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Fourth Annual Renaissance Awards

New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles and the Preservation Resource Center honor five historically sensitive renovations

J. Wardlaw Witherspoon Jr. [ Uptown ]

SARA ESSEX BADLEY PHOTOGRAPHS

J. Wardlaw Witherspoon Jr.   [ Uptown ]
What was the reason for your renovation? I am in the restoration business, and with my two sons, Wardlaw Witherspoon III and John Witherspoon, we were looking for a project that we could do together.

What was your goal for the renovation when you started? Our goal was to find an old unique building that needed a lot of work. We wanted to do much of the work ourselves, not just to save money but to be a learning and hands-on project. In the end it was going to be [my sons’] home.

Then we found this abandoned solid masonry building that was not far from collapsing. After spending a little time there, we realized that this could be that very unique project. This 100-year-old building was built as a mule barn but mostly used as a bakery. It was completely open space with 18-foot ceilings. It had been abandoned for the last 25 years and 50 percent of the roof had fallen in. The 12-inch-thick walls had major cracks, and most of the top 24 inches of the masonry walls had deteriorated. Both sides had large metal hopper windows that had either fallen out or were badly rusted. The only thing that was keeping the building from collapsing was the metal truss system, also badly rusted.

What challenges did you encounter during the renovation? This building presented many challenges, but the first was to get the building permits. There were a number of permits and waivers needed, and we received a lot of help from the Preservation Resource Center and Historic Districts Landmarks Commission in obtaining these permits and waivers. Second was to temporarily support the truss system so that the masonry walls could be repaired and a new roof framing system and roof installed. Before pouring a new concrete slab, we installed the underground plumbing and electrical. This slab had a structural beam down the middle. This allowed us to build a bearing firewall to support the metal trusses and to separate the building to make two town house-style units. We did not replace the roof over the first two bays, allowing us to use this area as either a patio or off-street parking. We installed two very large, heavy wood motorized doors at the front in the existing openings.

Across the rear of the building was a mezzanine, and this area allowed us to build bedrooms, bathrooms and closets. When the project was completed, each side had 1,750 square feet, three bedrooms, three baths, a laundry room and the great room.

What is your favorite part of the renovation/your favorite feature or area? In the end, this one-and-a-half year project far exceeded our expectations. What is going to be most memorable is that we did this as a family. Today my two sons live here: Wardlaw with his wife and two kids live in one side, and John lives in the other side.

Lydia and Blair Francis Scanlon   [ University District ]
What was the reason for your renovation? Lydia: My husband, Blair, and I moved to the Northshore in 1992 and raised our three daughters there. With Blair working in New Orleans and having to make a long commute twice each day and our girls off to college or pursuing careers, we began to think about moving back to New Orleans. So when my godmother died and her house near Audubon Park became available, we decided to buy her house and take the plunge. This was a wonderful home, which I had played in as a child, and it held great memories for me. I told Blair that we could only do the house justice if our friend Michael Carbine would agree to do the renovation. We asked, and he said yes.

What was your goal for the renovation when you started? Lydia: The house was built in the 1890s from lumber that was used in some of the buildings in the 1884 World Exposition that was held in Audubon Park. The house is narrow, only about 23 feet wide, and sits on a very small lot. We needed more space to satisfy our requirements but were landlocked and couldn’t add to the footprint. We therefore decided to go up and add a second level. It sounded perfect to me, but I had to coerce Blair into taking on a project of this nature as opposed to just finding an existing house to suit our needs. To his credit, he went along with the program, and we embarked on a true adventure.

What challenges did you encounter during the renovation? Lydia: Truthfully, the biggest challenge that Michael and I had was getting past Blair on every decision. He so loves the end result but was shocked along the way when the renovation involved literally taking the house apart and starting over. Michael did a fabulous job of retaining the integrity and character of the old house, and we can’t be more pleased with the result. He reused the original windows, interior doors and transoms and put in new wood floors using a stack of 120-year-old heart-of-pine planking we found in the attic. He also put some of the wood on the ceiling in the kitchen.

What is your favorite part of the renovation/your favorite feature or area? Blair and Lydia: Our favorite part of the renovation was working with Michael Carbine. He made everything so easy for us. We didn’t have to pick out a single doorknob, bathroom fixture, sink or bathtub! He has wonderful taste, style and great attention to detail. We love the sense of proportion in the end result and are crazy about the finishes. From the wood floors to the two French mantels to our antique French tiles in the bar and an antique French door that he put in the kitchen as the pantry door, Michael’s attention to detail and taste have helped make our home truly special. One by one, our three girls have all moved back home at some time or another through life and career changes, and sharing that time together in our newly renovated home has been a wonderful experience for us.

Valorie Hart and Alberto Paz [ Irish Channel ]
What was the reason for your renovation? Valorie: We wanted to preserve and live in an old New Orleans house, to help save a city neighborhood by becoming a positive part of it. The house had seen better days, and it deserved
to see them again. It is remarkable to think that the humble shotgun houses built over 100 years ago for the working classes survived storms and hurricanes, termites and neglect.

What was your goal for the renovation when you started? Valorie: We didn’t want to do a renovation that destroyed the feeling of an old New Orleans home. We like to call what was done a sensitive restoration and a soft renovation. The original footprint was kept intact as much as possible. The rooms are smaller than modern houses, very human in scale. No walls came down to accommodate a more modern floor plan. Things were updated, but no spa bathrooms or a huge family room were added. Still the house is not an antique replica. It is very comfortable. We are not deprived of any modern conveniences.

What challenges did you encounter during the renovation? Valorie: What challenges does one not encounter? And even after a renovation is complete, the work is never done when you live in a house over 100 years old.

What is your favorite part of the renovation/your favorite feature or area? Valorie: The interior design and decoration is our favorite part of the house. We live in each and every room. We just recently restored our patio and yard that suffered the wrath of Katrina, and we so enjoy seeing that part of the house look as pretty as the inside.

Beverly McKenna   [ Upper Treme ]
What was the reason for your renovation? Esplanade Avenue, especially that section bounded by Rampart and North Broad streets, has long been one of my favorite areas in all of New Orleans. Intersecting the Sixth and Seventh wards, Esplanade Avenue cuts a swath through the neighborhoods where the McKenna family lived and served going back generations. When a young Mayor Marc Morial made his first-term rallying cry – “Let’s rebuild New Orleans now!” – we enthusiastically caught the spirit and targeted one block on Esplanade Avenue and the surrounding area as a neighborhood in which to invest our time and resources. The New Orleans Tribune office was already located in this particular block, and Morial was our next-door neighbor and good friend. (We had many late-evening conversations on how we wanted to improve the city.)
 
What was your goal for the renovation when you started? Although the 1859 Greek Revival located at 2336 Esplanade was “down on its ears,” it was a structure that I had long admired. When the owner died, her heirs approached us about purchasing it, telling us that “Aunt Yvonne” wanted us to have it because she knew that we would “do right by it.” After much deliberation, I purchased it with the commitment to return it to its former glory and to continue efforts to improve and reclaim (but not gentrify) the neighborhood for those who had built and lived in the area for generations.
 
What challenges did you encounter during the renovation? The most disheartening challenges encountered in the process were two unscrupulous, dishonest, “get-over” contractors who betrayed my trust.
 
What is your favorite part of the renovation/your favorite feature or area? The house has “good bones,” and it hadn’t been altered in any significant way. Just returning it to its original beauty and seeing it come back to life and commerce has been very satisfying. Family members own other parcels in this same block, and I live and work there, as well, so knowing that what we have done here has had positive spillover effects on the entire neighborhood makes me feel good.

You are aware that people of African descent have owned 80 percent of the property in this area going back to the Spanish Colonial times.

After Katrina and the dispersal of the local residents throughout the country, we thought 2336 Esplanade Ave. was a perfect location for Le Musée de f.p.c., a house museum dedicated to the legacy and story of free people of color. We have located [here] our private collection of artifacts, documents and other examples of the material culture of these people who have left an indelible imprint on this city.

Residents of the neighborhood and the entire city have expressed pride in what we have done, and that makes us happy. We want to share this story with students, residents, tourists – with the world.

Wes and Melinda McWhorter [ Irish Channel ]
What was the reason for your renovation? Wes and Melinda: We both really admire and appreciate the traditional and unique architectural styles of New Orleans, and we loved the idea of transforming this humble house into something that would work really well for our small family. We’re both “hands-on doers,” and the idea that we could contribute sweat equity to this project was really exciting. While we were fortunate enough to work with a great group of tradespeople, we also feel strongly that this house is really of our hands and turned out to be so much more beautiful than we could have envisioned. We also are so pleased with the history and community afforded us by this neighborhood. Melinda: On a personal note, I was born a Flynn, and my father’s Irish-German family has a long history here. It has been especially meaningful to invest time and energy into a house that has a working-class New Orleans history that reminds me of my father’s family’s successes and struggles.

What was your goal for the renovation when you started? Wes and Melinda: Our general goals were to preserve as much of the historical features of the home as possible while upgrading the home to reflect modern efficiency standards. For instance, we reveled over the beautiful bargeboards that framed the house when the old plaster came off. While we had to remove a section of the house that was unsalvageable, we preserved all the wood from that section and have reused much of it for our interior and decorative carpentry. Our house is also filled with original beadboard that came from the interior demolition. The list goes on!

What challenges did you encounter during the renovation? Wes and Melinda: The challenges that we encountered were manageable and often involved keeping our “green” standards while staying within a reasonable budget.

Every detail was considered in this regard, and it was often stressful. A good example is the stressors involved with heating and air. Gas or electric? One system or two? If we’re making the house an insulated “envelope,” how can we afford the machinery required to move air in and out? Have we mentioned that the previous resident had up to 20 cats living inside the tiny shotgun before we bought it? We won’t even go into the horrors of that challenge! In all seriousness, though, we asked a lot of questions, did late-night Internet research and sought advice to get to a comfortable place with all of these challenges.

What is your favorite part of the renovation/your favorite feature or area? Wes and Melinda: Wow, a favorite part – hard to say! We love all the little parts of the house that show us where it’s been before us: the kitchen cabinetry that incorporates that good old salvaged wood, the stairway where we have some beautiful metalwork for the handrails interwoven with salvaged wood, the old crooked chimney that served the inhabitants of this house for almost a century-and-a-half before we set foot here. Having a screened-in back porch, along with a front porch for greeting the many people who walk on our street – those are also wonderful to have.

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