TRAVELING IN STYLE : SHEER GRACE : A VISIT TO MADEWOOD, 'QUEEN OF THE BAYOU'

Hulse is travel editor of The Times.

As is his routine whenever he is in residence at Madewood Plantation, Keith Marshall, impeccably attired, strolls through the antebellum home of an evening, announcing to visitors that dinner is being served. In a scene harking to an opulent life style in pre-Civil War Louisiana, guests gather as shadows dance in the glow of candles and the fragrance of gumbo settles over this exquisite room with its period antiques.

The friendly hum of conversation brings alive Madewood like no other antebellum home between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Known as the "Queen of the Bayou," Madewood is distinguished as a National Historic Landmark and is described as the finest Greek Revival mansion in Louisiana--as well as the friendliest. With its Ionic columns, Madewood was the setting for the film "A Woman Called Moses," starring Cicely Tyson.

Awakening at Madewood is like discovering oneself on a Southern plantation during Louisiana's days of wine and wealth, long before that wealth vanished with the ravages of a war that forever changed the course of American history. Madewood, along with other plantations--some spanning thousands of acres--was the focus of a lavish period for the well-to-do. The mistresses of these magnificent homes hosted teas and receptions, while the masters of these mansions concentrated on the land.

Profits from sugar and cotton were enormous, fortunes that vanished with the close of the war.

Once echoing with the voices of prosperous planters, these noble antebellum homes in later times sheltered only the ghosts of the departed. Ghosts and memories. Lace curtains rotted at the windows. Shutters rattled in breezes pouring off the bayous and the Mississippi.

Although enemy troops had torched the surrounding land, the plantation was spared by a Union general who took pity on a Confederate colonel's widow living at Madewood.

The mansion is renowned as an extraordinary monument to the pre-Civil War South, with caring owners who have transformed it into one of Louisiana's most inviting guest homes. Other antebellum mansions have fared less well. Nottoway and Oak Alley are in need of cosmetic face lifts. And nearby Ashland Belle Helene is a tragic ghost, shutters peeling, stucco crumbling, floors rotted through, a once-proud mansion that stands empty, vandalized, its veranda festooned with bee nests, each of its ancient, untrimmed oaks dripping with Spanish moss, looking like the hoary figures of a bent old man.

adewood was fortunate in that Naomi Marshall, art patron and spirited mover of New Orleans' cultural events, was struck by the mansion's derelict condition. Although she has never lived at Madewood, Marshall poured energy and a fortune into the transformation of the old home. With a son, Keith, she restored a relic that had been abandoned to the elements, its wallpaper stained, its window sills rotting, its floors decaying, its plaster peeling, its attic crawling with rodents.

Naomi Marshall's late husband didn't share his wife's enthusiasm, insisting that he had "never seen anyone work so hard to lose money," alluding to the idea that Madewood, which she bought in 1965, was a nuisance and a burden that would drain the family fortune. Undaunted, Naomi Marshall and her 41-year-old son replumbed, rewired, reroofed and repainted Madewood until today it stands as a classic example of a plantation home from the South's golden days.

Its polished floors shone brilliantly one recent afternoon as housekeeper Thelma Parker led guests on a tour of the parlor, dining room, library and ballroom, pointing out Madewood's marble fireplaces, a set of 18th-Century Meisen, an antique piano and organ, along with other priceless pieces gathered by Keith Marshall during his student days as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.

Unlike other antebellum mansions with their roped-off rooms and ghostly reminders of a period lost in the cobwebs of time, Madewood is alive with soul and laughter and hospitality provided by Keith Marshall and his wife, Millie, who were married at Madewood in a garden ceremony performed beneath an ancient oak named for Millie's grandmother, a ceremony attended by hundreds of relatives and friends. Millie Ball Marshall, a writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, described her magic day in an article for her newspaper:

"It was without a doubt a grand wedding, and when the groom hugged the bride after the ceremony, the guests burst into applause. Later, candles set in paper bags illuminated the scene and gospel singers standing under a drooping oak sang spirituals. Wearing a Victorian dress, I danced to 1940s tunes played by the New Leviathen Oriental Fox Trot Orchestra."

Millie recalls how guests tapped their feet to the music while waiting for helpings of jambalaya. It was a day that shed its magic in shadows cast by the great white mansion and the spread of oaks.

Although less than two hours by car from New Orleans, Madewood is a lifetime removed from the manifestations of that city. Madewood rises on a 20-acre estate near Napoleonville, facing Bayou Lafourche and with the Mississippi River flowing not far away. Its grounds are impeccable, its service without fault. Morning arrives with a soft knock on the door and a pot of coffee delivered by Thelma Parker, Clem Thomas or Jean-Marie Richard, who do turns as chef, manager and tour guides.

One arrives at Madewood as one would to a friend's home, without the formality of registering at a reception desk. Nor is it overrun with strangers, although small group tours are conducted. Before dinner, guests join their host and hostess for wine and cheese and conversation that hums throughout the old mansion.

While visiting one afternoon with the Marshalls on Madewood's screened porch, we watched clouds gather and the sky darken. Lightning flashed across the heavens and the earth shook with thunder as daylight turned to dusk. Just as quickly the skies cleared, leaving only wisps of cloud against an incredibly blue Louisiana sky.

At Madewood, a handsome walnut staircase leads to guest rooms, one with a four-poster and a Persian carpet, a full-length teardrop mirror, ancient armoires and fresh flowers. Windows frame sugar cane fields that flow to the horizon, and other rooms feature twin brass beds from the Ursuline Convent in New Orleans, iron and half testers with feather pillows and down comforters, cabinets crowded with books and magazines, and walls that are lined with scenes of the early South. Meanwhile, other visitors retreat to a couple of 19th-Century cottages sheltered by Madewood's magnificent oaks.

Keith and Millie Marshall became innkeepers on impulse while paying bills a few years ago. A caller inquired if they could accommodate three couples. Studying the check he'd just written for a $450 electric bill, Keith said yes, of course. How much, the caller asked? Dividing the electric bill by three, Keith came up with a figure of $150 per couple, a rate that remains unchanged today.

Besides accommodations, the price includes breakfast and dinner, wine and cheese parties and a belt of brandy at bedtime, making Madewood one of the South's outstanding bargains. At dinner- time, Thelma Palmer delivers platters of chicken and shrimp pie, gumbo, pumpkin, greens, corn bread, salad and bread pudding. Breakfast is a symphony of ham, sausage, eggs, grits, biscuits and fruit.

Of a lazy afternoon, guests rock contentedly on the veranda while sipping mint juleps and lemonade and studying the cane fields that sweep for miles.

Inside this mansion with its splendors of a past generation, a sense of well-being reaches out like the sweet scent of jasmine. Visitors are impressed by a staff that swings into action at the slightest urging, a flashback to the heady days of the South's prewar wealth.

Once, nearby Bayou Lafourche was navigable for steamboats cruising the Mississippi. Showboats plied its waters as well, and the happy melody of calliopes drew huge crowds. Slowly, though, the bayou narrowed, and during the postwar years Madewood went through a succession of owners. Finally abandoned, the mansion stood empty for nearly 20 years until Naomi Marshall took it upon herself to restore it to its original splendor.

As Madewood came to life it became the scene of summer concerts, ballet on the lawn, symphonies under the oaks and gospel singers who performed in the little cemetery where the mansion's first family rests.

Naomi Marshall recalls how during the holidays Chester Freeman, a handyman and deacon in the plantation church, recited the story of the birth of the Saviour with such simple devotion that "guests were in tears." Then the beloved Freeman died. Without him, Marshall confesses, Madewood isn't quite the same at Christmastime, although there remains a night of caroling and a roaring fire in an open hearth, twigs of holly and magnolia branches tied with red ribbon.

Guests are served cups of wassail, and after dinner the choir retires to the staircase to sing "Silent Night." In the ballroom and parlor huge Scotch pines, decorated with hand-crocheted ornaments, stretch floor-to-ceiling. Christmas at Madewood is special indeed.

To hear Millie Ball Marshall tell it, operating a plantation guest home is hard work. "Everyone pictures my husband Keith and me sitting in white rockers on the balcony, sipping mint juleps. They envision me whooshing down the grand stairway in a long dress and rustling crinolines, chattering to elegantly-dressed guests." On the contrary, Millie insists that she and Keith are on the run almost constantly.

Those who have slept in Madewood's four-posters and half-testers arrive from such far-flung destinations as Britain, Denmark, Sweden, France and India. Queen Elizabeth's first cousin was a guest. "Sometimes it's like a house party," says Millie, whose mother-in-law, Naomi Marshall, "gives thanks to the Lord for giving us the opportunity to renovate Madewood." Naomi Marshall smiles reflectively. "Madewood," she says softly, "is only in our care. We never really own anything in life, you know."

No telephones, no TV, peaceful moments and the fragrance of new-mown grass. This is Madewood. Dating from 1864, it is a masterpiece of understated elegance, with windows that frame the oaks and mists that rise from the bayous. And always there is a pervading cheerfulness that provides guests with a sense of well-being and a feeling of never having left home . . . or perhaps pleased that one did.

To visit Madewood: The mansion faces Louisiana 308, 75 miles northwest of New Orleans on Bayou Lafourche and 21 miles north of Thibodaux. From New Orleans, take Interstate 10 toward Baton Rouge, leave the expressway at Exit 182 and cross the Sunshine Bridge to Napoleonville. For other details, write to Madewood, Route 2, Box 478, Napoleonville, La. 70390.

As Madewood came to life it became the scene of summer concerts, ballet on the lawn, symphonies under the oaks and gospel singers who performed in in the little cemetery where the mansion's first family rests

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