It may be fitting to begin this story with a known parable about two neighbors. One man decides to get off his rocking chair one day, purchase brushes and things to paint his house. The other man decides that his house, too, would look better if he painted it.
The story can go two ways. If the second man's instinct is to get off his rocker and paint his house, motivated by constructive self-pity, then he is doing God's will and moving society along in a positive way as it has been through the ages.
But say the second man decides to do nothing. He may think that he does not have the money to paint his house and even begins to resent his neighbor's project and maybe all future projects. He is motivated by destructive self-pity. This is a trap that many people seem to fall into.
However, the 100 block of Lessard Street in Historic Donaldsonville is a prime example of what happens when neighbors become constructively motivated. In fact, they have grown together as friends. They take pride in their community. We got to sit down with one of them on Friday, April 7.
Meet Jeffery Bean. He and his partner, Michael Smith, own one of Donaldsonville's beautiful bed and breakfast stops: The Raylin House, located at 129 Lessard. We discussed fascinating old houses, gardening and ghosts, among other things.
Do you do your own gardening?
I do. I'm not afraid of trying anything. I do all the landscaping. I've done probably 90 percent of the renovations of both houses. Other than electrical and plumbing, but actually I'm getting pretty good with plumbing as well. I've learned since buying the house(s) that it doesn't hurt to try. If you can do it, you do it. If not, then hire a professional.
Do you have a favorite caladium or annual?
As you can tell, I'm a green foliage kind of person. I love the color of flowers, but I don't have the color thumb. I have the green thumb. I find that the Gerbera daisies have done really well here.
What's your favorite color flower?
I would probably say red. Even though everything is green here. It's just a strong, powerful color.
Do you suggest that people use manure for fertilizer?
I wish I knew the technical part of all of that, and I'm learning that. But I haven't had the best of luck with manure. It's too strong sometimes and for certain plants. The thing about Donaldsonville, you don't need it. The soil here is so rich that it doesn't matter where you dig. You're going to turn up earthworms, which is a sign of really great soil.
I learned that the first year that we were here. I was bringing in dirt to build up flower beds, and this older gentleman stopped by that I did not know. He asked, "Why are you putting soil here?"
I said, "Well, I'm trying to build a flower bed."
He said, "Son, you got the best soil in Louisiana." He was absolutely right. I mean, it's just amazing!
How old is the [Raylin] house?
It varies. We've got different documentation. There's a document that we found at City Hall here that says that it was first sold in 1871 by a brother who inherited it from the original owner. The original owner was William Lawes. He was the mayor of Donaldsonville pre-Civil War. He went off to fight the war, came back, and the mayorship was assigned to a Jewish immigrant named Schoenberg.
There's three different stories that circulate in the papers at that time. They battled for position as Mayor of Donaldsonville. There's one article that was written that said that they were arguing over it, and Lawes actually pulled out a revolver and shot Schoenberg in the chest and killed him.
That was one political way that they looked at it. There was a political war going on at the time.
Another article was written that we kind of believe was more to the truth. That Schoenberg and Lawes were actually part of the election during that time, and that they were carrying ballots from Donaldsonville over to Houmas House plantation, and they were intercepted by a group to destroy the ballots. They both were killed. It said that Schoenberg was shot in the chest, and Lawes was butchered to death.
Now, that being said, let's go back to the first story. Schoenberg's tomb is marked here in the Jewish Cemetery. But Lawes' body was hidden, buried in (I guess) the Protestant Cemetery in an unmarked grave. There was a black militia after him because he fought in the Civil War to keep slavery. He was not liked.
The property was inherited by his brother who was a doctor in Napoleonville. He was more known, and his name was Robert Lawes. He sold the property in 1871 to a half-brother who was a judge in New Orleans. We're not sure if the house existed at the time. But it doesn't make sense that he would've just sold the land, unless the third owner built the house after it was sold to him. Robert Lawes never resided in Donaldsonville. He's the first one to sell the house, but it's evident that he inherited the house because of the loss of his brother.
So, it has some really cool history, and a lot of people don't realize how much was here.
Are there generations of the original family that lived in the house?
Yes. Probably until almost the early 1900s. When we first bought the house, everyone referred to this home as the Warrick home. So, I just assumed that the Warrick's had built the house. But when I went to do my research, I found out that they were like the fourth or fifth owners. The Lawes were the original owners. But they have a great part of history.
They say that Elizabeth Street was named after the wife of Mr. Warrick, Elizabeth Warrick. because she was prominent in working with African Americans. People were very poor at that time, but she would sell them life insurance policies for pennies, so that they could bury their dead. I haven't found the street, yet. But I'm told that it is here. They were the first to own both houses. They used the small house next door, which dates to about 1902, as their office.
Then, both houses were owned by Joey Guinchard in the 70s. Joey used one of the houses as an interior design office. And now we own both houses. We're the third owners to use both. Now we use one as a bed and breakfast, and we live in the other. It's weird that it's always been business-owner, business-owner, business-owner. It's kind of a neat little part of that history, too.
It's great! I think we hit the market right in time for the corporate housing. I've worked at bed and breakfasts, so I'm very familiar with the casual setup of guests coming in and spending a night or two and then leaving. But the timing was just perfect because the corporate housing was needed. So, it has boomed.
It's very hard because I won't mix the two together. Like if we have corporate housing I won't do the bed and breakfast customer. It just doesn't work. We do have professional men and women that are trying to sleep. Or some work at night and sleep during the day. With bed and breakfast I want them to relax and enjoy laughing and sitting somewhere with a drink in the evening or a cup of coffee in the morning, without having to worry about a guest that's trying to sleep.
It's been very profitable. It's helping all of Donaldsonville, I believe. There are so many people here that call me asking, "What can we do because I have my mother's home?" We created an association called the River Road bed and breakfast association. I'm affiliated with the Victorian and the Cabahanosse and also with Ascension Corporate Rental.
We work together in providing this housing for people that are here more than just a week. Most of them are here several months. I've had one gentleman live with us a year-and-a-half. For most of them we work with their per diems. It's a little different. We don't provide the whole breakfast service that we normally do for a bed and breakfast client. The rate's a little bit more reasonable, but they like it because they have all the comforts of home versus a hotel.
What time of year is busiest?
Looking over my records for the past couple of years, January and February have always been a startup. We may stay empty from December to January, and then the phones start ringing in January. Last year we were booked ten months out of the year. This year, it slowed down in February, and we have two vacancies open since the first of March.
We're getting phone calls, but we can't accommodate them so we refer them to somebody else. A lot of the men want to try to share space to cut their costs. I don't allow that unless there's a domestic relationship. You'll have one guy who wants to sleep on the couch or an air mattress, and then it's the wear-and-tear.
We're just a little different. We try to keep it a little bit, I guess, more professional. And I want to respect my neighbors that are so supporting of our bed and breakfast, that we want to keep it as a bed and breakfast, rather than a house of lodging or a rental. That's not what we do.
Are you hands-on, or do you have hired help?
I do have a housekeeper. She provides cleaning for the house here two times a month. That helps a lot. But I'm hands-on. I'm over here twice-a-day. I come in the morning. I turn on lights. I check air-conditioning. I think that kind of keeps the control in the house, too. I keep an eye on what's coming and going.
We've had a few situations where, unfortunately I've had to ask a tenant to leave. But it's just the nature of the business. I want to say this because some people were questioning the caliber of people staying here. Ninety-nine percent of the people have been awesome. Truly one just couldn't follow the rules. I make them say the rules.
And the rules are like?
Simple. I reserve quiet-time. No parties. All guests must be approved by us, as the owners. Common areas have to stay picked up. If you find it that way you leave it that way. As you can see I barely did anything this morning other than dust a few tables when you got here. So, they're wonderful. And my house cleaner came last week.
I think the guests like it that I'm here because it's not fair for one to get away with it, and then the other one isn't keeping it up. And like I said most are respectful and great!
There's four rooms?
There is. There's four suites, and each suite has two rooms. It has a living space that is kind of considered their den. Then they have a private bedroom and private bathroom. We have two downstairs and two upstairs. It provides enough distance between them so there's quietness. If some men are downstairs during the day and one gentleman is sleeping upstairs, they never hear each other.
We took into consideration when we started restoring the house that there's no insulation in the walls because of the age of the house. So we did a lot of padded walls, like in the dining room and upstairs I did a padded wall fabric treatment on the walls which reduces sound. There's no echo or vibrations. It makes the house really quiet.
Are any of the suites better than the other?
Suite 2 is our bridal suite, when referring to bed and breakfast. Because it is a little bigger. They have the attraction of the library. Since it's a little further away from everybody, they have more privacy.
About the rest of this block. Did you get this block motivated to renovate their homes?
These are all phenomenal people. We have some that came here before we came here, and their homes are beautiful. I can't take credit for that. Some people have said that I was the spark for the fire, which I love that. But they're all beautiful people.
We have the Rev and Natalie Vega, who bought their home from the parents. We have miss Hazel Poirier who's been here since before we moved here. We have Cliff Webre who bought his grandmother's home. I do help them in anything that they need. You know, in helping picking out colors. We have Sydney Vega Jr that took over his grandfather's dentist office and restored it last year. I was able to give him some pointers.
But most of them are very talented. David and Lydia Hambrick that own Gaston's here at the corner, I found them on the levee. They were looking at the Bel House before it was purchased, and I redirected them to this. I shared information on what I knew about what's now Gaston's Pub and the hotel and all.
They've done a phenomenal job with that. We were really happy to have them in Donaldsonville. They renovated the old [Bank of Ascension] and made a venue out of it for a couple of years. They used it to give them a platform to build and restore a 15-room hotel. The Hambrick's are another great story.
Is that a competition?
Oh no! Not at all. Even with the bed and breakfasts. We may be all different apples. I always said I'm the green apple. The Victorian is pink, so it's that luscious red apple. Then we have Cabahanosse. No! I believe that a bundle cannot be broken. But if you single yourself out as a stick, you can be broken.
We work together as a team, and as long as everyone feels that way I think it's good. It makes a neighborhood.
Where are you from?
We are originally from Baton Rouge. I've been in Baton Rouge since '76. My mom still resides there. I have a sister in Baton Rouge, and I have a younger sister in Houston. I was brought to Donaldsonville in '97, so we are actually looking at 20 years this year.
There was one time I thought we were going to sell and move. At that point I was soul searching. It wasn't God's will for us to move. I'm so glad because I love Donaldsonville! I don't see myself ever leaving. This is home now. I love the people here. The Rome's on the corner behind the library are transplants from Katrina.
They fell in love with Donaldsonville as well, so they too have been here and have another beautiful home. I guess it's more Greek-revival. It's a little different than most of the homes here. Mine actually is Queen Anne. People refer to it as Victorian because they think of all the gingerbread, but it's actually too clean for Victorian.
Miss Hazel's is more Acadian. And then Rev's has actually been renovated. It's older than this one. It changed so much I guess it's more colonial to the columns. The third house [on the next block] is actually Lessard Plantation. I think it went like 300 acres back this way until it was sold off. It lost its historical credibility because it too had been renovated and renovated and renovated. But we're all on the National Register.
We got to name this house when we first took over and I got a representative from the historical society to come. She said it's registered, but it doesn't have a name. We called it the Warrick House because at that time I was still told it was the Warrick. We'll probably go back because I will have a right to go back and change that.
We'll probably call it the Raylin House, which comes from my name and my partner's name. He's Ray. I'm Lin. That way we will always be marked on the house, even after our life is over. 100 years from now [laughs].
Where'd you go to high school?
I went to Woodlawn High School in Baton Rouge.
What did you want to be as a kid?
Even as a kid I was always drawing, so I thought I would go into architecture. I was convinced to go into graphic design in college, so I studied in graphic for three years. Then I met an interior designer. This was in Alexandria. I went to Louisiana College in Pineville. I fell in love with interior design. It kind of worked with my architectural interests.
I left Louisiana College and went to the Seattle Institute of Art, in Seattle Washington, where I graduated in interior design. I have a two-year degree in interior design. It was perfect because I came back to Louisiana to use what I learned there. Then I was blessed with the house. I got to use a lot of those things there.
It was always art. As a kid, I always had this reoccurring dream of traveling south, like towards New Orleans, being in Baton Rouge. It was a continuous dream seeing me and my family or myself traveling on the interstate, heading to New Orleans. My parents were not very fond of New Orleans, so very seldom did we go to New Orleans, even as a kid.
Now, I travel back and forth to Baton Rouge every day. We own a hair salon there, as well. I'm actually a hair stylist and salon owner. But it's kind of funny that in a way that dream actually came true. That we would be heading back and forth there everyday. It wasn't as far as New Orleans, but here we are.
What's next for you?
I'm hoping to retire early. That's something we're setting goals for. I would love to do a small business here in Donaldsonville. I'm not sure what it's going to be. It won't be a hair salon. I'm not sure, but something other than the bed and breakfast.
I'm playing around with some different things, trying to see if the economics are right for it. Something to compliment what's already here, not to take someone else's business. I think that is something we all need to work on. Not to open another hamburger or po-boy shop. You know, you allow so and so to have that. I've talked about politics, and going and doing something for my district, but that might come later.