A Family Builds a Dream Home
Connie Gowland called on the professional talents of her close-knit family to build her home.
When Connie Gowland decided to build a new house, Lake Vista seemed the natural choice. Having lived there during her teen years, she had fond memories of growing up close to Lake Pontchartrain and already owned a piece of property just blocks from her childhood home. She didn’t have to look far for help with the design either. Her son, architect Ken Gowland of MetroStudio, has a master’s degree in architecture from Yale University and was one of the architects chosen as part of Global Green’s Holy Cross Project. He has designed numerous residential and commercial spaces (including the redevelopment of the Joy Theater on Canal Street) across the city. Her daughter, Colleen, a graphic designer, helped select colors and fabrics. The builder, Brandon Construction; the landscape architect, Christian Thonn; the project manager; the ironworker; the tech adviser; the lead carpenter; the assistant carpenter – even the heating and air conditioning people: All are relatives.
“Building a house is such an undertaking,” says Connie, who herself has worked professionally as a decorator. “It was great to be able to have this group of individuals where there was a string of trust. We knew what we wanted without always having to speak.”
The idea was to design a home that would fit in with the unique character of the neighborhood, require minimal upkeep and offer lots of room for family and friends. Having built the plantation-style home where she raised her children and renovated a historic five-bay shotgun near Bayou St. John, she knew she wanted a clutter-free environment that was a reflection of where she was in her life. She also wanted the house to have a minimalist gallery quality for displaying the colorful, expressionistic art of her late son, Patrick.
Ken, who’d studied the Lake Vista development while an undergrad at Louisiana State University, delved deeper into the area’s history and paid careful attention to creating a house that took advantage of the neighborhood as it was intended. “Lake Vista was one of the first suburban master plans that broke away from the traditional historic development patterns of New Orleans,” Ken says, referring to the subdivision’s “superblock” design in which main arteries go around the neighborhood rather than through it, interior streets end in culs-de-sac and there is a separate network of pedestrian lanes and parkways. “With the lanes and parkways, it really requires a different design. In Lake Vista, the street side is actually defined as the backyard and the lane side or parkway side is defined as the front yard. We designed the house such that it really has no front, side or rear.”
The decision to design a modernist house was also an homage to the architectural heritage of the area. Designed in the 1930s as part of the Orleans Levee Board’s flood protection plan, Lake Vista grew rapidly during the post-World War II baby boom years and is home to some notable mid-century modern homes. From the outside, even a trained eye might have to look twice to determine whether the Gowland house is an original example of mid-century modern architecture that’s been revitalized or a new house that draws on that 20th-century vernacular.
As the latter, it has the advantage of blending classic elements of the iconic modernist style (flat roofs, rectilinear lines, open floor plans and expanses of glass) while also meeting the challenge of being a smaller, more efficient house that still provides the kinds of amenities that Connie is used to. Mid-century modern houses often had small galley-style kitchens viewed primarily as utility spaces, but today’s homeowners see the kitchen as the heart of the home and like to use it for entertaining. They also want larger, more luxurious bathrooms and plenty of closet space. “A lot of what we’re seeing now is designing houses for the baby boom generation,” Ken says. “They’re still very active. They don’t need the infrastructure for the kids, but they want to have room for the grandkids.” The answer, Ken says, was to create a house with four main volumes – a public space composed of living, dining and kitchen areas; the master suite; the guest bedrooms and their bath; and the service wing containing the garage, storage and laundry facilities. Also helpful in pulling off the home Connie wanted were creating a sense of space in the public and private areas with 12-foot ceilings and partial walls; shedding extra bedrooms, ancillary storage space and wasted square footage such as that taken up by most formal dining rooms; and marrying the interior and exterior spaces, an architectural characteristic that is typical of mid-century modern homes. Ken arranged the four interlocking forms on the site in a manner that defines the two courtyard areas of the home: one with green space, the other with a pool and patio.
“The pool and patio was a must for her,” says Ken of his mother, who also had included a pool in the first house she built for her young family.
To warm the modern architecture, Ken used cypress paneling on both the interior and exterior. “Modern design can get a little cold and institutional,” he says. “Bringing in materials that have texture and warmth is a way to balance that while still keeping it very clean and ordered.”
Likewise, Connie furnished the space with a spare arrangement of modern furnishings by Roche Bobois and then softened the edges by incorporating some of her older pieces from previous homes. With input from Colleen, she also offset the severity of the neutral background and clean-lined pieces with punches of lively color and Patrick’s paintings placed prominently in the mix.
Other details throughout the house can be attributed to family members, as well. A large round paper lamp in the dining room – originally sold as a pendant fixture – was found by Connie’s daughter-in-law, rewired by a nephew and placed atop a custom metal stand made by another nephew. The grouping of black-and-white family photos on the wall leading to the master suite was framed and given to Connie by her daughter. A piece of art made with the rustic remnants of a barn that once stood on the family’s Mississippi farm is courtesy of Ken.
Outside of the family network, Caroline Robert of perch. helped source furnishings, fabrics, rugs and lighting, and Meredith Grover of Stafford Tile & Stone helped with ideas in both the kitchen and baths. All floor tile is from Floor & Décor Design Gallery.
The finished house is vastly different from the first family home that Connie built, but the result is a place where the Gowland family feels like they’ve come full circle. “We feel like we’ve come home again,” Connie says. “It feels like the house they grew up in because the whole family was involved. There’s a sense of peace and calm and tranquility and family. That’s kind of what I’m about. I’m a typical New Orleans mom: You don’t call; you just stop by.”