In France, an allée refers to a road, or path, flanked by parallel rows of trees, shrubs, statues, or stones. In European landscape design, it is an ancient concept. Visually and emotionally, the allée emphasizes a traveler’s arrival at a specific locale. It indicates a formal approach to a notable place or structure (I use the French term allée instead of alley throughout this blog post).
The allée arrived in Louisiana by way of European immigrants who settled here in the late 1700s and 1800s. In time, German, Creole French, and American planters began to accumulate vast fortunes, dependent on slave labor to cultivate crops of indigo, sugarcane, cotton, and tobacco. Intent on publicizing their wealth to their neighbors, these planter-barons would often landscape the grounds around their opulent plantation homes, planting allées and gardens mimicking formal gardens and parks of Paris, Lyon, and Marseille.
In Louisiana, an allée of magnificent native live oaks (Quercus virginiana) was regarded as a grand display of affluence as well as a sign of older, more established wealth, since the oaks could take decades to mature. On a practical level, an allée of oaks provided shelter and shade for a home. Along the Mississippi River, an allée of trees helped direct cooling breezes toward a plantation house, to reduce the intense heat of Louisiana’s summers.
In my 30+ years of travel across Louisiana in search of historic live oaks, I have photographed 16 mature allées that are still intact. Some are in obvious decline and others are even more magnificent now, in their full maturity. The three oldest of these allées can be dated to the late 1700s and early 1800s. They include:
1) The De la Ronde Oaks (also known as the Versailles Allée of Oaks), were planted in 1783 on the 21st birthday of Pierre Denis De la Ronde in what is today the town of Chalmette. The allée of oaks (about 40 oaks remain) is often misidentified as the Packenham Oaks, after the ill-fated British General Packenham who led British forces and died at the Battle of New Orleans. The allée stretched between the De la Ronde plantation manor (called “Versaille” because of its extraordinary size and beauty for the time) and the Mississippi River. The plantation was one of several plantations that were the site of the Battle of New Orleans in Dec. 1814 and early January 1815.
2) The Audubon Oak Allée (also called the Foucher Allée) was planted by Etienne de Boré, sometime between 1776 and 1800. Etienne and his wife, Marie Marguerite, settled on a plot of land about 5 miles upriver from New Orleans where they began planting indigo around 1776 or 1777 (he changed to growing sugarcane around 1795). The original de Boré allée of oaks, according to historic maps, was much longer than the 28 oaks remaining today. It may have stretched as far as Naiad Street (the current St. Charles Avenue), but part of the land was cleared of its stately live oaks to make way for the buildings housing the Cotton Centennial Exposition of 1884.
According to Diane Weber, grounds director for Audubon Zoo and Park, the de Boré plantation house would have been located where the sea lion pool is now in Audubon Zoo, and the oak allée would have led to it. The George Washington and Martha Washington oaks would have framed the view of the home. Although the George Washington Oak is deceased, the Martha Washington Oak still survives in the rhino habitat area at the zoo.
3) The allée of 28 live oaks at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie was supposedly planted beginning in 1836 during the construction of the manor house (according to the most current research). Oak Alley Foundation researchers believe that the allée was created by moving mature live oaks beginning with the first three pairs of oaks in front of the plantation house. However, this explanation doesn’t account for some of the larger trees growing further from the house in each row of trees. At least three of the oaks are between 28 ft. and 30 ft. in girth, which would indicate a much older oak (my note).
The classic view of its Greek Revival mansion, framed by the quarter-mile-long tunnel of live oak limbs, is so well-known that it has become an “icon,” a symbol. No other allée that I’ve found in Louisiana is planted with such careful attention to the spacing and direction of its trees. The north-south alignment of oaks seems planned to produce dramatic side-lighting both early and late in the day. This elaborate interplay between light and shadow is, in itself, a work of art.