From the outside, it’s hard to tell exactly what sits on this quiet corner near Audubon Park. Is it a grocery store?
A bar? What is it?
But a walk through the handcrafted teak door tells a much different story.
This is a home that was designed for Art — Art, as in Dr. Arthur Silverman (called “Art” or “Artie” by his friends), the nationally known and respected physician-turned-sculptor, and his late wife of more than 65 years, Merce. The home is full of their vast collection of paintings, drawings and of course sculptures.
It was in the late 1980s when Merce found the building that once housed Graffagnino’s Tavern, a hangout for college and law students and those from the neighborhood. The structure was solid but rundown. Somehow, though, Merce saw her dream.
“At the time, we lived in a much bigger Uptown house, and we didn’t need that much space,” Art says. “She wanted a smaller place that was easier to keep up, with everything on one floor. I didn’t even know she was looking at houses, and when I saw this, I didn’t know what the hell she was doing!”
Merce was undaunted. She, along with architect John Chrestia, began the renovation by changing the home’s orientation from street to garden. The front door was moved to the side, and they dismantled the barroom, moved some walls, extended the back of the structure and turned a two-car garage into an inviting guest house. Along the way, they created a home with ample wall space and lots of natural light, perfect for showcasing the strong geometric sculptures her husband created and paintings and prints from other nationally respected modern artists.
With low maintenance in mind, the Silvermans chose a scored concrete floor stained a warm walnut-brown that runs throughout the 2,000-square-foot residence.
Walls are painted a soft linen-white, a slightly warmer color than that found on traditional art gallery surfaces but one that
is just as effective in providing a classic backdrop for the vibrant modern art that punctuates the walls.
The two street sides of the house have few windows, and those that exist are clear glass cubes placed high along the 12-foot ceilings. Across the back of the house and down one side are floor-to-ceiling glass windows and doors, allowing the Zen-like art-filled garden to come indoors.
Furnishings are minimal and eclectic and enhance the artwork rather than competing with it. The diverse assortment includes a dining room filled with a traditional Sheraton table and sideboard. The living room is decorated with low golden-hued modern furniture and a coffee table and end tables designed and created by Art in his characteristic painted stainless steel. Fireplace andirons are also his creations. Likewise, Art designed the breakfast room table, which is made of stainless steel and echoes the same strong chevron motif found on the front door and glass living room door located only steps away.
But it is the art that takes center stage in each setting. A bold Robert Gordy painting adorns the small hall; a lively De La Rosa, a Peter Dean and two John Scotts spark up the bathroom walls; and a framed Mexican crewelwork decorates the master closet. In the living room are paintings by both Trevignos and a Robert Goodenough piece. Art by Richard Johnson graces the wall of the home’s only bedroom. And of course, each room has sculptures created by Art himself in stainless steel, aluminum and bronze.
Outside, Merce and landscaper Vaughn Banting, now deceased, furthered the art gallery feeling by eschewing a traditional grass garden and covering the ground with gravel. Large sculptures of Art’s dot the landscape, and one lone Enrique Alvarez is perched in a corner. It’s a peaceful sanctuary where the Silvermans spent many happy hours with friends and family.
The exterior of the house was covered with stucco and painted an earthy, faded taupe. The original “Graffagnino’s Tavern” sign, stretching across the front of the house, was left intact. “It’s part of the history of the place,” Art says.
He says that the house was Merce’s vision and that he just went along with it. “My late wife was a frustrated architect,” he says wistfully. “She could walk through a home once and have the entire layout memorized. I knew she had an eye for these kinds of things and she’d make it work, and she did.”
And it is obvious that he, too, has an “eye.” A much-respected physician for 30 years, Art never intended to have two careers and did not discover the true artist within until later in life.
“One day a physician friend of mine confided that he didn’t have much time to live and said, ‘Art, if there’s anything you want to do in this world, do it now,’” Art recalls. “He made me think.”
So he left medicine, began carving wood and was encouraged to pursue sculpting by his friends, the late sculptor Enrique Alvarez and Newcomb art professor Jules Struppeck.
Today, Art Silverman’s sculptures are showcased in 37 public places in New Orleans including City Hall, Temple Sinai and Tulane and Loyola universities. His massive 60-foot stainless-steel water sculpture in front of the Energy Centre is the largest water tap fountain in the United States. Nationally, his works are displayed in some of the most prestigious museums and galleries in the country, from the Fort Myers Sports Arena in Florida to the Weisman Art Foundation
in Los Angeles.
In September, he was honored by the New Orleans Museum of Art as one of the 10 most esteemed local artists at its Love in the Garden gala.
“So much of what has happened to me in my life was almost accidental,” he says. “Merce and I had more than 65 years together, the last 30 in this house. I never thought I’d live in a house that was once a bar. I never dreamed that I’d be a professional artist and that I’d have two successful careers. It’s just been a wonderful ride.”