Atop a coastal salt dome on Lake Peigneur, Rip Van Winkle Gardens is 25 acres surrounding the Joseph Jefferson Home, built in 1870 by acclaimed American actor Joseph Jefferson and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Jefferson purchased "Orange Island" in 1869 and built his winter home here to enjoy the fine hunting and fishing and relatively mild climate of south Louisiana for 36 winter respites from the stage. Though Jefferson performed a great many roles in the theaters around the world, it was the role of Rip Van Winkle, as adapted by Jefferson from the Washington Irving tale that ensured Jefferson's fame. He played the role more than 4,500 times.
After his death in 1905, Jefferson's heirs sold the house and land on March 15, 1917 to John Lyle Bayless, Sr. of Anchorage, Kentucky. His heir, J. Lyle Bayless, Jr., began developing formal gardens surrounding the Joseph Jefferson home in the late 1950's, establishing the "Rip Van Winkle Gardens," named for its former actor-owner. Bayless successfully listed the Jefferson home as a national landmark with the Department of the Interior in 1972 and donated it in 1978 to a foundation which would assure its continued operation for the benefit of the public.
Bayless was widely recognized for his knowledge of and fondness for the camellia. In his writings, he related that he first glimpsed a brilliant red camellia in Natchez, Mississippi, during a stay at an old plantation home there with his mother, while his father hunted on Avery Island. Later, he became enchanted with the "Jeanerette Pink" camellia growing in front of the Jefferson Home in the midst of a bitter winter, when he observed the death of the beautiful pink blossom and its return to life only two weeks later.
In Bayless' development of the gardens, he used large numbers of camellias of a great many varieties and made them floral emphasis of the gardens. He gained distinction for his work with this beautiful southern flower, winning more than 1,000 prize ribbons in the southern states. In 1966 Bayless hired an English horticulturist, Geoffrey Wakefield, to landscape the gardens and the result was a beautiful mixture of camellias, azaleas, crape myrtles and other plants in a series of interlocking gardens.
Bayless continued to collect plants from around the world for his conservatory and a reception area for guests who came to view his gardens. Bayless built a "dreamhouse" right on the edge of Lake Peigneur adjoining the new conservatory and gardens where he planned to enjoy his retirement. This was not going to happen as he lived there for only 9 months until November 20, 1980, when disaster struck. A drilling rig pierced one of the giant salt caverns. Then things began to happen. The water from the lake started draining. The drilling rig and other pieces of equipment were sucked into a whirlpool and disappeared. Men in the mines below noticed water coming in. Miraculously, no one was killed.
Bayless knew soon after the tragic events began to happen that the Island was in danger. He went to the second floor of the new house and watched as the lake drained. The ground under the house was moving and he was forced to evacuate. Upon returning he found his "dream house", the conservatory, the visitors center and 65 acres of the gardens gone - now covered by water in an expanded lake.
The gardens were closed to the public for almost four years.
Bayless died in 1985. The foundation that he had endowed and entrusted sold the property in late 1996 to Carolyn Doerle and her husband, Dr. Ron Ray. They set out to revitalize the site by offering many ways for the public to enjoy the tradition that Bayless and the Foundation started years ago. Doerle ran the property from late 1996 until it closed to the public in July of 2001.
In October 2003 the gardens were sold to Live Oak Gardens, LTD which is owned and operated by Mike and Louise Richard and is located adjacent to the gardens. Gardens' restoration began with the removal of debris and restoration of many buildings. Some of these include the Bayless Conference Center, Cafe' Jefferson, the Caretaker's house, the Joseph Jefferson Mansion, Servant's Quarters and other buildings that were badly neglected for several years.
Mike Richard has many new ideas of what can be done here on Jefferson Island. One is to allow the public to enjoy the grounds and buildings again. The Bayless Conference Center, Cafe' Jefferson, and the Bed and Breakfast facilities are all open and are being rented out at this time. Plans for expansion of the Bed and Breakfast facilities are underway at this time also.