Tucked away on a run-of-the-mill residential street in Vacherie is a charming French-Creole cottage with a rich past.
Built in 1835 and purchased by Philippe Desire LeBlanc in 1863 for his bride, Adelaide, Desire Plantation House was owned by LeBlanc’s descendants until 1980 — when Mike and Claudette Davis purchased the 145-year-old extreme fixer-upper.
Mike, the university’s assistant vice president for facilities, has overseen countless building renovations, new construction and demolition projects during his nearly 30-year tenure at Nicholls, so tackling this daunting restoration project was such a familiar territory.
Mike traces his love for vintage architecture back to his student days at Nicholls, where he met his future wife. A native of New Orleans, Mike came to Thibodaux to play baseball and study business. Claudette, who had a passion for dance and a love of antiques, made the short trip to campus from St. James Parish to study art and English.
“My love for antiques, that later grew into historical renovation, started when I saw a beautiful young lady at Nicholls,” Mike says. “I found out that she liked antiques, so I played like I liked them too, just to get in good with her.”
Mike and Claudette were married in 1972 and began restoring Desire, their lifelong labor of love, eight years later.
“I still laugh at the thought of Mike, a true city boy, settling in my hometown. I think he really likes living in the country,” Claudette says. “We enjoy going on treasure hunts in New Orleans’ salvage yards and working on restoring the house together.”
Preserving the original design of the house, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, was important to the Davises. Each step of the ongoing project has been deliberate — the result of countless hours spent researching period architecture and collecting antique building supplies and furnishings.
“I intentionally left the exposed bousillage [insulation] and used the original paint colors — white with dark green and brick red,” Mike says. “We even researched the type of paint that was used during that period and created just the right shade of red by grinding brick and adding it to the paint.”
While painting the front porch, Mike discovered a bullet imbedded in the doorframe. Not exactly sure how or why it landed there, Mike says: “I like to imagine it was a fierce shootout between the North and the South, but honestly the homeowner could have been cleaning his gun on the front porch and it was accidentally discharged. I guess we’ll never know.”
More than three decades have passed since the Davises purchased the cottage. And, despite several additions and modifications, their work is far from over.
“In the early ’80s, when we first moved into the house, there was so much to be done,” Mike recalls. “After work and on weekends, we worked on restoring the house. During that time, we lived in the small back section, and our kids, Keith and Lenna, who were only 8 and 5 at the time, thought it was great to sleep on pallets on the floor!”
Over the years, baseball games and dance performances took priority over renovations, so work on the house would stop and start according to the kids’ schedules.
Now that Keith and Lenna have families of their own, the Davises spend most of their downtime completing the last major renovation to the house — a larger dining room where the entire family, which now includes four grandchildren, can gather for meals.
Mike believes in the old saying that you should always leave a place better than you found it. He has certainly done that at Nicholls. The impact Mike has had on campus is on display for all to see — award-winning renovations, state-of-the-art auditoriums, four new residence halls, and the list goes on and on.
And the impact he’s had on Desire Plantation House is no less impressive. The LeBlanc family clearly left their historical cottage in exceptionally capable hands.
— Written by Renee Piper, director of university relations
This article originally appeared in the fall 2013 issue of Voila! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.