Built between1853-54 by Louis A. Benoist, the mansion at Oakland Farms in St. Louis is filled with agricultural history. The farm was originally part of a Spanish land grant. Louis opened one of the first real estate and brokerage offices in the city.
This investment and loan business eventually became the Benoist & Co. banking house, which opened in 1832. In 1838, he opened a branch in New Orleans.
From this wealth he built this grand house for his third and much younger wife, Sarah Elizabeth Wilson – he was 48 and she was 19. Louis had lost his first two wives 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.”
He met Sarah when she visited her uncle John Hunt Wilson’s farm. The country seemed a safe place from the ravages of cholera after they married. With this serving as his summer home, Louis began acquiring land between1850-67 to create a working farm that boasted crops and livestock. Oakland Farms represented 476.3 rolling acres, at a total cost of $12,350.
After four years of marriage, Louis commissioned architect George Ingraham, 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 shape. Highlights include a drawing room with 14- foot ceilings and a windowed alcove with hand-carved Corinthian columns, 24-inch-thick walls and a fireplace in every room.
The freestanding walnut staircase leads to three upstairs bedrooms and a back staircase leads to a fourth over the kitchen. When this was a working farm, there were stables, barns, a lake, stone boathouse, smokehouse, orchards and gardens.
There is still a 200-year-old oak tree – but while there is a wide lawn, the farmland is gone.
The Benoist family needed a large home, because the 1860 census shows Louis and Sarah, their five children, three children from his previous marriage, Sarah’s brother George and eight house servants all living at Oakland. There were also 14 farmhands. Louis either had a financial interest in sugarcane or represented a client because he traveled to Cuba in January 1867 and contracted the cholera he tried so hard to avoid. He was 66 when he died in Havana.
Sarah remarried, to Louis’ business partner, James Murrin, and together they had two more children, a son and a daughter. In 1872 Sarah died at the age of 42, not long after giving birth to Maude, who also passed a few months later. After her death, oldest daughter Clemence raised the family.
Murrin moved to Chicago with their son and remarried. Theodore Benoist purchased the estate and he and his bride, Mary Hunt, remained until 1890. The next owner of Oakland was Robert S. Brookings, who made his fortune as a traveling salesman for Cupples Co., a woodenware house.
This was the first house Brookings owned and he wanted to be a gentleman farmer. Like Louis, he enjoyed using the farm as a place to entertain. He bought Aristides, the first Kentucky Derby winner, with the intention of breeding racehorses at Oakland. The horse is buried here.
Brookings joined the board of trustees at Washington University and retired from Cupples. He became president of the university and moved to Washington, D.C., establishing the Brookings Institution. He sold Oakland Farms in 1893.
The home went through a series of owners and eventually subdivided until 1919, when the house was sold to the Lakewood Park Cemetery, which bought 200 acres. Oakland became the administration building and the drawing room and library became a chapel.
Around 1970, Oakland was in disrepair and the cemetery planned to sell. Cemetery members formed the Affton Historical Society, and raised the money to purchase the house in 1976. In 1977 World War II veterans, called the Brick and Mortar Gang, came every Monday and worked on the house, for 15 years.
Today this former regal farmstead has been restored to the splendor of Louis Benoist’s time. To find out more about the house and a tour, log onto www.oaklandhousemuseum.org
Readers with questions or comments for Cindy Ladage may write to her in care of this publication. Learn more of Cindy’s finds and travel in her blog, “Traveling Adventures of a Farm Girl,” at http://travelingadventuresofafarmgirl.com