The year was 1958.
The post-World War II baby boom was turning out a generation that would eventually be more than 78 million strong. Nikita Khrushchev became premier of the Soviet Union. Explorer 1, the first successful American satellite, was launched into orbit. The peace sign was designed. Elvis Presley was inducted into the U.S. Army. And the word “aerospace” was coined. 1958 was also the year that Dr. and Mrs. Ben Freedman built the classic mid-century courtyard house featured in these pages. The current owner, Philip Langley, owner of Ray Langley Interiors, would not be born for another three years. But so keen is his appreciation and understanding of mid-century modernism –– and his desire to save those historically significant architectural gems –– that he restored the house with total preservation of its original design. “My sisters say I live in a time warp,” says Langley, whose model-like good looks and fashionable contemporary clothing belie the notion. “I tend to hold on; I remember things in my past vividly –– the music, the style. My experiences in life are what have shaped my taste –– my love for classic cars and period architecture. I’ve seen a lot of houses bastardized. And I’ve always said I’d never do things that way. We approached the house from restoring it back to its glory with some minor updates but with the same idea that fits in with the character of the house.”
Architecturally, the house, located in Lake Terrace, is noteworthy. Designed by architect John Lawrence, dean of Tulane’s School of Architecture from 1959 to 1971, it is built around a center courtyard, which illuminates and opens the interior, and features sliding doors, which enable the house’s various private and public rooms to flow into an expansive, gallery-like space. Upon completion, it was published in Architectural Record’s “Record Houses of 1958,” which included the following excerpt: “The concept of a small, quiet, restful court as the focus and heart of the house is the dominant theme in this home. It is located on a relatively small city plot, with neighboring houses very close-by. To gain a maximum of privacy, the exterior is completely devoid of windows in the usual sense: the only openings are doors at the entrance and kitchen, and a sliding glass one at the rear of the living room. Front and back doors have metal grill gates. Inside, the house gives an amazing air of light, space and openness. Walls surrounding the central courtyard are entirely of glass. Supplementary light is added by plastic dome skylights along the periphery of the house. The plan is organized to give unusually great flexibility. There are three basic zones: bedrooms and baths at the front; service and secondary rooms at the side; and living areas at the rear. Sliding walls open up all spaces.”
With only three owners in 50 years, the house’s unique design has been well-respected and -maintained. But the residence did suffer damage during the aftermath of Katrina. That’s when Langley, who’s viewed numerous modernist houses in New Orleans over the past decade, purchased the property in order to return it to its former luster –– a task that required a new roof, all new electrical wiring, replacing the birch wall panels, cleaning and restoring the terrazzo floors, matching the original kitchen cabinets with new ones, replacing counters and light fixtures, putting in new kitchen appliances, and relandscaping. Amazingly, the home’s 10 shoji screen doors were unharmed.
“I grew up with friends who lived in these kinds of houses, and I have always appreciated them,” says Langley. “Glass and metal, inside-outside living, terrazzo floors. Ideally a buyer of this type of home is a purist: someone who understands what the house was, is and should be; that person who keeps up with what’s going on; people who read Dwell and collect mid-century modern.”
Minimally appointed with period mid-century furniture and sleek contemporary pieces from Ray Langley Interiors, the house closely resembles its original incarnation, as featured in Architectural Record more than 50 years ago. “I’m not a purist as relates to furnishings,” says Langley. “I don’t go from one vintage store to another looking for period pieces. I believe that today’s works are just as good and maybe a little more challenging. The designers we have today like Citterio, Lissoni, Maly, as compared to the old masters, their works are even more exciting than vintage pieces. So these houses can be dressed up with both in the same house. It’s just making sure the items are right for that particular house, and that’s what we’ve done in this house. We’ve used the Mies van der Rohe idiom, ‘Less is more.’ We’ve let the house show itself without overdressing it.”
Having completed the restoration of the house, Langley, who keeps a watchful eye on modernist houses in the area, plans to sell or lease the property in order to take on another in need of repair. And a half-century after the house was built, its architect, who was, like Langley, both a modernist and a proponent of preserving our architectural heritage, would no doubt be pleased. In a 1964 presentation to the Friends of the Cabildo, Lawrence said, “As one vitally interested in the contemporary world –– one who welcomes living in the 20th century and nourished the hope of contributing to it –– I have independently come to the conclusion that the preservation of that which is good, be it old or new, is absolutely essential to our sanity as well as our understanding of ourselves, and to our own progress.”