As most prospective homeowners will tell you, looking for the perfect house — especially your first house, because it has to be the right house — can be a frustrating process. Longtime friends Libra LaGrone and Bradley Sabin had looked at about “30 to 40 houses,” Sabin says. One morning, the day that LaGrone and Sabin thought would be their last day of house-hunting before they put it on hiatus, their real estate agent, Sean Gerowin, called and said there was a house they had to see. It was a double shotgun in Mid-City that had flooded with 2 feet of water due to Hurricane Katrina. It needed extensive renovations, but when Sabin and LaGrone drove by, they fell in love at first sight with this faded beauty. The duo put an offer in and closed by 5 p.m. the same day.
The dream of owning a home had started percolating years earlier for Sabin and LaGrone. They had met while working at the Contemporary Arts Center — LaGrone was the special events coordinator, and Sabin was a preparator.
“We both wanted a house but couldn’t afford it on our own without a significant other helping with expenses,” says LaGrone, who is now the music curator at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and is also an artist. “We have the same tastes and likes. And it’s easier to own a house with a friend and not through a relationship.”
Before searching for a house, they had decided upon each other’s responsibilities: LaGrone would handle the budget, and Sabin would handle the renovation as the on-site contractor. This early organization — LaGrone knew how much they needed for a mortgage and renovations — allowed them to get going immediately after they bought the house. “According to our FHA loan officer, we were the first people in New Orleans to get a mortgage construction loan on a flooded property after the storm,” says Sabin, who works at Arthur Roger Gallery and is a ceramic artist represented locally by Soren Christensen Gallery.
With help from contractor Ray Ganucheau, who aided with permits and subcontractors, LaGrone and Sabin were hands-on in renovating the house. They gutted, reframed and restudded the house; restored and refinished the pine floors; got rid of false ceilings; and painted the interiors –– to name a few of their myriad tasks. They left plumbing and electricity to the experts, and Davie Shoring raised the house 10 feet.
Alas, some renovation jobs proved to be taxing. On LaGrone’s side of the house, a kitchen wall, now a beautiful faded green beadboard, was once covered with three layers of wallpaper and one or two sheets of sheetrock. One of her bedroom walls had two layers of wallpaper, tar paper, sheetrock, glue and linoleum. LaGrone says the hardest part was installing the insulation, which was a different size than the space they had created when framing the house. “Cutting it was disgusting,” she says.
They also recycled materials: bricks from the four original nonworking fireplaces — there is now only a back-to-back nonworking fireplace on LaGrone’s side — went into creating a brick patio and walkway in the backyard. Portions of the tin roof from a shed they demolished were used as siding for the ceramics studio, which is on the first floor of the house (and is raised 18 inches from the ground), as is a one-car garage.
The interiors of each side reflect their sense and sensibility: Sabin’s is a cornucopia of ceramics (created by him and others), small objets d’art, vintage artifacts and edgy pieces of art that he has traded with fellow artist friends throughout the years. LaGrone’s is pared down and selective — photographs, drawings and mixed media pieces she bought or received as gifts and her own vintage artifacts, as well as furniture she inherited from her grandmother, great-aunt and other family members. LaGrone lost everything in the storm except for a few mementos, such as her grandfather’s accordion, but Sabin’s old apartment skirted by, with floodwater only a half-inch from getting in.
The house is also pet-friendly: LaGrone has a cat, Eudora, and two dogs, Bella, a chow and Shar-Pei mix, and Sam, part greyhound and part yellow Labrador retriever, and Sabin owns Cooper and Romeo, chocolate standard poodles.
The renovation of the house, which LaGrone thinks was built in the late 1890s, is still ongoing: They still need to repaint the exterior, rebuild the front porch, replace the glass windows and buy kitchen cabinets.
But right now, Sabin and LaGrone are enjoying what they’ve accomplished. “I love the light and that we’re so high off the ground; it’s so quiet,” says LaGrone. “I like having my studio here,” Sabin adds.
And the best part of the renovation? “Renovating a space to your own taste,” says LaGrone. “I know every inch of this house: what it’s made of and how it was made.”