NAPOLEONVILLE, La. -- In 1983, Keith Marshall sat in the office of his New Orleans art-supply company pondering an electric bill for his family's country house. The latest statement was $450 higher than ever before.
He knew what that meant. Madewood, the 1846 plantation that Marshall's mother had bought and restored some 20 years earlier, was simply too expensive to keep. There was no way to pay for the massive second house located about 75 miles from the French Quarter.
And then the phone rang.
They say necessity is the mother of invention, but Madewood's transformation into one of the nation's most elegant bed-and-breakfasts seems owed to happy coincidence. The doctor calling Marshall was planning a road trip with his wife and two other couples. The men wanted to go to the Tulane-LSU football game; their wives wanted to stay overnight in a grand plantation house.
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"He asked me if we take paying guests, and of course we never had," Marshall said. "I looked down at the bill, and I quickly divided $450 by three. I told him we charged $150 and that we include a candlelit dinner, brandy in the library, breakfast and a tour of the house. And that's what we've being doing ever since."
The prices have gone up in the 27 years since that call, but not much. The standard double-occupancy runs as much as $289, but prices are lower on weekdays and during off-peak months. That might seem on the high end for a bed-and-breakfast; Madewood isn't any B&B.
Designated a national historic landmark, the 21-room mansion is one of the finest examples of Greek Revival plantation architecture in the South. Its first owner, sugarcane planter Thomas Pugh, ordered architect Henry Howard to design a house that would outshine the homes of Pugh's brothers. Imagine the Parthenon on a bayou, flanked by Spanish moss-bedecked live oaks, and you begin to get the idea.
Several Pughs remain at Madewood, laid to rest in an old cemetery out back. Also on the grounds is Charlet House, an early-19th-century home of a local riverboat captain. It is one of several historic structures that faced demolition until Marshall moved them to Madewood. Charlet House offers three guest rooms -- in addition to five in the big house -- while staff live in the other relocated houses. One building houses a theater where Marshall stages operas from time to time.
Despite its history, Madewood isn't a museum or a pastiche of antebellum life. Unlike nearby plantation houses, visitors aren't kept behind velvet ropes or rushed by hoop-skirted docents from one room to the next. They are welcome to explore on their own, and what they will find is an elegantly furnished home -- not a walk-through diorama.
And they'll find plenty of good conversation that goes along with the Southern social art of visiting, thanks to Madewood's owners.
Marshall is an art historian, classical music writer and Rhodes scholar. His wife, Millie Ball, recently retired after a lengthy career at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, where she spent her last 15 years there as travel editor.
When I asked Marshall if he ever gets sick of hosting a memorable gourmet dinner party for strangers every night, I might as well have asked if he ever tires of breathing.
"My goal is to make Madewood the most fantastic, lovely experience people will ever have," he said.