A Life on the Boards

When builder David L. Trahan speaks of historic home renovation and restoration, there is a certain reverence in his tone. Listening to his take on the critical importance of maintaining the distinctive architecture of New Orleans, one can easily foresee future craftsmen speaking with similar awe of David’s own work.
Consider the former shotgun double on Jefferson Avenue near Tchoupitoulas that David and his partner of 30 years, Steve Kohls, recently converted into a sprawling 3,100-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-bathroom, single family dwelling. “This is a house that shows real quality craftsmanship,” says David. “There are clues—you look at the slate on the fireplace and there are no cracks in it. It suggests the way it was built was solid. If you look at the basic structure and forget about the cosmetics and the walls and trims, you can tell if it was well built. My guess with this house is that a builder may have built if for himself or someone in his family. That is how intricate the work is.”
Little did the original craftsman know that about 130 years later, David, a man with a similar penchant for quality craftsmanship would restore the house as authentically as possible. Part of the project was to build a 1,000-square-foot master-bedroom suite as an addition to the back of the house. “We duplicated all of the woodwork to match the original part of the house and stayed true to the original architecture,” David says. “We tried to go back and do what would be appropriate when the house was built, yet bring it into the 21st century.” That would account for the cable and computer hookups in every room and the state-of-the-art alarm system. Still, a walk through the elegantly restored house is a reminder of the high-end workmanship once common to local homes.
“My philosophy is simply to make it look like it was always there, even if it was not, so you can’t tell what is new and what is old,” David says, an admitted stickler for details. “You have to remember, the builders in the late 1800s and early 1900s didn’t have a SkilSaw or a power drill. They did it all by hand and took pride in what they were doing.”
David, whose company Trahan & Associates has built or restored countless local architectural treasures, says that about 80 percent of the company’s work is residential, augmented by some light commercial work. The Jefferson Avenue house project was one that a less seasoned contractor might have passed up. “The house had aluminum siding, a lot of plaster walls and ceilings that were falling down, plumbing and electrical work that all had to be redone—it was sort of a wreck.”
Still, David expertly saw through the decades of neglect. He could easily see, for example, that the aluminum siding from the 1950s actually helped preserve the wood. The pocket doors between the front parlor and dining room functioned better than some modern doors, simply by the quality of the original work. The slate roof was all original, and approximately 80 percent of the glass in the house is also original. “You can tell by the backbone of the structure, the roofline, the site line down the weather boards whether it was built properly, and this one was,” David says. While the future inhabitants of the house may not dwell much on door casings, bullseye trim or plinth blocks, the measure of a true restoration is all in the details, says David.
“You remember Felix and Oscar?” asks David, referring to “The Odd Couple.” “I’m Felix, and every bit as persnickety about this stuff. I don’t skimp on things like woodwork or baseboards. Rather than cutting down 10 inch baseboards, we stayed true to the originals here.” David refashioned the center of the house to include a spacious open kitchen adjacent to what future owners might turn into a large den. He also enlisted the services of Susie Sullivan, co-owner of Silk Source, to help with the aesthetics. Sullivan chose a warm chocolate brown for the master bedroom, rich dark granite kitchen counters, as well as other colors in the house, and assorted hardware items.
Like so many fine craftsmen, David came upon his own professional destiny quite by accident. “My grandfather was a master carpenter,” he says. “I actually started with my first carpentry job at House of Beauty on Toulouse Street. My girlfriend was a haircutter there and the owner needed some work done.”
Now, several decades later, David’s work has been purposely confined to Orleans Parish. “I consider myself more of a preservationist than a knock down and rebuild guy,” he says. “Our expertise is in renovation, and you know there are just a few cities in the country like this one to do what we do, so we’re in the right place. The real importance is just being true to the original architecture and respecting what they did way back when, when everything was done completely by hand.” •