John James Audubon
John James Audubon came upriver in the late summer of 1821 from New Orleans to do more than just paint pictures. He had been hired to teach Miss Eliza Pirrie, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. James Pirrie, owners of Oakley Plantation. He was paid $50.00 per month plus room and board for him and his apprentice to be the tutor of Miss Pierre. In the mornings he would teach and in the afternoons he was free to work on his drawings and paintings of birds for his cherished project “The Birds of America”. His teacher-artist arrangement was short-lived due to a misunderstanding with Mrs. Pirrie. Only four months after his arrival, he returned to New Orleans.
Although there is no record of his success in teaching Miss Pirrie, in his personal endeavors he completed or began 32 bird paintings while at Oakley. These paintings though attributed to Audubon were a culmination of his experiences at Oakley Plantation and his dealings with both the plantation owners, slaves and even Native Americans in the area. Many of the same birds and scenes can be seen on the park today.
The tall, airy house where John James Audubon stayed is a splendid example of colonial architecture adapted to its climate. Built circa 1801, Oakley predates the relatively heavy details of classic revival in Southern plantation homes and claims distinction for its beautiful simplicity. The rooms of Oakley have been restored in the style of the late Federal Period (1790-1830), reflecting their appearance when Audubon stayed there.
A West Indies influence can be seen in the jalousie’d galleries which allow cool breezes to drift through the rooms while keeping out rain and the glare of the sun. Adam mantels, delicate decoration of the exterior gallery stairs and a simple cornice frieze are Oakley’s only ornaments. Simple and dignified by its unusual height, the building seems a suitable part of its beautiful forest setting. In 1973, Oakley House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, an honorary designation for significant historic sites.
The large, detached plantation kitchen, typical of the period, was reconstructed on the old foundations, around the original chimney. The kitchen building also contains a weaving room and a work room.