a tale of two farms
An architectural restoration in Opelousas harkens back to region’s early settlers
Descendants of the early French settlers of Opelousas, Clyde and Chanda LaVergne decided to become stewards of their family’s circa-1847 French Creole farmhouse in 2004. One year later, it was beautifully restored to reflect the original style. It is the only structure remaining from this time period in Opelousas. Chanda’s great-great-great grandfather, Theodore Bourque, built the original cypress dwelling with a sturdy, hipped roof and 18-inch corner boards to withstand hurricanes.
A native of France, Bourque moved to the Acadian frontier during the antebellum era, when small farms dotted the landscape, horse-drawn carriages were seen about town and before the Civil War and first railroad began modernizing this predominately French Catholic culture.
Two years prior to Bourque’s arrival in the territory of Opelousas, Clyde’s great-great-great grandfather, Eugene LaVergne, built a similar French Creole farmhouse nearby. Like many other homes that perished in the parish due to hurricanes, war or the Great Depression, Eugene’s house burned to the ground in 1901. A new home emerged after his neighbors threw a customary house-raising followed by a feast. The Bourques raised livestock and frequently shared their bounty with friends.
Every Saturday, the Bourques hosted a ritual boucherie, resulting in copious amounts of pork or beef. On Sunday, the two families would alternate hosting the weekly dance on their front porch, followed by competing in two-wheel sulky horse races, a tradition that continued into the 1940s.
Common sensibilities prevailed as the descendants adapted to the New World. Born in New Orleans in 1743, Eugene’s father, Louis, was the first in his family to brave the frontier by moving to Opelousas from the Crescent City. His grandfather, Count delaVergne, migrated to New Orleans from France while his family remained at the delaVergne chateau in southwest France.
“Two direct descendants from these properties married and moved into the only house in the area that survived,” says architect Ken delaVergne, who retained the original French spelling of the family name. “This house is not only a great example of one that survived, but one that survived and evolved.”
Clyde’s brother, Ken lovingly restored the 3,000 square-foot house and brought it up to 5,400 square-feet with the addition of a master suite. A devoted history buff known for meticulously restoring some of the most significant historic landmarks in Acadiana, Ken retained the initial architectural elements in the house that had remained untouched, while making major modifications. He was assisted by Paige LaVergne of La Vie Designs.
“You can actually see the evolution of the house,” says Ken. “Anything that survived, even plantations, had to evolve. We took it back to the 1870s because it had multiple styles. We redid the columns that were altered in 1910, and put square columns to match the wide corner boards from the original style of the house in the 1870s.
Some of the 1870s interior doors were retained, as well as an original 1840s pantry with an asymmetrical window. Ken also reconstructed the original 1870s turned columns on the two rear porches. In the study, he added a 22-foot-long floor-to-ceiling bookcase and kept one rustic wall that was original to the house, completely intact and unpainted.
Eight large stained-glass windows were purchased from a circa 1840s Grand Couteau church. They were installed in the dining room, along with a round stained glass window that parishioners called the “Eye of God.” Ken gave it a home in the archway of a generous foyer.
“Chanda feels a real connection to this house, because of the fond memories of spending time with her grandmother here,” Ken says. “We’ve heard so many stories from our parents and grandparents about the horse and buggy days.”
He fondly remembers zany races in diminutive, wobbly, one-rider buggies.
“My grandfather had a race track on our property and there was another one on the Bourque property After the Sunday races, they had big picnics with huge pork sandwiches, homemade cakes and cookies. They became the closest of neighbors and shared just about everything.”
Religious traditions were also shared and observed, including no-meat Fridays.
“We had egg and potato stew. That’s if you didn’t catch any seafood and you were a Catholic,” Ken says. “On Saturday, it was always the best fresh meat because of the boucherie, but anything beyond Monday was salted meat put down in the well. That’s if you didn’t manage to kill any ducks during the week.”
The LaVergnes are continuing the tradition of hosting family gathering at their 18-foot-long dining table that has been passed down from generation to generation. Paying it forward with an eye on the next 170 years, they have evolved as keepers of the flame.
left A bar back custom hutch from Chanda’s father’s pub in Sunset is on display in the 50-foot-long hallway. The dining room was in a detached building from the 1870s, and was connected to the home in 1910. Its circa-1840s stained-glass church windows create vibrant light patterns on the early 20th-century-dining room table made from parts of a bed and scrap lumber.
left Ken added windows and removed walls to open up the kitchen with 1870s flooring and a mid-1800s island. top right He designed the converted attic master bath with 11-foot-wide dormers. bottom right Original wide-plank walls from the 1870s.