Mansions offer so much history and there is always a running theme it seems in a family story. For me, the underlying story of Louis Benoist’s life at Oakland Farms was running from cholera. Built between 1853-1854 by Louis .A. Benoist the home is filled with agricultural history and is part of an original Spanish Land Grant.
Every month or so, I meet up with my friend Annie from Sigel, Illinois and we tour or shop. We headed to St. Louis along with her sister Joanie and we met Charlie Brown, the President of the Affton Historical Society who shared the story of those that lived in this beautiful home. Oakland House was built in 1853-1854 by Louis .A. Benoist.
Louis Benoist’s father made his money in the fur trade and he was a Frenchman that had moved from Montreal to St. Louis. He married a wealthy woman from St. Louis. Growing up, Louis studied medicine, but switched to law. Practicing law until he traveled to France to settle his great grandfather’s estate, it took two years. On his return, Louis had the unlikely luck to be ship wrecked in the Bay of Biscay and was marooned in Spain for three years until returning to St. Louis in 1826.
Once back home, Louis Benoist opened one of the first real estate and brokerage offices in the city. This investment and loan business eventually became the Benoist & Company banking house which opened in 1832. In 1838, he opened a branch in New Orleans. From this wealth he built this Oakland for his third and much younger wife, Sarah Elizabeth who he married on 11/16/1849. Louis was 48 and Sarah was 19.
Benoist lost his first two wives both to cholera. In 1849, according to the book Oakland, Louis Benoist’s Legacy, “This is the year of a cholera epidemic. From January to July, 4,500 victims have been buried.”
In 1826, Louis had married Eliza Barton of Kaskaskia, Illinois. Their two children died in infancy and Eliza died in 1832 from cholera. That same year he married Esther Hackney of Pennsylvania and they lost two of their seven children before Esther died in 1848 according to our tour guide Charlie Brown also from cholera.
Meeting Sarah Wilson for fortuitous. They met when she visited her uncle John Hunt Wilson. During her visit, she met and married Louis Benoist. “They honeymooned in New Orleans,” Charlie Brown explained.
Since cholera had taken so much from him, it seems fitting that Louis would build country house miles away from the dangers of cholera in the city. Moving to the country, Louis Benoist was devoted to acquiring land. Between 1850-1867, he bought land to create a working farm that boasted both crops and livestock. They named the property Oakland Farms representing the 476.3 rolling acres that he spent a total of $12,350 over the years.
Oakland Farms besides being a working farm, also served as a summer home for family and friends and perhaps most important of all to Louis, a place away from the dangers of cholera that frequented St. Louis where is winter dwelling was, during the summer.
Just four years after their marriage, Benoist commissioned famous architect George Ingrahm, who had recently completed Tower Grove for Henry Shaw to design his home. Using white limestone that was quarried on the estate, the Italianate home took structure. The drawing room boasts 14 foot ceilings and a windowed alcove with set aside with hand carved Corinthian columns. The library at the other end is offset in the same way. The interior of the house has 24 inch thick walls and a fireplace in every room.
The freestanding walnut staircase is one of the highlights of this beautiful home that leads to three upstairs bedrooms. The bed in one room was purchased by the Benoists on their honeymoon in New Orleans.
There is also a back staircase leading to a fourth bedroom over the kitchen. There is also a tower lookout landing and a large porch. Back when this was a working farm, there were also stables, barns, a lake, stone boat house and a smoke house along with orchards and gardens. Today once passing through the gates, you walk by a beautiful two-hundred year old oak tree. While there is a wide lawn, the farm land is gone.
The Benoist family needed a large home. The 1860 census showed that Louis and Sarah and their five children as well as three children (of the surviving five) from his previous marriage along with Sarah’s brother George and eight house servants all lived at Oakland. There were also 14 farm hands.
Dangerous adventures were not over for Louis Benoist although he had settled into country life with his children and young bride. He along with other prominent citizens joined the board of directors of the Pacific Railroad and along with other dignitaries rode the train for the dedication of the Gasconade River Bridge near Hermann, Missouri. Treacy writes, “As the train rumbled over the bridge, the bridge collapsed and the train plunged thirty feet into the river. Many prominent passengers were killed, but Benoist’s life was spared.”
His last grand adventure was in Cuba. He either had a financial interest in sugar cane or represented a client because he traveled to the island in January of 1867 and contracted the cholera he tried so hard to avoid. Louis Benoist was 66 when he died in Havana.
Sarah remarried and had two more children. She passed away after her second child was born and the little girl also died soon after. The Benoist family remained at Oakland until the 1890’s. The home was sold to Robert Brookings who opened the Brookings Institute in Washington DC in 1927. Brookings didn’t keep the home long, and it went through a few owners before being owned by the Lakewood Park Cemetery. Used as an administrative office, chapel, caretaker home and more, eventually the cemetery members formed the Affton Historical Society, and saved the beautiful old home restoring it to the beauty of Louis Benoist’s Legacy.
He lost two wives, children and eventually his own life to cholera. This story is wonderful and tragic, but fascinating! Make plans to head to St. Louis and see the beauty of Oakland for yourself! Located at 7801 Genesta St., St. Louis the house is often the site of weddings and events. To find out more about the house and a tour, log onto www.oaklandhousemuseum.org.