Louisiana's antebellum mansions give glimpses of a glorious past. Parlange, The Myrtles, Rosedown, and Catalpa

ALTHOUGH the Golden Age of ``La Louisiane'' was long ago, the period remains one of the great curiosities of the South. More millionaires were said to have settled in Louisiana before the Civil War than anywhere else in the United States, and their life style became legend. But after the war, scores of their plantation houses were destroyed. Many crumbled from lack of care after the emancipation of the slaves, fierce seasonal floods, and the depletion of fortunes.

A surprising number survived, however, and are now occupied by descendants of the original owners or by those who were unable to resist their obvious architectural and historical significance. Each of the surviving mansions tells a different tale. Some are spun magic. Many are sad. A sojourn of splendid rewards awaits the traveler who follows the trail of plantation houses along a 200-mile stretch north from New Orleans, mostly along the Mississippi.

More than 30 houses are open for tours. Their names alone -- Parlange, The Myrtles, Rosedown, Catalpa, and Oak Alley -- are redolent with memories of the South's most opulent times.

St. Francisville, 118 miles north of New Orleans and the hub of the area of antebellum houses, looks like the stage set of a play that closed a long time ago. Pink, blue, and yellow cottages were shuttered on the steamy afternoon I first arrived.

Propinquity House, which takes overnight guests, and Prosperity Street, one of the town's most historic avenues, were as silent as the Grace Episcopal Church's tiny cemetery. My car was the only vehicle at the ferry landing.

One hundred and thirty years ago this dock would have been piled sky high with bales of cotton and lined with bellowing, belching steamboats. Vessels carried away the ``white gold''; others brought costly furniture, wallpapers, silks, and laces from Europe. The best of everything found its way to Louisiana.

From St. Francisville you can easily overnight in one of 18 rooms ($45 to $65) at Asphodel Plantation, where there is a restaurant and dinner-theater in a restored train station.

The Cottage Plantation offers five choice rooms at $60 a couple in the rambling 1795 house as well as in some of its 15 outbuildings. Here, as in most plantation inns, prices include wake-up beverage, sumptuous breakfast, and a tour of the house. The Myrtles (10 rooms, $55 to $75), with its long veranda of lacy grillwork, boasts a 19th-century ghost and is a favorite for those hoping to spot one.

From any of these houses it's a short drive to Catalpa, Glencoe, Afton Villa's Gardens, and Oakley, where John James Audubon tutored and painted parts of his ``Birds of America'' series.

But perhaps the most dazzling gem of St. Francisville is Rosedown Plantation and Gardens. Truly one of the showplaces of the antebellum South, the house, built by Daniel and Martha Turnbull in 1835, became the setting for the smartest balls and the most lavish weekends. After the war Rosedown slowly slid into ruin.

The dying palace was rescued in 1956 by Catherine Fondren Underwood, a horticulturist from Houston. Years of dedication revived its dignity and restored its gardens. The plantation is open daily and well worth the detour.

Unless one has unlimited time, the choices from St. Francisville are rather difficult. The free ferry that scurries back and forth across the Mississippi every half-hour deposits passengers within reasonable distance of such treasures as Parlange and Nottoway. Both are ``musts'' in contrasting ways.

Nottoway, considered the largest plantation house in existence, presides over a sweep of the river at White Castle. The colossal building combines Greek and Italianate styles in its 64 rooms. Designed by Henry Howard, it seems to rise out of nowhere, an incongruous mirage after miles of tiny shotgun cottages and sometimes crumbling shacks.

Although Union troops encamped here and there are mortar holes in the columns from gunboat fire, the house did not suffer great adversity during the Civil War. However, successive owners without enough funds to care for Nottoway spelled its inevitable doom, until builder-restorer Arlin Dease took a look at it.

Today it offers superb accommodations in 10 bedrooms ($75 to $125) and is open for luncheon and daily tours.

Parlange is a different story. Set on the banks of False River, a lake once part of the Mississippi, the 232-year-old house is an example of the French-influenced cottage design. Galleries encircle the second floor. A sharply pitched roof offers relief from summer heat.

Descendants of the founding family still inhabit the house, which is surrounded by 2,000 acres of sugar and cattle grazing land. ``It is part of the original grant given by the French King to the Marquis de Ternant,'' Lucy Parlange, the house's irrepressible mistress, explains. The house is in the midst of a face lifting and even though one has to step around scaffolding and workmen, a tour of this house is a delight. It is open daily for tours only, and Miz Lucy, as she is called, enhances every artifact with a story.

Farther south, but no more than an hour and a half from New Orleans, Houmas House in Burnside represents the ultimate in Greek Revival architecture. Touring this wonderful house, the eerie backdrop for the Bette Davis movie ``Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte,'' is even more rewarding if one stays overnight in the restored slave quarters at nearby Tezcuco Plantation. Although the atmosphere is that of an 1850s raised cottage, most Tezcuco suites and apartments have fireplaces and cooking facilities. Guests are welcome to ride Gen. and Mrs. O. J. Daigle's horses and to use the pool and tennis courts ($65 to $85).

Whether you head to the newly opened Oaklawn Plantation, deep in Cane River country, explore the unrestored phantom of Ashland Belle-H'el`ene near Darrow (where ``Bands of Angels'' and ``The Little Foxes'' were filmed), or stroll under Oak Alley's legendary avenue of entwined live oaks, you'll feel the enigmatic perspective of Louisiana's heritage. Be prepared to be captivated by its arrogance, hopelessly intrigued by its past.

For further information about the houses write to Inquiry Section, Louisiana Office of Tourism, PO Box 94291, Baton Rouge, La. 70804

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