Maria Josephine Armstrong Stewart was born on April 5, 1879 in Austin, Texas. Raised on the Armstrong family ranch, she came to New Orleans where she met Andrew Stewart, a well-heeled cotton broker. The two married on April 18, 1906 and embarked on a European honeymoon. The couple took another trip in 1923, this time extending their travels to Asia and the Middle East.
Two years later the couple purchased Oak Alley, where Josephine threw herself into renovation and landscape design. Enlisting the skill of Koch and Wilson Architects in New Orleans, she moved the staircase to its current, center-hall location, added conveniences and moved walls to accommodate modern living. She also added the Widow’s Walk on the top of the mansion.
Not content with interior design only, Josephine subscribed to every gardening and landscaping magazine available, earmarking inspiration and planting roses and boxwood gardens around the property. In the hands of the Stewarts, Oak Alley became less of a working plantation, and more of a private residence. Antebellum outbuildings, fallen into disrepair, were removed, and the surrounding lawns graded and maintained. Josephine even converted one extremely large chicken coop—a building from the previous owners, the Hardins—into an indoor pool.
Josephine created the Oak Alley Foundation on November 30, 1966. She had made a practice of opening her home for years—to music clubs, garden clubs, 4-H groups and students but was concerned about its future. The foundation was established with 25 acres (3 more acres were acquired at a later date), the mansion, and a board of family members and friends pledged to oversee its preservation. It also included the Oak Alley Mission Statement we follow today:
Oak Alley Foundation is a 501(c)(3) public non-profit trust organized and operated exclusively for charitable, literary and educational purposes. Its Trustees are charged with maintaining and preserving the mansion (Big House) and surrounding twenty-eight (28) acre National Historic Landmark site for public exhibition as an historical monument to the times and area in which the property was built and for the instruction, education, enlightenment, information, edification and cultural benefit of the citizens of the State of Louisiana, the United States and the public generally.
Josephine Stewart died on October 3, 1972 at the age of 93. Out of respect for the woman who ensured this Historic Site would be made available to all, we keep all mansion clocks set to the time of her death.