As seen on Country Roads Magazine
Written by: Mary Ann Sternberg
Marion Rundell is a successful Houston pathologist and a native of Pineville, who had a dream: he wanted to give back to Louisiana by rescuing a historic property and sharing it with the public. His chance came in December 2007, when Bocage Plantation on the River Road near Darrow went up for auction.
I’ve driven past Bocage for years, usually slowing down to admire the white square house with simple, elegant lines, neat columns and a delicate gallery. Despite creeping dereliction, it nevertheless looked inviting and livable. And it must have appealed to other passersby too, because I often saw cars pulled off the asphalt, their passengers spilled out snapping souvenir photos of the handsome façade.
But the view from the road was as close as most of us could get, because without an invitation, Bocage (whose name has been traditionally translated as “Shady Retreat”) was a retreat only for its owners. Bocage had never been open to the public.
When the final gavel fell on that pleasant day in December, the proud new owner of the historic house and 110 acres–sight unseen– was Dr. Marion Rundell.
“I didn’t know Bocage per se,” he confessed. “I only knew it was one of the grand houses left” and that the value of the land alone was probably worth the price.
He’d purchased a mansion built in 1801, known to be a gift from legendary River Road magnate, Marius Pons Bringier, to his daughter Fanny on the occasion of her marriage to Christophe Colomb, a Parisian. It had then been renovated in 1837 for Fanny and Christophe’s son Luis Arthur and his wife Mathilde, under the direction of nationally acclaimed architect, James Dakin.
Three months after buying one of the River Road’s architectural gems, Rundell arrived to inspect his prize and encountered a mess. “I walked in through the screened back porch and it was all wet…the roof was a sieve.” Leaks and standing water had ruined the ground floor walls and created a litany of other damage throughout the house. And it had all been exacerbated because the house had been virtually unoccupied for a decade. The family of Dr. Anita Crozat Kohlsdorf, the previous owner who had bought and refurbished it in the 1940s, had stopped using the property.
“I knew the term ‘rising damp,’” Marion Rundell said wryly, referring to natural seepage that may affect buildings near the Mississippi when the river rises. “But my contractor said we had ‘falling damp.’” It has required two years of reconstruction and restoration, challenging even Rundell’s professed passion for history and architecture as well as a serendipitous background in engineering which preceded his medical degree.
Finally, however, the historic house has reclaimed its former splendor even as the new owner warned that “it will probably never be completely finished.” But now visitors like me no longer have to look longingly from the River Road but can tour the beautiful house and spend the night in an elegant B&B setting.
And we can also ponder some new and intriguing clues to Bocage’s history that turned up unexpectedly during the renovation project. It had always been accepted, for example, that Fanny and Christophe’s 1801 structure was remodeled in 1837 with classical revival elements added. But as Rundell’s contractor carefully scraped the grounds behind the house, he uncovered bases of four symmetrically placed chimneys, charred remains, bricks and brick chunks, and shards of nineteenth century transferware ceramics and glass. This suggested that the original house may have burned on the site, that the existing house was constructed new in 1837 just in front of it.
This hypothesis was seemingly reinforced when the construction team scraped down through Bocage’s interior and exterior plaster and paint, seeking original colors to reproduce, and failed to uncover traces of any previous remodeling job on the house.
Whether or not this will ever be satisfactorily documented does not diminish the appeal of the “new” Bocage. It exudes a refreshed spirit, starting with the view from the road, which is of a handsome house painted in a jaunty Creole palette of cream, ivory, green, and terra cotta, replacing the longtime coat of fading white paint. In front of the main entrance to the living area–on the second floor as befits a Creole design–is a new grand staircase, reproduced from the stairs in the oldest photograph of the house that Rundell could find. It leads to a broad front gallery and a pair of tall French doors opening into a large, antique-filled double parlor with soaring ceilings. The parlors are flanked on each side by bedrooms and enclosed cabinets to the rear. There are no halls.
This surprises many visitors who expect a center hallway, probably because architect Dakin so skillfully mixed Creole and classical revival elements, that the façade hints that the interior might be American-style, Greek revival. But guests are always enchanted with the gracious floor space and fifteen-foot ceilings with elaborate crown moldings and rosettes, either restored or recreated in mid-nineteenth century styles. And each room is tastefully furnished, but not jammed, with period antiques and decorative furnishings.
And everything in the house is from Rundell’s collection. He’s been collecting antiques and decorative furnishings–”the best I could find… it’s an excellent investment”–for over twenty-five years. “I’ve bought beautiful things that I like,” he noted, including furniture by well-known mid-nineteenth century craftsmen such as Prudent Mallard, John Henry Belter, John and Joseph Meeks and others, as well as paintings, porcelains, and crystal pieces.
“But this is not a house museum,” said its new owner pointedly. “It’s an historic house recreated in nineteenth century ambiance.” So overnight guests are invited to sit on the antique sofas and chairs (much more comfortable than you’d imagine) and rest their cocktail glasses on the polished tops of period side tables; they sleep in nineteenth century tester beds and hang clothing in period armoires. “Part of my love of antiques is to use and enjoy [them], not just look at them,” said Rundell firmly.
And, whatever pieces don’t quite work at Bocage simply get shipped back to Rundell’s large warehouse in Houston.
This attitude of trying pieces out and aiming for elegance and romance, together with a keen-eyed decorator, has created a warmth and charm about Bocage that gives it a lovely feeling. In the spacious guestroom where I spent the night, for example, walls were painted a muted shade of Wedgewood blue and a sparkling-bright Waterford crystal chandelier tinkled and shone beneath the high ceiling. Floor to ceiling windows opened to the front gallery. The furnishings included a striking and ornately carved wig cabinet and a three-quarter tester bed so high I had to launch myself into it with a modified Fosbury flop. (Proper bedside stools were on the way, I was assured.) But the en-suite bathroom was modern, offering handsome granite countertops, milled cabinetry, and a high-tech steam shower.
In traditional Creole design, the ground floor of a house was always a functional, lower-ceilinged space because of the incessant threat of flooding from the Mississippi River. So Luis Arthur and Mathilde’s dining room and food preparation areas would probably have been on this level as well as expansive storage areas. When Dr. Kohlsdorf remodeled in the 1940s, she had an interior kitchen and butler’s pantry constructed, carved out a music room, and covered the floor in marble tiles from the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans. She also added a second interior staircase that she’d rescued from an historic old New Orleans home and added bathrooms on both levels.
In Marion Rundell’s Bocage, the ground floor retains its nineteenth century proportions including a lower ceiling but now boasts a thoroughly updated kitchen with capabilities for twenty-first century hospitality, including elegant breakfasts for B&B guests and whatever catering a small reception or meeting held at the house might demand. The ground level also serves as the main visitor entrance, with an informal sitting and information area that is double-parlor size, a guest bedroom and bath where the music room had been, and a formal dining room–all furnished with antiques.
When I sat down in the dining room for a leisurely breakfast at the handsome, nineteenth century walnut dining table, I was pleased to see that my fresh fruit with English cream and praline-baked French toast and bacon arrived on flowered Spode china, that my orange juice was served in a crystal glass. The richly patinaed furniture held a highly polished silver service and cut crystal serving pieces; I was cocooned in elegance. As I glanced through the open French doors to the quiet, green landscape, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see one of the Mesdames Colomb gliding toward me to inquire if my visit had been up to expectations.
Eventually, Marion Rundell mused, he may add gardens and period-style outbuildings–cottages and a meeting facility–so that Bocage could expand its hospitality offerings. And he would like to replace some of the eighty-seven trees that blew down in 2008 during Hurricane Gustav, including a number of hundred-year-old pecan trees.
For the moment, however, Bocage has fulfilled his dream. “The Kohlndorfs saved Bocage in the 1940s,” Rundell declared. “But I would like to be known as the individual who properly restored Bocage, using my engineering expertise to fix the problems, and returned it to its original elegance.”
And, I would add, invited the public in to enjoy it.