The ship captain’s table that often serves as a bar, along with the elk antlers nestled beneath were purchased from Ann Koerner Antiques. The green velvet Directoire chair is the first chair deemed “good” by Fort’s close friend and mentor, Gerrie Bremermann. The painted cypress barber pole was an early purchase and said to be from a Dryades Street establishment.
Home to a thoroughly modern family, this 1862 raised center-hall cottage reflects the contemporary influence of New Orleans' most celebrated professionals in restoration, preservation and style
It’s not my dream house,” were Vesta Fort’s first words when she saw the flier advertising the raised center-hall Garden District cottage up for auction at the Orleans Parish Sheriff Sale. At the courthouse she threw caution to the wind, and as fate would have it, placed the winning bid on a house she had never set foot in.
When she crossed the threshold of her new home for the first time, it still was not her dream house, but it had great classical bones. Built in 1862 for a German coppersmith, legend has it that in the early days of the Civil War, roofers watched Admiral Farragut’s Union fleet sailing up the Mississippi River to capture the port of New Orleans. Forced into auction just two years after completion, the newly built cottage raised on eight-foot brick piers, with its ample gardens and attached kitchen, sold for $7,750. In 1924, Thomas Bernard Norton acquired the home for the bargain price of $5,000, and his descendents held the property for almost a century.
Over the ensuing decades, owners added their own touches while maintaining the home’s classic center-hall structure. The main floor has soaring 14-foot ceilings and classical understated molding. The attic was finished along the way to create three bedrooms and a bath. The Bernard family enclosed the basement in the 1950s to create a party space as well as a studio for their daughter to practice ballet, complete with mirrors and a barre. The family frequently entertained in the basement “ballroom” and the house, with its gracious lines and airy proportions, remains a popular stop on Garden District tours to this day.
When the Forts purchased the property in late 2012, they were looking for a place to raise their three children and create a home for their extended family and friends to gather. “I love to host, it’s in my blood, and while I didn’t grow up in a fancy house, it was big and there were lots of parties,” says Fort about her childhood home in Arkansas.
The warm and cozy library is the single room where Fort was insistent on her vision. She painted the room three times to achieve the base color before enlisting friend and artist Gretchen Weller Howard to glaze the walls to create “the perfect plum.” The chairs were a flea market find and have been recovered several times “because they are everyone’s favorite place to sit,” says Fort.
Enlisting her close friend and restoration expert Michael Carbine to handle the project, Fort went to work on the finishes. The collaboration is nothing less than an authentic representation of their unique talents. Carbine, a preservationist at heart and a master at exposing a structure’s bones without desecrating its character, went to work opening up the double parlors to create one large, light-filled room for living and entertaining, incorporating a pair of Greek Revival mantels originally in other rooms in the house.
Oddly, the most difficult challenge was replacing the cramped spiral staircase that led to the basement and the switchback stair that had been added to access the upstairs bedrooms. For this, Carbine went straight to the source and added back a gorgeous, classic staircase with custom spindles and newel posts in keeping with those of the period.
Itching to add her signature modern touch, Fort wanted an open, all-white kitchen, which Carbine felt would be a departure from the renovation aesthetic in play. The magic happened when Carbine suggested a beautifully aged beam salvaged from the double parlors to top the kitchen island and exposed the original ceiling joists, providing the perfect counterpoint to Fort’s sleek white Nordic cabinets and zinc countertops. The addition of three French doors which open onto the back gallery fill the room with light and provide a lifeguard’s view of the country club-size pool.
The new kitchen is the heart of the house and the comfortable flow from room to room invites the frequent dinner guest to pull up a stool and watch as Fort cooks up a feast.
The Fort family lives there with three dogs, a cat, two guinea pigs (up for adoption) a backyard chicken coop and a fish. Says Fort, “As a decorator, I always feel there is so much left to do, but in creating your dream house, there always is.”
Fort says the master bed was her attempt to take an ugly cypress bed and make it a “Gerrie” bed. The Louis Philippe commode and Empire chair were early purchases from Karla Katz Antiques. The painting is a coveted Auseklis Ozols oil sketch of a nautilus that was a gift from the painter to her husband’s mother.
The Lucite console has been the centerpiece of every one of Fort’s houses since she retrieved it from the barn where tastemakers Rodney and Frances Smith stored their castoffs.
The dining room table has three leaves and can seat ten when positioned in front of the custom banquette. In an incredible bit of collector’s serendipity, Fort sold the table to a customer in Houston while working for at Bremermann Designs. Years later she was amazed to discover it at New Orleans Auction just when she needed it most. The painting is by San Antonio artist Franco Mondini-Ruiz.
The daybed in Fort’s office is one of a pair purchased from Bush Antiques. The silk screen atop the painted bun foot dresser is by her brother William de Yampert and the envelope a gift from artist George Dunbar
Fort says the white Eames chair in the master bedroom was an indulgence inspired by New Orleans design influencer Gerrie Bremermann, “who always added a tiny touch of modern to create tension in a classic room.”
Fort refers to the guest suite as “a room for everything leftover.” Its moss green walls and ethnic textiles hearken back to her early days as a collector.
Michael Carbine recreated the center-hall stair in keeping with the home’s classical elements.
Fort's son, Arthur, on the front steps with the family canines Princess, Jack and Leo.
The kitchen’s modern light fixture, high gloss cabinets and zinc countertops are Fort’s nod to modernism. Its antiques, open shelving and repurposed beam that serves as the large wooden island provide the traditional design counterpoint. The marble top table is one of the premier pieces in New Orleans Decorator Gerrie Bremermann’s select eponymous collection.