Frenchmen Street hosts a nightly party for hipsters, tourists and anyone else thirsty for good music and a lively vibe. Local musicians, artists and luminaries feel at home in the scene — and it is home for artist James Michalopoulos, who sometimes strolls around the block, glass of wine in hand, to get some fresh air and inhale that energy.
He lives just around the corner from the Marigny playground in a former warehouse that includes a modest studio and living space he shares with his wife, Reese Johanson, and their three children, Sebastien Rizzo, 13; Nigel Rizzo, 10; and Tallulah Michalopoulos, 1.
The building dates back to the 19th century and has served several functions: fish locker, restaurant, storage –– and for the past 15 years, home to Michalopoulos. When he bought it, cement and black tar covered the brick walls from floor to ceiling. Michalopoulos wondered if he could take on the project. He saw a flock of crying birds circling the house and took it as a sign. The deal was made: The seller acquired pieces of Michalopoulos’ art, and in return, Michalopoulos acquired a dank, dark pit.
Michalopoulos removed the cement from the walls; raised the ceiling; and cut away the concrete floor to divide the space into a dining room, kitchen and living room. At the back of the ground floor, a petite patio occupies the space where a refrigerator compressor once sat.
Above the first floor, rooms were built on stratified levels — seven in all. Michalopoulos loves to recline on the living room couch and look up.
“I can see through the loft, see the bathroom lit up,” he says. “It’s this great vista. It’s very spacious. I think to myself,
‘I love this house and feel very privileged to live here.’”
The freestanding upstairs bathroom has corrugated plastic walls that soften the light and create a jumbo nightlight. The ventilation piping protruding from the angled roof helps explain why it’s called “the outhouse bathroom.” Inside, the sloping ceiling necessitates the
2-foot-high sink in the corner.
The rest of the level is where the kids play and Johanson keeps her office. The floor is carpeted with shapes cut from scrap pieces. There’s no need to tread lightly or worry about dripping paint on the groovy mosaic: Johanson cuts replacement pieces from spare rolls. Chain-link fencing borders the level, enclosing the space yet encouraging views down to the first floor and up through the windows to the sky.
The two boys share a cozy bedroom tucked into a corner a few steps below the level. Closets have been built unobtrusively into the walls.
In a seemingly open house, there is still a place for everything.
Another flight of stairs leads from the playroom to an outdoor patio, affectionately called “the trailer park.” Green outdoor carpet and potted plants stand in for a lawn. A hammock swings in the back, and a patio table and chairs look out above the neighborhood.
Michalopoulos and Johanson share the master bedroom that crowns the home with their infant daughter, a situation that called for another transformation. Soon, the studio will be converted into living space with a two-story entryway, hallway and two bedrooms. Michalopoulos will move his work to a nearby studio, and Tallulah will move into the mid-level bedroom.
“The construction will complicate the house a bit, but it needs that,” he says. “It will add a layer of mystery.”
The décor pairs convention and art. A look under the dining room table reveals it’s just a piece of painted plywood atop two metal garbage cans. Similarly, Johanson’s desk is constructed from plywood atop wooden sawhorses. Instead of baby gates, purple painted canvases block staircases. A red metal tool cabinet that could belong in any garage houses a CD player. Ledges hold funky artwork and vases along with Carnival throws and broken clocks.
“That’s all James,” Johanson says fondly.
Michalopoulos’ paintings — including the original of the 2009 Jazz Fest poster of Allen Toussaint — and sculptures hang on every wall. Countertops, floors and even the refrigerator became media for his brush. The downstairs bathroom also displays his curious and playful creativity. He filled two black rubber gardening gloves with cement and secured them to the wall. The outstretched hands cradle a roll of toilet paper. After that, the garden hose spout on the sink doesn’t seem quite as cool.
Michalopoulos has always thought of the house as evolutionary.
“There’s a lot of fun for me in making it,” he says.
He spends half the year working on a second home in a village in the Burgundy region of France. There, he says, he can look out the window and see three seasons –– but views of snow-capped mountains and fields of wine-producing grapes can’t keep the artist away from New Orleans, his
neighborhood, his home.