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Living History

This Creole town house in Bywater has been lovingly and authentically restored, but far from treating it as a museum, owner Mary Cooper makes herself right at home.

Mary Cooper mixed the terra cotta color of these walls herself to get the precise shade she wanted. Hanging over the table are 18th-century famed Martinet bird prints, and Cooper’s partner, Tomio Thomann, made the stool under the table. The chair, dating to the 1840s, is a cottage Gothic in faux rosewood.

SARA ESSEX PHOTOGRAPH

ntering Mary Cooper’s home comes close to traveling back in time. The two-story Creole town house, with its unadorned baseboards and tart colors, could have stood there nearly 200 years ago. The parlor fireplace boasts a solid black mantelpiece supported by cigar columns. Toile de Jouy panels edged in aqua hang from the walls. A late Baroque Louisiana armoire proudly sits in the corner. Looking closer, modern pipes and wires run along the walls, unhidden yet unobtrusive.

“We wanted to pay homage to what was here,” Cooper says.

Creole town houses populated the Bywater neighborhood in the 1830s when Cooper’s home was built. The simple design comprises two floors with four rooms each and no hallways. The kitchen originally was a separate building behind the house for safety. This building was later joined to the main house, creating a wide room in between the two spaces.

In the 1870s Cooper’s home was converted from a single-family dwelling to a duplex. Over the years, wood floors were covered with layers of cement and tile that couldn’t move with the rest of the house. Unsound staircases and poorly constructed second-floor rooms were hastily added.

Cooper’s daughter bought the house in 2000 at a bargain, but the structural vulnerabilities and years of abuse were too much for her to handle alone. Cooper and her partner, Tomio Thomann, took over in 2002 with the goal of bringing the house back to its previous life. An expert chair caner, Cooper has an eye for antiques and an interest in history. Thomann’s carpentry reflects deep respect for the craftsmanship of the time. They had help from trustworthy carpenters who got into the spirit and became “Creolized,” she says. One even traded his bandanna for a tignon head covering.

“Their real skill was understanding the nature of the building,” Cooper says.

Cooper and Thomann resurrected each room following one basic rule: “Whenever possible, use wood.” One original cypress door provided a template for the rest. Weatherboard walls and exposed beam ceilings were painted in traditional French Creole shades such as faded indigo, mustard ocher and gros rouge. Although they might seem garish and kitschy in modern homes, the colors honor a bygone Creole spirit.

The floors are simple, unvarnished wood appropriate to the age. Unfinished old wood is everywhere: teak, cypress, mahogany, oak. Cooper had to convince a carpenter to sand the kitchen floor without applying finish, promising to seal it herself.

“It would never be appropriate to put a finish on the floor,” she says. “It’s a kitchen, meant to get dirty, and you had to scrub the floors with lye.”

Cooper’s former late-Victorian style didn’t fit the Creole house, so she started fresh. Furniture and artwork came from The Green Project, garage sales, trash piles and friends. The painter’s ladder leaning against the stairwell wall was one of a dozen amassed by a friend. The twin wrought-iron beds in the sparse upstairs guest room, called “the nuns’ room,” were found in a neighbor’s attic. Preservationists haven’t been able to date the humble blacksmith handiwork. Cooper acquired a planter’s chair after the owner couldn’t afford recaning. The chair complements the 19th-century bed in the summer bedroom, which is thus named because it stays cool even in July and August.

Central air didn’t exist when the home was built and isn’t part of the house today. In the summer, open doors and windows circulate air. Uninsulated ceilings allow warm air to escape, producing a cooler second floor. In the summer, the back porch serves as a living room with abundant seating and views of the garden. Cold days chill the house, but warmth can be found in the kitchen where Cooper heats café au lait on a Magic Chef stove, circa 1930. Cooper downsized her belongings but kept her favorites. Pots and pans, including a dark-red strainer she carried around Paris for a day, hang next to the sink. Red and white canisters, a find from southern France, hold sucre and café.

Cooper and Thomann agree they could live with less, in the style of the austere nuns’ room.

“It’s an example of how simply we should live but how many of us can’t in real life,” Thomann says. “Keep what you love; get rid of the rest. That’s what we try to do.”

When Hurricane Katrina hit, they had just put the last of the paint cans away. They left a week later while fires still burned on the river.
“We thought we were saying goodbye to the house,” Cooper says. Fortunately, they returned to only a few leaks and fallen trees. Cooper compares the house to an expensive pet that needs constant care and maintenance but is meant to be loved and shared. The home has hosted holiday dinners and wedding parties — and lately, served as the setting for scenes from a movie adaptation of a Nora Roberts novel. During filming, actress Faye Dunaway threw a candle, flinging wax on the kitchen door. Cooper wasn’t upset.

“It’s just part of the house’s history now,” she says.

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