The LeBeau Plantation mansion in Arabi, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, was burned to the ground by a group of thwarted ghost hunters in the early hours of Friday, November 22nd. The house had survived war, fire and hurricanes for 160 years and was one of only two plantation houses in the area still standing. Now all that’s left of it are its four chimneys, still surprisingly straight and uncharred amidst the smoldering ruins, and part of an internal brick wall. It is unrecoverable.
The mansion was built around 1854 by Francios Barthelemy LeBeau, a wealthy businessman from New Orleans, as an elegant weekend retreat overlooking the Mississippi River. It was a lavish Greek Revival mansion with a central cupola and 16 rooms spread over 10,000 square feet. The internal doorways were 13 feet high. Although LeBeau built all but the one central staircase outside to avoid the tax on interior staircases, he spared no expense on decorative features like black Egyptian marble mantelpieces, ornamental plaster, imported European wall-to-wall carpeting and nine-foot mirrors in gilt frames. It was the most ornate plantation on the lower Mississippi.
LeBeau died at the young age of 48 just months after construction on the house was completed. His left the property to his son Louis who along with his mother Christine Sylvanie decided to live in the mansion full-time and make it a working plantation. The site had been used to farm everything from cypresses to rice to indigo, but the soil was too impoverished to grow high intensity crops. Instead, they grew oranges and raised cattle for sale to local markets and slaughterhouses.
It remained in the family until 1905 when it was sold to a realty company who converted it into the Friscoville Hotel. This was not just a nice place to spend the night. It was a hotel, bar and casino, the fanciest gambling establishment of several along the Friscoville Road. New Orleans had outlawed gambling in the city limits of Orleans Parish, and Arabi, once part of Orleans Parish but incorporated as a town in St. Bernard Parish in the 1880s, was ideally located to take advantage of the ousted gambling traffic. You could get there on a New Orleans city streetcar.
It was a rollicking spot during Prohibition, a speakeasy and casino that was regularly raided by police. Gun turrets were installed in closets next to the front door, although there is no record of them ever having been used. In 1928, the mansion and the other Friscoville casinos were raided on the orders of Governor Huey Long and 225 people were arrested.
By the 1930s, it was being used as a private home again. It passed through various hands until it was purchased by real estate entrepreneur Joseph Mereux in 1967. The house was in bad shape by then. Mereux installed caretaker on the site and he restored it after a 1986 fire damaged the cupola and interior, but the overall condition of the mansion was still in decline. After Mereux’s death in 1992, he bequeathed the property to the Mereux Foundation which has been administering it ever since. Calls for preservation led the Foundation to stabilize the house in 2003, a project that doubtless saved the home’s life when Hurricane Katrina struck, devastating St. Bernard Parish.
It came out of the storm in terrible condition, with windows broken and holes in the roof. Already a popular spot for vandals and thrill-seekers who had long heard tales of the old house being haunted by mistreated slaves, a woman in white or mysterious lights in the cupola, the damage from the storm made the mansion a target for looters who stripped the interior of many of its prized features.
Still, as long as it stood, there was hope that it might be revived. The Mereux Foundation, widely criticized for its failure to maintain the historic property (among many other controversies), was said to be considering several restoration plans. Those hopes were dashed Friday.
The men, between the ages of 17 and 31, arrived at the home late Thursday night, likely entering through a gap in the fence around the property that had been cut out by other curious trespassers over the years, according to Col. John Doran, who oversees the Sheriff’s Office’s criminal enforcement.
“They had been looking for ghosts, trying to summon spirits, beating on the floors,” Doran said. […]
Doran said the men appear to have become frustrated when no ghosts materialized. Police believe that in a haze of alcohol and marijuana, one of them decided to burn the place to the ground.
Seven men have been arrested on arson, burglary, criminal damage and trespassing. Dusten Davenport of Fort Worth, Texas, the genius who started stacking wood to punish the house for not being ghostly enough, is the oldest of the group at 31.