If you’ve ever visited Versailles or any of the châteaux dotting the Loire Valley, you’ve had a lesson in the architecture and furnishings of the French château. Ornate moldings, elegant ironwork, polished parquet floors, allegorical tapestries and paintings, delicate needlepoint rugs, gilded furnishings and formal gardens dazzle the eyes and satisfy the soul in their fully realized dream of detail and order.
Thirteen years ago, when the owners of the Metairie house featured here decided to build a home in the French château style, they knew that all of the above would figure into the ultimate design. “We looked at a lot of pictures, a lot of Architectural Digests,” says the lady of the house, who like her husband keeps a busy schedule, working full-time, hosting fundraisers for causes they support and raising their two children, a son, 14, and a daughter, 12. “We both knew a lot about it. We wanted a real traditional French château look. We love our city so much. The French influence is right at your fingertips. We love shopping for antiques on Magazine Street and the French Quarter or driving to Baton Rouge and looking through the shops there. And we love going to Paris. The first time we went to a flea market in Paris, we ended up spending the entire day there.”
The man of the house was raised around the construction business. He started his own commercial construction company in 1976 and over the years has worked with everyone from architects to landscapers. Surrounded with such a wealth of resources, the couple designed the house themselves with informal input from a few architect friends. And though they were initially doubtful that they’d find a lot large enough to accommodate their vision, they soon stumbled upon a 70-foot-by-210-foot lot that had been home to a stable just a stone’s throw from the Lakefront levee. The house is the first the couple built for themselves. But the husband’s years of building experience, the couple’s clear idea of what they wanted and their unhurried approach to decorating was a winning combination. “We really love our home and our neighborhood and the people who live on our street,” says the wife. “And we take advantage of the fact that we’re so near the levee. We spend a lot of time there.”
When building the house, the owners left little to chance. They studied magazines and books, took pictures of local houses they liked and referred to photos they’d taken on trips to Europe to get the architectural details of the genre right –– and then found the best resources for each. The plaster moldings in the formal rooms at the front of the house were ordered from a company in Chicago, the parquet floors came from Kentucky, and the doors and windows were custom-made locally. The carefully thought-out floor plan includes spaces for all of the family’s activities. The downstairs has a large living room with a piano where their son practices daily, an ample dining room that is often put to use for entertaining, a library for the antique books that the husband collects, a roomy kitchen, a comfortable family room with a big-screen television for watching movies, a bar area, a powder room and a patio onto which guests frequently flow when the couple has parties and benefits. The second floor has the master bedroom and bath, the children’s rooms and baths, a sizable home office (the wife spends part of her full-time career working from home) and laundry facilities. The third floor consists of a playroom/exercise room that also serves as guest quarters when the need arises.
The garden, a formal parterre with boxwood hedges; roses; irises; a trellis covered with wisteria; a fountain; and two outbuildings, a storage building and a potting shed/greenhouse where the husband grows orchids, was given the same polish as the house itself and is a place where both husband and wife indulge their love of gardening.
“We both love to dig in the dirt,” says the wife. “It’s like therapy for us. Every Sunday morning, religiously, we sit on the patio and read the newspaper and have our time together. We can’t wait for the first day of spring.”
“I get a fair amount of exercise, but I don’t mind getting out there and working hard in the garden for stress relief and relaxation,” adds the husband.
Antiques found before the house was completed –– such as the trumeau in the dining room –– were purchased and stored and then incorporated into the design scheme. But most of the first floor was empty for the first two years that the family occupied the house. And they waited more than a decade before finding the right painting for a spot in the dining room. “We’ve really taken our time and made sure we’ve found the right pieces,” says the wife. “We love every antique we’ve bought over the years. And we’ve tried to teach our kids to buy things they can have their whole life. Once you buy a piece, you have it forever.”
Downstairs, the lady of the house called on designers Mona Vinturella and Jonell Lombardo of Chartres Interior Design for help in pulling everything together. After Hurricane Katrina left the second story severely damaged, the couple made some adjustments to the layout and called in designer Trudy Hurley of Green Parrot Interior Design to update the décor of their private quarters. In the master suite, they co-opted some of the space from the original bedroom to increase the size of the closets; redid the master bath; and painted the walls and built-in cabinetry with Benjamin Moore’s Temporal Spirit, a color that Hurley often uses, and quiet accents of pale blue. Hurley also helped update the daughter’s room with harlequin-patterned walls and bright colors.
Today, both the entire house and the garden have matured into spaces that the family uses and relishes on a daily basis. “Our home has a happy, comfortable atmosphere, and it’s very functional,” says the wife. “We love having friends over, and it’s been a wonderful place to raise our kids. I know it’s going to be too big for us one day But for now, we’re in no hurry to leave.”