A Magnificent Home in New Iberia

Photographed by chad chenier
An oil painting by Leroy Evans in the entrance foyer resides above an antique gilded sideboard that Crittenden inherited from her grandmother.

If only walls could talk. In 1886, a flamboyant New Iberia landowner built a unique, four-story columned mansion that was inspired by the fanciful steamboats of the era. With a grand entrance hall, thick curving walls, soaring French windows, two-story-high rounded bays and ornate balustrades, it resembles a grounded steamboat with its half-circle bow facing Main Street and its stern facing Bayou Teche.

It all started when the sixth mayor of New Iberia, John Emmer, wanted to build the most magnificent house that had ever existed on the bayou as a wedding present for his daughter. It became the setting for many illustrious parties hosted for prominent locals and served as a magnet for some of the biggest power brokers in the South.

Swords were drawn, plots were hatched, and swinging parties were hosted at the famous Steamboat House. The legendary residence drew heavy-weight politicos during the Huey P. Long era, after Lt. Gov. Paul Cyr (who owned the home at the time), was elected on Long’s ticket in 1928. Within months, Cyr became Long’s bitter enemy over a controversial murder case, which resulted in the double hanging of a prominent local doctor and his mistress (the first woman ever to be hanged in Louisiana). Cyr schemed and dreamed at the Steamboat House, his place of respite while in town. In 1931, he unsuccessfully tried to force Long out of office and proclaim himself governor, but to no avail. Four years later, Long was assassinated at the state capitol at the age of 42.

Gov. Jimmy Davis once played “You Are My Sunshine” on a grand piano in the parlor, Gov. John McKeithen headlined a party fundraiser, and numerous movie stars have since tried to rent the place from its current owner, interior designer Kimberly Crittenden. Keeping the tradition alive, she has also hosted many elaborate, star-studded soirées at the Steamboat House, which is located in New Iberia’s historic downtown district.

“Ever since I bought the house in 1994, movie location scouts have tried to rent it from me so they could shoot major films here, and movie stars have also wanted to stay here during the filming of their various movies, but I have always declined,” Crittenden says.

“Tommy Lee Jones’ assistant repeatedly inquired about his renting this house from me when he was starring in In the Electric Mist, which was filmed in New Iberia,” Crittenden continues. “I didn’t let Jones stay here, but he was always sending his assistant to buy a lot of wine at my shop, just about every night.”

A designer, oenophile and wine merchant, Crittenden is the owner of Kimberly’s Interiors in New Iberia, with a second location in Lafayette. “Selling wine can be rather lucrative if you live around here,” she laughs.

The 2009 film, In the Electric Mist, starring Jones and John Goodman, was based on New Iberia award-winning author James Lee Burke’s racy novel featuring detective Dave Robicheaux as the main character. The movie Heaven’s Prisoners, starring Alec Baldwin, was also based on another one of Burke’s best-selling novels and was also filmed in New Iberia. “The Steamboat House appears in one of Burke’s novels that mentions Main Street,” Crittenden points out.

New Iberia’s Main Street that Burke describes in his novels as “the most beautiful in the country” is receiving national publicity after being named one of CNN’s “America’s Best Small Town Comebacks” in March 2013. New Iberia has also earned a “Great American Main Street Award” from the National Trust for Historic Preservation  for its revitalized commercial district.
At the end of September, the picturesque town celebrates its sugarcane harvest on Main Street with the 72nd annual Sugarcane Festival that is highlighted by a fais do do and a boat parade with fireworks on Bayou Teche. The festival is scheduled just in time for cooler weather, with the beginning of autumn on Sept. 22. It’s a lively celebration worth experiencing, and there are historic walking tours featuring the many beautiful residences in the area.

The three-quarter-mile-long historic East Main Street district, which follows the Bayou Teche as it meanders downstream, features 71 homes and buildings that date from 1890 to 1930. The Steamboat House is the most famous private residence in the district. The amazing 6,900-square-foot, four-story dwelling has seven bedrooms, four-and-a-half baths,16-foot ceilings and 16-inch-thick brick walls.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the magnificent house was built with bricks from the original owner’s brickyard. In the 1880s and 1890s, New Iberia was home to five brick factories, and Emmer owned one of them. With its 16-inch-thick brick walls that were created in Emmer’s kilns, the Steamboat House is a veritable fortress that recalls the bygone steamboat which flourished for 60 years prior to the coming of the railroad to New Iberia in 1880.

It now features a swimming pool, lighted tennis courts and a quaint guest cottage overlooking the bayou. The current owner’s interior décor is decidedly modern, unlike that of the previous owners who kept it in the Victorian era mode and thus quite formal. It exudes casual elegance, and is tastefully appointed with a combination of old and new furnishings and touches of the Far East. The front yard has an Old South style, distinguished by a large, historic live oak facing East Main Street. A captain’s walk adds intrigue to the architectural elements of the stately residence.

“I fell in love with the house for the oak tree in front,” says Crittenden. “It’s really a unique piece of property. I was asked to help the owner with the interior design, and I ended up buying it,” Crittenden says.

“The glass-enclosed sunroom is wonderful for entertaining, and it has the perfect overflow for seated diners,” she notes. “It overlooks a garden on the side of the house, with a view of the Annie Laurie oak tree that I named after my daughter. My idea was to decorate the home to make it very comfortable. Since I have an interior design business and a shop, I didn’t have to purchase any furnishings or art. Whatever I had just fell into place.” She says this modestly, although one look around the residence shows that each room was well planned and designed with an experienced interior decorator’s eye for colors and textures, balance and flow, with a nod to its history.

Strolling around the residence is an adventure. There is the counterpoint of intriguing and clever design elements, from the walls of striped silk damask Stroheim & Romann fabric that Crittenden added to the grand entrance foyer adorned with a framed Japanese ceremonial wedding gown, to the stately pair of lacquered fireside chairs near the antique marble mantel in the living room, and the dreamy sun porch adorned with white wicker furniture and gauzy, white sheer fabric that renders an ethereal mood on breezy evenings.

In the master bath, Crittenden added a mirrored area above the sunken tub and surrounded the room with plantation shutters, designed new wallpaper, added dainty chandeliers and a fanciful Alice in Wonderland vanity chair.

“The former owner had these dreary, old and depressing Victorian curtains that made everything dark in here,” she says. “I wanted to take advantage of all the natural light in the bathroom. The owner even had some of the rooms in the house roped off to visitors. It was just entirely too formal.” The master suite, located off the entrance foyer, has his-and-her baths and an adjoining study.

Looking out of the kitchen window, one can see all the way down to the bayou, while viewing the pool area and palm trees bowing in the wind on rainy afternoons. A breakfast room and an art-filled enclosed loggia flanks the kitchen, which is adorned with a buttery yellow Schumacher wall covering. A formal dining room and a luxuriously appointed parlor add a sense of elegance to the otherwise casually adorned living areas.

Aside from the red long leaf pine floors throughout the house (purchased from a nearby church), Crittenden added smooth Mexican tiles to the kitchen area. A view of the deep back lawn sweeping down to the Bayou Teche can be seen from the kitchen, sun porch and also from the rear deck on the second floor. It offers a splendid view of the pool area, which was redesigned by Crittenden after purchasing the home.

“I completely redid the landscape around the grounds,” she explains. “It was just very plain, and now it looks tropical, like something in a Hollywood movie set. You can just picture being in the islands while standing on the porch.”

“The front porch facing Main Street is one of my favorite places to sit in the morning and in the evening,” Crittenden continues. “When I host parties, I can place tables with candlelight on the porch and all around the sides of the house. It’s unbelievable, with the views of the big oak trees, and the beautiful old columns on the front porch. It’s like going back in time. I can just imagine all the many parties that happened here through the years.”

Like the captivating New Iberia characters found in James Lee Burke’s spicy novels, the Steamboat House resonates a storied past with its own thoroughly absorbing cast of characters and the secrets of their long-ago encounters in the mansion, in the moonlight and in the mist near the bayou. There are many stories still untold.