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Historic Project Uncovers Family Connection

Photograph: The Donato Home (Photograph by Freddie Herpin)

BOBBY ARDOIN
Editor/Consulting Writer

Larry Davis and Elizabeth Guillory began searching over a decade ago for a St. Landry Parish historic residential renovation project located on abundant acreage.

What their project investigation didn’t uncover initially Davis, says, was the link to an ancestral surprise which connects Elizabeth Guillory to a house owned by one of the most prominent antebellum Creole families.

It’s been several years since the couple completed the extensive undertaking of what has traditionally been known as the Martin Donato House, located on La. 182 just north of the Opelousas corporate limits.

As their investigative property search progressed, Elizabeth Guillory and Davis eventually discovered with certainty that she was purchasing approximately 80 acres and a house that once belonged to and was occupied by Donato, whose numerous descendants include the Guillory’s, and other families populating the parish.

Donato House (Photograph by Freddie Herpin)

Donato, a wealthy landowner, businessman, slave owner and free person of color, presumably constructed and lived in the house with his wife, family and probably a mistress.

Located about a quarter mile north of the highway, construction on the house was completed sometime between 1825 and 1830, according to research performed by the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation.

The home, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, still maintained much of its originality when the project began, although restoring the house and sustaining its integrity took several years, Davis says.

In November Davis and Guillory were presented with an annual preservationist award by the Preservationists of St. Landry, Inc., during a ceremony held at the Michel Prudhomme Home on Prudhomme Circle.

“We were looking for an old home at the time and Elizabeth and her family are from the parish. The property had changed hands over time and we realized the significance of the land and the house as we were doing our research,” Davis says.

As Davis dove deeper into the history of the house, he additionally realized the house was built by Donato, who many think was potentially the richest man in St. Landry during much of the antebellum period.

The Guillory family, says Etha Amling, a double descendant of Martin Donato, originates from Donato, whose two-story, 19th century constructed house is described by historians as a French Creole plantation home with a series of Federal-style details.

What’s Been Done
“It’s been marvelously restored. The doors are original. There are fireplaces upstairs and downstairs. The stairway to the second floor leads from the outside, like the one at the Prudhomme home and we feel there was a painting of Martin (Donato) which was placed over one of the fireplaces,” Amilng said.

Guillory and Davis are converting a small bedroom adjacent to a larger bedroom into a spacious bathroom, which Amling assumes was once occupied by a young slave girl named Julie, who gave birth to several Martin Donato children.

Elizabeth Guillory says although the house undoubtedly possesses many family secrets, she and Davis have been unable to detect any paranormal activity since moving in.

The Importance Of The House

From a distance, the house has a unique appearance, due to what apparently is a later addition which stares back at motorists moving down La. 182.

The state historical researchers who have inspected the house, feel that in 1900, a side wing was attached to the house,

Research performed on the Donato house indicates that many transoms are located above the windows, in addition to the enlarged west room, which additionally provides a Victorian motif that blends with the Creole style architecture.

“The house still easily retains the bulk of its original French Creole characteristics. In short, the Donato House is still easily recognizable as a substantial Creole residence built near the end of the first third of the 19th century,” according to state researchers.

Despite the enormity of his personal wealth which included several thousand acres, the researchers are certain that Donato lived primarily in the house from the time it was completed until his death in 1848.

Shorty before his death, court records show, Amling said, that Martin Donato emancipated Julie and her children. 

Donato descendants which have become prominent in St. Landry include the Lemelle, Simien, Meuillon and Guillory families, the state research says.