spared no expense.
The two-story Greek Revival mansion with a cupola on its roof featured 16 rooms — eight on each floor — separated by a grand hallway that was 13 feet wide and 40 feet long, Hyland said. A spiral staircase on the outside of the home connected the floors, since taxes were higher on homes that had indoor stairs or closets.
Thirteen-foot-high doors allowed access from one room to another. Many of those rooms featured black Egyptian marble mantelpieces and 9-foot-tall mirrors with gold frames and wall-to-wall carpeting that was imported from Europe. Ornamental plaster also was featured in the home.
Wrought-iron hooks in the ceilings allowed for candle-lit crystal chandeliers or oil lamps to be hung to illuminate the rooms.
“It was a symbol of the plantation culture of St. Bernard Parish at its zenith just before the Civil War,” Hyland said. “It was just a superb home when completed.”
For all the care he put into its design, LeBeau never got to enjoy his home. He died at age 48 in 1854, the same year it was completed.
His wife and children remained there and renamed it Eclipse Plantation, which grew oranges and raised cattle. In 1905, the family sold the property to the Friscoville Realty Co., and it became a hotel.
It continued to house guests when the Jai-Alai Realty Co. purchased it and also added a casino, Hyland said. While gambling was illegal in New Orleans, it was not against the law in St. Bernard.
Gun turrets were installed next to the front door during Prohibition, according to a 2003 lecture by Michelle Buuck, who wrote the book “The Historic LeBeau Mansion: A Forgotten Monument.”
The mansion returned to its original use as a home in the 1930s, when members of the Francioni family moved in. They lived there until the late 1950s. Meraux bought the home in 1967.
“The building really captured so much of the history of the region,” Hyland said.
By the 1960s, however, the home had begun to decay and had already been vacant for years. Hyland said Meraux housed a caretaker or two at the home but then, for some reason, asked for the home to be vacated in the 1980s — not too long before the fire in 1986, Hyland noted.
Hyland described Meraux as a good steward of the home. After the fire, he enlisted architects to rebuild the LeBeau mansion and to stabilize it, something Hyland credited with saving it from any further devastation during Hurricane Katrina.
The restoration work came to a halt after Meraux’s death in the early 1990s. It is owned today by the Arlene and Joseph Meraux Foundation, which owns extensive land in St. Bernard Parish as well as buildings in Orleans Parish, including Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop in the French Quarter and the Central Business District building that houses The New Orleans Advocate.
The foundation has been criticized for years for letting the former Iroquois Theater and Karnofsky tailor shop in the 400 block of South Rampart Street to crumble. The buildings each have significant ties to the young Louis Armstrong.
Rita Gue, president of the foundation, said Friday that there were “beautiful dreams and visions” for the LeBeau mansion, but she declined to provide details about any plans.
A brief statement on the foundation’s website said there were “significant investments” made in regard to restoring the building’s structure.
“We have been considering plans for fully restoring the historic plantation,” the statement reads in part.
Gue said the foundation kept the home secure by means of the chain-link fence that surrounded it and the boarded-up doors and windows.
“It’s just a tremendous loss,” she said. “We did everything possible (to secure it). It was just always a problem of people wanting to go (in).”
Trespassing an issue
Pohlmann said that over the years, trespassing and vandalism have been a problem for the property. Some people just wanted to explore the home, while others were fascinated by stories about ghosts.
The most popular tale involves a female ghost in a white dress who is said to float past windows. There are also stories about lights coming on inside, even though electricity has not been connected in decades.
Kids would try to scare each other, claiming that some young people who entered the abandoned building never came out.
Other ghost tales center around mistreated slaves who might haunt the home’s grounds.
“What is a Southern house without a haunting?” Hyland quipped.
But the lure of the unknown is what appears to have been the home’s demise, said Pohlmann, who recalled visiting the property when he was a boy.
“When you’re kids you’re intrigued by those things, especially around Halloween,” the sheriff said. “These individuals, particularly one, seemed to be really fascinated with the prospect of ghosts in that house. And they all claim that’s why they were there.
“In combination with smoking some dope in there, I guess that makes it more intriguing.”
Pohlmann and others declined Friday to put a dollar amount on the loss.
“I don’t think history has a price tag,” he said.