New Build of the Year
Natural materials, organic elements and a mix of furnishings warm up designer Donna Russell’s modern aesthetic, giving her interiors a human touch.
Sara Essex Bradley
For years, a lot across from the historic ruins of Spanish Fort on Bayou St. John sat empty, seemingly awaiting the right buyer with the right vision. That buyer was Kevin Lagrazie, owner of a large, traditional house on Orleans Avenue. Lagrazie was looking to downsize. He loved the Lake Vista area and quickly snapped up the vacant property. To help bring to fruition his dream of a contemporary house on the bayou — an area steeped in history and lore —
Lagrazie called upon Dodie Smith, principal of the architecture firm C. Spencer Smith, and interior designer Donna Russell.
“Views, access and orientation always play a part in decisions,” says Smith, whose work Lagrazie had long admired. “This home has an historic fort site located directly in front. Our major rooms, living, dining and elevated kitchen, bar area (and the master bedroom on the second floor) have direct views of the levee and the remains of Spanish Fort. For personal, private exterior space, we retained a large oak shaded side yard which these rooms abut as well.”
Top, left: The sectional couch designed by the Italian company, Minotti, has built in leather end tables. Custom drapes by Fabrics Second to None. Bottom, left: Fine art photography by Lisa Conrad is nestled in next to the fireplace in the living room. Bottom right: The modern fireplace bisects the open floor plan allowing for a second seating area with a Minotti swivel lounge chair, West Elm daybed, and custom monogrammed pillows. The carpet used in the living room and bedrooms is a true soft nylon product that mimics wool and silk. Facing page: An overview of the open floor plan affords two seating areas, and a dining area — all with a view onto the bayou. Lighting fixtures from Eclectic Home.
Smith is well versed in the language of contemporary design, but also has vast experience in the historical. She served on the Vieux Carre Commission for years, and then assisted the Orleans Parish School Board and the Recovery School District in the renovations and rehabilitations of the historic schools.
“[In] New Orleans, our neighborhoods are distinct,” says Smith. “My response to a new or renovated home Uptown is very different to that in Lake Vista. I do not agree in conforming (the design) to (the) neighborhood (architectural style). However, as a contemporary home, I worked on the simple geometry and balance of the design and find it ‘fits’ by not being too obvious or contrived. I think it is a handsome response to my client and his site, further enhanced by his interior designer.”
Critics of contemporary design often describe it as cold or unapproachable. By introducing natural materials such as zebrawood for the cabinets, as well as organic elements and a mix of furnishings however, Russell — with whom Lagrazie worked on his Orleans Avenue home — cultivates depth and a human touch.
“The design sensibility is traditional [in New Orleans], says Russell. “People are so used to this traditional style that when they see contemporary design, they like its freshness, but don’t know how to achieve it for themselves.”
A cozy sitting area on the upstairs landing. Acrylic and metal chair is from the showroom of Jade Interior Design.
Since Russell, Smith and Lagrazie were starting from scratch, it was an opportunity to shape a new, fresh vision. A hard-edged, yet sculptural staircase is softened by the incorporation of wood. The glass banister disappears allowing the design of the stairs to stand out. Contractor Leo Galvan also helped design and build a distinct lighting element combining silver and gold leafed oil lid disks and LED lighting.
Most of the living room furniture came from Smink Inc., located in the Dallas Design Center. The dining table is from Restoration Hardware’s RH Modern collection with lighting fixtures in the living and dining area, as well as nightstands, lamps and custom upholstered bed, in the master bedroom from Eclectic Home. Fabrics Second to None did the custom window treatments, including hardware and installation. The cabinetry (except for closets and office) came from Adda, which was also the source for flooring, backsplashes and custom rugs, with the closets and office by California Closets. Assembled on site, the Stairway Shop built the staircase in their facility. Custom mirrors, cut glass tabletops and glass for the bathroom showers are all from C Glass.
While the team submitted plans to City Hall in October of 2014, and broke ground in January of 2015, the house wasn’t completed until July of 2016.
Top: The spacious open plan living room has sweeping views of Spanish Fort and Bayou St. John. Bottom Left: A favorite textile from the home owner’s art collection is featured in a prime spot. The industrial console table made from tractor parts is a flea market find. Bottom Right: Wide plank oak wood floors are stained dark throughout the second floor. The cabinetry in the home office is from California Closets. Light fixture from Eclectic Home.
“You have to be prepared for problems and set backs,” says Russell. “The global economy and internet resources mean that you have access to materials from around the world, but your project can be held at the mercy of events happening far away. When exotic and unusual materials are used, there is a bigger risk. For example, the large commercial windows were delayed in production setting the whole project back for months.”
Adding to the setbacks were the usual issues designers and builders face with city bureaucracy and red tape.
Lagrazie had total trust in Smith and Russell for every aspect of the project however and as of the writing of this piece had not been to the site, because he wanted the thrill of the big reveal.
Top, left: The view from the custom made mahogany wood and steel front door opens onto the bayou. Front knot garden was planted by Freret Garden and Landscaping. Top, right: The clear glass stair railing affords a dramatic view to the the downstairs space. The mixture of textures give warmth to the modern design. Bottom left: Large metal discs in the stairwell are back lit for a dramatic effect. The large, lantern ceiling fixture is from Eclectic Home. Bottom right: A deft mixture of furniture in the dining area featuring a modern dining table with brass legs, contemporary wooden arm chairs and a traditional bench upholstered in curly lamb, along with a modern lighting fixture above the table create a sophisticated, layered look.
Top, left: The master bedroom features a bed from Eclectic Home that was custom upholstered. Bedding by Fabrics Second to None. Cerused oak nightstand from Eclectic Homes. Top, right: The master bathroom features a Victoria and Alberto Napoli tub from the Minimalist Contemporary collection. There is access to the balcony that runs along the side of the house. Bottom left: Menswear fabrics were the inspiration for the design throughout the home. Large scale tile with a felt-like texture dovetails with this idea. The clean lines of the bathroom’s Danze fixtures add to the masculine charm. Bottom, right: The dressing room off the master bathroom features cabinetry by California Closets. Toss pillow from Eclectic Home.
Spanish Fort through the years
Around 1701, the French built a fort at the mouth of the languid waters of what is now known as Bayou St. John, where it flowed into Lake Pontchartrain, calling it Fort St. John on the Bayou. When the Spanish claimed the territory it was called Fort San Juan del Bayou, eventually shortened to St. John Fort, and ultimately simplified to today’s iteration, Spanish Fort.
Spanish Fort has seen its fair share of reinvention as it moved into modern times. Once decommissioned, it became a hotel, a fashionable resort and an amusement park. When the park closed down in 1926, the old fort was abandoned and nature took its course to reclaim it. It became a favorite spot in Lake Vista to jog, fish, picnic or just enjoy a warm day under the shade trees along the banks of the bayou.
The ruins of the fort remain, along with plenty of folklore, including a story about a Spanish officer falling in love with a Native American princess. Her father, the chief, killed the Spanish officer (Sancho Pablo). The chief’s daughter came to the grave every night mourning the loss of her love, and it is rumored she has been coming to the grave on every night thereafter. Legend has it that the sound of a woman’s cries can still be heard, the grief stricken maiden eternally mourning her lost love. The grave of Sancho Pablo still remains.
Today, residents of Lake Vista enjoy the recreational benefits of the bayou. The ruins are a popular site for school field trips and are visited regularly by tourists.
Top: The kitchen features zebrawood cabinets and stove hood. Hematite-colored bar stools add sparkle along with the Minera quartz countertops and island. Custom Roman shade by Fabrics Second to None. Bottom left: A massive wine cooler was added to house the homeowner’s wine collection. Bottom right: A view into the kitchen. Black stainless steel bar stools from Eclectic Home.