BY PAUL F. STAHLS : PHOTOGRAPHED BY TERRI FENSELThe story of Stewart and Juli Juneau is part hometown-boy-makes-good tale, part Jungle Jim adventure and part inspirational account of one family’s urge to share the fruits of their labors with underprivileged and inner city children. The saga begins and ends in the “Big Bend” region of Avoyelles Parish, with stops along the way in both the wilds of Africa and the penthouse heights of Canal Street in New Orleans.
Stewart and Juli Juneau lead guests on a tour during Safari Camp. Opposite page: One of the Juneaus 40-plus species.
he northeastern border of Avoyelles is etched by the Red River, a giant crescent arching over a cluster of picturesque towns such as Marksville, Mansura, Hessmer, Cottonport, Moreauville and Hamburg – all dependent on the high ground and transportation provided by the river and major bayous. Near the center of it all, the legendary Big Bend is nature’s own gated community enclosed by a 30-mile semi-circle of Bayou des Glaises, which is actually an ancient meander route of the Red River. It was boats on that bayou and wagons on the little bayou road, today marked with La. Highway 451 and “Louisiana Colonial Trail” signs, that carried Juneaus, Labordes, Lemoines, Prothieus and other families into this isolated region in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here they remain, where life, like the land, is defined by wat
Native and rare species, like these deer, frolic with (this page, left) zebras and other exotic animals from Africa, Australia and Asia.
No surprise then that three out of four of Big Bend’s points of interest are flood-related: the unusually high “Old Iron Bridge” built in 1916 as a last-chance evacuation route when the other bayou bridges washed out; the Old Prothieu Store and Post Office, now a community museum, built in 1927 to replace a store swept away in that year’s infamous flood; and the dandy little four-panel Bordelonville Flood Gates provided by the ever benevolent Huey Long in 1930. The fourth? That would be the Juneau estate.
Although this property is a recent acquisition, Avoyelles has been “Juneau country” since the 1750s. Stewart Juneau and his nine brothers and sisters grew up hereabouts during their dad’s Vietnam years, comforted by a close-knit family that included 15 aunts and uncles and 66 first cousins.
One of two species of camels living on their property greet the Juneaus’ guests.
The Highway 1 turn-off onto 451 at Hamburg is just inside the northern tip of Louisiana’s “Acadian Triangle,” so the hint of Cajun inflection from folks at the gas station isn’t surprising. The cypress and tupelo terrain is also typical – the interior of the Big Bend circle is the swampy Pomme de Terre (“Potato”) Wildlife Management Area and outside the circle, just beyond the des Glaises and its levees, the swampland resumes and stretches clear to the river.
Predictably, the wildlife to be seen along bayou and back roads leading to and into the Juneau place is a fairly typical mix: hawk gliding, deer bounding, heron wading, muskrat rambling, giraffe munching its haute cuisine … Giraffe? Yep, 15 feet equals “haute.”
The Juneaus’ main house was inspired by the lavish hunt camps of 1930s Africa.
You see, Juneau, after parlaying early real estate triumphs (wildly successful CEO of Baton Rouge’s J.B. Brown Companies at a tender age) into a career of large-scale acquisition and development (including conversion of the wonderful old Maison Blanche Building in New Orleans into the Ritz-Carlton Hotel), met Juli Lawrence, originally of Charleston, who was just back from an epic 30-month solo boat/train/barge/donkey-cart exploration of 23 African locales from Dakar to Capetown. When they were married in 2003, Juneau took a year’s sabbatical from his companies, philanthropic duties and 30-odd board of director memberships to spend a year with his bride in South Africa heading up the activities of the International Aids Trust (an organization chaired by Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton), and it was there the newlyweds resolved that they would always be surrounded by exotic animals. The experience also brought them face to face with the staggering needs of the children there – some of the most impoverished in the world – a spectre that changed the course of their lives, turning the thrust of their philanthropies to the needs of underprivileged children and focusing a large segment of Juneau’s real estate activities on the creation of affordable and energy-efficient communities for low income populations (first in Louisiana and Florida, then Africa and the Dominican Republic).
The house’s decor is punctuated with Juli’sblown glass art; even the bathroom is dressed in African art andartifacts; the canvas roof creates romantic lighting.
Children and exotic animals: two passions that resulted in the Juneaus’ 1,500-acre swampland “Safari Camp,” protected by levees at the rim of Louisiana’s Big Bend. It’s designed to be a playground for extended Juneau family gatherings and of course for the 40-plus species (to date) of animals from Africa, Australia and Asia, though primarily for children in need of worthwhile interests and activities. The gates of the camp are opened 20 weekends and several full weeks each year to church organizations, foster care agencies and other youth groups.
The Juneaus’ New Orleans home is the Ritz-Carlton penthouse, which despite its 15th floor “location-location-location” is not impervious to storm damage. After Hurricane Katrina, development of the Safari Camp went into overdrive when the family sought refuge there for several months, with many new structures taking shape and welcoming vanloads of storm-displaced children from the region’s shelters for afternoon barbecues and hayrides. The kids showed a keen interest in the animals and environment, so it was decided that the “curriculum” for the future weekend camps would stress wetland, watershed and wildlife management.
A volunteer army of brothers and cousins, reinforced by a few Big Bend craftsmen and tradesmen, helped with pasture-clearing, log-milling, construction and, as more and more animals arrived, planting and management of food crops for the menagerie.
The main house today, with its rope bridges leading off to miscellaneous treetop patios and guesthouses, is raised well above flood level and swathed on sides and top with colorful canvases. Inspired by the classic, lavish hunt camps of 1930s Africa (think Hemingway), the house was soon filled with the family’s collection of African arts and artifacts, their bold colors enhanced by Juli’s own blown-glass artworks as well as her collections of Balinese fabrics. Her love of exotic fabrics and native jewelry, born of her earliest African experiences, has become a major import and retail enterprise called Nomad Collection (nomadcollection.com), and after nearly a decade of glass blowing, her glass art can be seen throughout the Ritz-Carlton and in many galleries and private collections here and abroad.
Meanwhile back in the Juneau jungle, you’d think the Ark had made it to Avoyelles. Here and there about the property, Asian water buffalo and American bison are exchanging grudging respect, kangaroos and giant ostriches are settling into their own spaces and, all in good fun, zebras are galloping across fields alongside donkeys and antelopes in chase of a tractor-pulled load of delighted youngsters. Good thing Stewart Juneau’s undergraduate degree was medical technology and microbiology and that Juli’s a fast learner, because they’re quite suddenly the guardians of wildlife including jungle birds, peafowl, rare Pere David deer and single- and double-hump camels, whose sport was crunching car tops and “rubbing” off rearview mirrors before the fences went up. “Although,” says Juli, “it’s not the animals around here that are fenced in. We are.”
Nor is it accurate to think all the resident species are imports, because this is a place where newcomers mingle with (or respectfully avoid) local species such as Louisiana wild turkeys and all the swamp critters you’d expect. “We even tried buying up veteran roosters from cockfight folks around the state,” says Stewart Juneau ruefully, “but I’m afraid that backfired. Someone tipped us off that they were just selling us their scrubs and most of those became supper for some of the wilder wildlife.”
Hundreds of Big Benders and even groups of African dancers, musicians and stilt-walkers attended the Safari Camp’s grand opening in June 2006, and a short year later the property has not only been named an Exotic Animal Research Center for Louisiana State University veterinary students but is also well into the routine of its original mission. The children’s groups spend their days boating, fishing and hiking, with some classroom time devoted to ecology, photography and the like, followed by night tours and a good night’s sleep in Children’s Village – a cluster of comfortable four-cot cabins.
Back in New Orleans, the penthouse is fully restored and while Juli Juneau heads off to the glassblowing studio, takes calls related to her “travel-and-adventure” photography business or manages sarong and jewelry imports for the shops and French Market locations, Stewart catches up with details of the real estate ventures. “New Orleans just can’t lose its 9th Ward and Holy Cross and Tremé areas,” he says. “Can’t let it happen, regardless of the obstacles. Right now the big challenging for our Le Triomphe Property Group and First Responders Housing Initiative is trying to combat post-Katrina insurance rates so we can build 1,200 mold-proof and storm-resistant homes in the 9th Ward. You have a lot better luck attracting utilities and services when you’re dealing with big numbers of structures all in the same place and same time.”
With its bandstands, bars and buffets on the terrace, the penthouse was made for entertaining, which is fortunate because the Juneaus’ political activism, business networking and proactive support of Louisiana musicians require large and frequent entertaining. Usually the purposes of the gatherings overlap, with state and national political and business figures enjoying Louisiana delicacies at the buffet as great and future-great musicians from New Orleans, Africa or the Caribbean perform. Stewart is a founding partner in such cultural preservation organizations as the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, NOSACON (New Orleans/South Africa Connection) and the New Orleans Music Incubator (which guides fledgling musicians through their early careers with emphasis on teaching the “business aspects of show business”) plus family philanthropies such as the Housing and Education Foundation (umbrella organization of the Safari Camp) and chairman of such business-oriented efforts as the International Economic Development Initiative (allied with the Tulane Business Council and U.S. State Dept.).
In short, eavesdropping is always interesting on that terrace, or along the halls of the penthouse interior – a gallery of paintings, sculpture, photography and, of course, Juli Juneau’s remarkable glasswork. In the midst of it all however, is a state-of-the-art theater where the feature is usually footage of terrains, tribes and animals encountered during the couple’s trips to African, making it impossible for conversation not to turn quickly to their own little Africa, the Safari Camp of Avoyelles and its constantly expanding facilities, operations and “population:” more bunkhouses on the drawing board, more weekends devoted to the children’s groups, more animal auctions at home and abroad, even plans for an occasional open-house Safari Camp weekend for the general public. For information, visit the Housing and Education Foundation at hefcv.org. To book a visit for a youth group, call (504) 615-1110.