Franklin Speaking: The Grevemberg House

As much as Louisiana’s heritage stems from French settlement, there is a significant influence from families of British decent. A sizeable enclave of English families arrived after the Louisiana Purchase, many coming to St. Mary Parish and ultimately founding the town of Carlin’s Landing—later Franklin—in 1811 along Bayou Teche.

The wide and sluggish bayou became the veritable “Main Street” of the Acadian parishes in the sugarcoated days of plantations, thereby sweetening the bank accounts of many Franklinites. By the 1830s, the sprawling, rich homes of Franklin rivaled any ritzy neighborhood in America. Today, the National Register of Historic Places recognizes over 400 locations in Franklin’s Historic District, and presiding as Queen of this cotillion of elegant homes is the Grevemberg House.

Originally erected in 1851 by local attorney Henry C. Wilson, the classic Greek Revival home was purchased by the widow Fannie Wycoff Grevemberg in 1857, from which period it is furnished today. After the dawn of a new century and a few more owners, the house was gutted downstairs to accommodate—of all things—a roller skating rink. Fast forward to the big bad 1950s and 60s, when seemingly the entire country chose not to pay attention to its legacies, and many beautiful places faced bulldozers driven by vainglorious modern architects hoping to out-do Frank Lloyd Wright.

The St. Mary Landmarks Association was created in 1967 to protect the imperiled buildings of the area, specifically the Grevemberg House, which today houses a museum and the association’s office.

“A big motivating factor at the time this house was endangered,” explains Steven Stirling, association activist, “a lot of houses had been destroyed. There was a bit of public outcry which culminated when our 19th-century courthouse was torn down and replaced with a monstrosity.”

Stirling, whose own home was profiled in this magazine a few months ago, works with the association identifying and maintaining historically significant places. One of his comrade-in-armchairs is Paul Fitch, a “diehard collector” and interiors expert who strives to keep the look of the Grevemberg House within a narrow epoch.

“We see a need, then we cast about trying to fill it,” he says. He points with pride to the fact that all the furnishings in the house, or the funds to purchase them, were cultivated locally. When it comes to appointing the home, now museum, “People are very forthcoming and supportive,” Fitch says.

Docent Craig Landry also finds a lot of pride in being a caretaker of the home’s heritage. “When I give a tour, many people say, ‘I wouldn’t want to live in this time, but I would love to visit these people.’”

Lifelong resident Landry obviously enjoys sharing the daily tours he gives of the house he loves. “Sometimes my little opening speech is five minutes, and the tour takes an hour,” he says. “But when people are interested it could take three hours.”

The ardor these men possess for their architectural heritage can inspire others to take an interest. “Sometimes we see something at an auction, like the perfect picture frame, and decide ‘We aren’t leaving without it,’” says Fitch, who has been collecting Louisiana art and artifacts for 25 years. “So we find somebody willing to contribute.”

“I enjoy the opulence,” Landry adds. “There are a lot of opulent homes here. Governor Mike Foster is from Franklin, and when he moved to the residence in Baton Rouge, he was moving down.”

The obvious pride in the work of Stirling and the association shows in the impeccability of the Grevemberg House and the feeling of preservation in Franklin. Fitch sees its importance. “This is a great example of what a community can do when it comes together to do something, and to say something,” he says. “A place like this, we’ve shown, doesn’t have to be inaccessible. These things are relevant to modern life.”

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