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House Fluent

Learning the language of your home to achieve the right look

Jason Raish illustration

When a renovation project wraps up, it’s always gratifying to hear compliments from friends and neighbors — but with the completion of the latest project on our house, one compliment was by far the most gratifying:

“It looks like the house was always meant to be that way.”

That is precisely what my wife and I were trying to achieve with an addition to our home. We wanted to add space yes, but in a way that expressed, rather than diminished, the soul of the place.

It didn’t happen by accident, and it almost didn’t happen at all.

With any type of historic renovation – even of a 1950s “modern” house, like ours — the available materials and popular aesthetic insensitivity generally work against getting it right. For that reason, do it yourself design is frequently a bad idea. Architects (good ones, at least) are there in good part to keep their customers from doing something stupid.

In our case, I had assurance from an architect friend that we weren’t doing anything stupid and moreover, that we didn’t need his services. That seal of approval, however, came three years after we bought our house.

In the meantime, we pondered our addition project, and the years we spent living in the pre-renovation house were critical. As the months passed, we learned to read the house. We got a sense of the themes in the architect’s mind when he designed it; his intermittent use of masonry walls inside and out; the intersection of these planes with planes made of other materials like glass, sheetrock and stucco; the use of clerestory windows in every room, even in one room with no outside walls; the careful exclusion of direct western sunlight through the windows.

We knew the name of the architect who designed and built the house in 1955, John Rock. This allowed me to gather information from Tulane University’s Architectural Archives on some of his other work. As it happened, he had designed several other houses in the neighborhood during the same era. On walks with the dog, I would pass these houses, noting the common themes and considering how we might apply them to our addition.

It got to the point where the renovation wasn’t just for us. It became a tribute to the architect, a World War II veteran who died in 2009. I looked at every picture of his work on which I could get my hands. I talked to people who knew him. I wanted our renovation to honor him by speaking his architectural language as best we could.

That meant immersing ourselves in the architecture of the time. We bought books on the Case Study House program of the 1940s through 1960s, on Eichler’s modernist developments in California and on various favorite midcentury architects. Those books sat on our coffee table at all times.

Speaking our architect’s language also meant paying attention to the similarities and differences between him and his contemporaries in New Orleans; the stoicism of Curtis & Davis; the clean futurism of Charles Colbert, John Lawrence and Charles Rowe; the Frank Lloyd Wright-tinged playfulness of Albert Ledner and Philip Roach. We drove around. We took pictures.

Even after all that, my wife and I still hesitated. We didn’t want to screw up the house. That’s where doing a rendering and getting the final nod from an architect friend gave us the courage to proceed.

Every New Orleanian who owns a historic house and plans to alter it has an obligation to read Lloyd Vogt’s “New Orleans Houses: A House-Watcher’s Guide.” It takes readers through the fundamental house types and styles in New Orleans from the colonial period through the modern period. It enlivens a walk through any historic neighborhood, giving you the knowledge to roughly date each dwelling. It teaches you the basics of a Greek Revival versus say, an Italianate dwelling. More importantly, it teaches you not to put Craftsman-style doors on your Eastlake-style double shotgun, or vice versa. The renovator of a Creole cottage ought to know the history of Creole cottages; how they originally functioned and why; and what features distinguish them from other home types in New Orleans.

But for those who can’t be troubled to take an interest in all this, it’s best to leave the design work entirely to a good, local architect.

 

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