Love in the Ruins

Falling in love with a historic home can be an intense experience. A few simple tips can keep you from ending up with a broken heart and an empty wallet.

Peter Trapolin in front of a Vieux Carré building

Photographed by Cheryl Gerber

Historic houses in New Orleans can be capricious lovers.

You’re captivated by the initial romance of the high ceilings, the voluptuous architectural details and the all-around wabi-sabi. You begin to dream about what a great life you’ll have together, entertaining friends or quietly relaxing.

But as time passes, you notice little imperfections. Things start to go wrong. Skeletons come out of the closet. Money becomes an issue. And the next thing you know, you’re wondering what you ever saw in the place to begin with.

Usually, this part of the magazine is dedicated to issues people face once they’re already in a renovation relationship. But there are certain things to keep in mind even if you’re only still flirting — because Lord knows once you get serious about a historic house, you’re making a commitment.

In that respect, Peter Trapolin, president of Trapolin Architects, is a sort of relationship counselor. He’s spent decades helping residential renovators, among others, come to terms with their old New Orleans homes. His portfolio includes the renovations of such landmarks as the “wedding cake house” on St. Charles Avenue and the 160-year-old Tudor-Gothic Zervigon house on Carrollton Avenue. He’s done a good deal of work in the Vieux Carré. The man knows a thing or two about what historic renovations entail.

If you’re considering buying a fixer-upper, Trapolin’s first piece of advice is to get good inspections done on the house. That means getting good inspectors, both for the overall condition of the house and for termite damage. If your inspector does halfhearted work, you’re bound to get little surprises. Trust me. After my regular inspector stopped working, I hired a new one, based on a real estate agent’s recommendation, and ended up buying a house with a broken water heater, a leaking bathtub and several electrical outlets that weren’t hooked up to electricity. When I called to confront the inspector, he made himself scarce.

Good inspections should give you a clear idea of what kind of remediation work you need to do vis-à-vis termite damage, subsidence and deterioration in the foundation. They should alert you to needed plumbing, mechanical and electrical upgrades. For instance, if you want to put central air in a house with window units, you need to make sure your electrical service can handle it. You may need to do other work as part of your renovation just to bring the house into code compliance.

Naturally, Trapolin also suggests you contact an architect early on. Often, he provides rough sketches to give clients an idea of their options. He sometimes involves a general contractor in the conversation to put a better price on those options. This is critical, Trapolin says, because buyers tend to underestimate the cost of renovation. “People often bite off more than they can chew,” he says.

In many cases, the money must go into the bones and guts of a place — things, Trapolin says, that “don’t necessarily delight the eye.” But there’s little point to doing cosmetic work on a house that’s about to collapse due to a poor foundation.

One major issue is reconciling the charm of the old with slick new conveniences. Trapolin says it’s important to identify the more historic aspects of the house — things you want to preserve. Bottom line, Trapolin says: “If you want to incorporate 21st-century living into a 19th-century house, something’s got to give.”

People simply don’t live today as they once did. We don’t talk about parlors; we talk about family rooms. Armoires have been replaced by walk-in closets. In the bathroom, we shower rather than bathe, or if we bathe, it may be in a giant whirlpool-style tub; countertops and mirrors sprawl across the room. And the kitchen has become a social center. In the old days, Trapolin explains: “The kitchens were for a cook. People didn’t care about the view.”

Often, Trapolin finds himself focusing on the rear portion of a historic house, which was traditionally the most utilitarian. The purpose may be to rip out an unsympathetic rear addition, he says, to open up space for a family room, or to get the inside of the house to relate better to the yard space.
In some cases, providing modern space entails doing an addition, where it’s important to maintain architectural integrity and flow. “When we add on to a house, you generally can’t tell we’ve added on to it,” Trapolin says.

Another important consideration is the regulatory environment. If your renovation plans include adding a penthouse to a Creole town house or slapping some vinyl siding on an Eastlake double shotgun, you need to know whether the law allows it. This is particularly true in the Vieux Carré and in the historic neighborhoods where the Historic District Landmarks Commission has jurisdiction.

What it all comes down to is making sure that you know what the renovation will take and that you have the money to do it. Trapolin advises against doing catchpenny work.

“Doing it right will give you better resale value,” Trapolin says. “A well-renovated house is a real asset on the market.”

And it might make for a better match with its owner.

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