New Build of the Year
Ross Karsen and Sarah Wiseman’s contemporary home complements a historic setting.
Photography by Sara Essex Bradley
It’s hard to miss the house that architect Ross Karsen and his wife, artist Sarah Wiseman, built in the Bywater. The modern structure is dipped in eye-catching Creole colors. While contemporary, there is something familiar and comfortable that pays homage to the architectural vernacular of a historic residential neighborhood. It is a two-story structure with a pitched roof, shutters, and what would have been known as a dependency at the back of the house, used as Wiseman’s art studio. A second-story deck bridges the main house to the studio, which is raised to second-story height. The space under the studio is open with no first floor.
The house is situated on a corner lot that had been vacant. Karsen, who designed the home, says, “I was looking all over town, mostly on high ground. I was interested in working with a small lot within a historic neighborhood as a chance to respond and reflect on the historic housing styles, while exploring what a contemporary evolution of local vernacular might be.”
Left: The modern exterior highlights the architectural vernacular of New Orleans. Right: Traditional materials of wood and corrugated steel are used in a fresh modern way
The open floor plan on the main level has double height ceilings.
The Historic District Landmarks Commission put the owners through their paces, asking Karsen to defend erecting a two-story structure. A bar occupied the site from at least 1850-1950. It burned sometime between 1950-1985. Ross Karsen tells us, “I have not met anyone who remembers what it looked like. Sanborn maps show it was a one-story building with an awning over the sidewalk, probably something like the building Markey’s [a nearby bar] now occupies.” In order to get approval from the HDLC, Karsen had to provide renderings of what two-story homes would look like on his block. After assuring them that his proposed home would respect the integrity of the neighborhood aesthetic, they let him proceed.
There was a building boom after Hurricane Katrina, with many new houses going up employing new construction techniques and designs. The modern versions of shotgun houses in the Ninth Ward cropped up in open fields where neighborhoods once flourished. Known as the “Brad Pitt” houses, they were innovative and startling. Tulane architecture students also designed modern homes that cropped up in other neighborhoods, streamlined versions of the old shotgun style. Many new built homes were replicas of hundred-year-old homes. Early thoughts on the use of prefabricated materials with new techniques being used post Katrina, were considered by Karsen, but in the end the tried and true classic wood framing won out. Both wood and metal cladding are utilized, a mixed use of standard finishes that is exciting and fresh.
left: The dining area opens to a deck through modern French-style doors.
right: Metal and wire comprise a railing on the second floor where the office is located.
left: Windows span the entire height of the two floors.
right: The honeycomb shelves were custom-made by Kyle Ingebretson.
Karsen and Wiseman spent two years designing the home and saving money, and then it took 15 months to build. The couple is still applying finishing touches.
You can read a detailed account of the building process from vacant lot to finished home on the blog Karsen kept, bywaterhouse.wordpress.com.
Everything is covered from permits and inspections, to breaking ground and material usage, costs and sources. Karsen acted as the project manager and it is fascinating to read his entire creative experience from plans to finished project.
The layout of the house has an open floor plan on the first floor, with a covered deck off the kitchen for alfresco dining. The open plan includes a guest room that can be made more private with a curtain that draws across the space. The second floor accommodates an office and the master bedroom suite. A wall-designed as an open honeycomb floor to ceiling bookcase divides the office from the stairwell.
The attic is a third floor flex space that has visual sightlines open to the main floor.
Furnishings in the soaring sightlines of the house are minimal but not cold. As a young couple starting out, big-budget items must come with time. Artwork, using both high end and modest priced furnishings, while incorporating a great use of color, create a cheerful, well-designed newly built first home.