Steven “Steve” Smith was immediately attracted to the handsome 1910 cottage in Bywater. “The house had always been in the same family,” he says, “and although some of the cosmetic changes to the house were pretty bad, the basic structure had remained pure. I could see past the siding that covered the exterior and the linoleum on the floor.”
A mahogany Empire sofa has a place of honor in the anteroom.
He was immediately excited about the classical proportions of the house, the large rooms and 12-foot-high ceilings. “I knew I could get much more house for my money in Bywater than many other areas of New Orleans,” he adds. “I just think of this neighborhood as an extension of the French Quarter with a stock of fine historic homes at affordable prices.”
Museum-quality antiques and accessories from theEmpire period fill almost every corner of the living room, with aFrench Empire clock by Honore Pons taking a place of honor on themantle.
A collector of furniture and accessories from the Empire Period, specifically from 1830-1850, he knew that he needed a special house to accommodate the furnishings he had gathered for many years. “The Empire style of furnishings are masculine, with solid lines and often massive proportions,” he says. “You don’t find skinny legs and fragile looking tables if you study what was produced during one of the grandest periods of décor.”
Built in 1910, the Bywater house had been passed down through the same family until Smith purchased it in 2002.
Located on a narrow street where most of the houses are modest shotgun singles and doubles, Smith’s house is definitely one of the grandest on the street. “When I purchased the house in 2002, I began researching its history and I learned that it had been built for a Mr. Leonard who was a merchant in the neighborhood. One of the businesses owned by his family was the Ben Franklin Store on Dauphine and Louisa Streets.” The house was passed down from generation to generation by members of the Leonard family.
“The building had been modernized it in the 1960s,” Smith adds with a smile. “If you can call covering the beautiful wood floors with linoleum an act of modernization, not to mention covering the original wood exterior with siding.” Somewhere along the way the four fireplaces had been completely covered; however, the mantel had been left in place.
The dining room table is dressed in fine silver, china and crystal, with a 19th century flycatcher to further denote the period of the furnishings. The mirror is Napoleon III, while the candelabra set is by Cornelius and Baker of Philadelphia (circa 1849).
Fortunately, when he removed the siding covering the exterior he found the original wood was in excellent condition. “All it needed was a good coat of paint,” he recalls. “Removing the linoleum was another matter. It was a huge job. But when I looked up instead of down, I marveled that the original mouldings were in place. It didn’t take much scratching to discover that they had been gold leafed. So I quickly brought them back to gold.” Smith was also pleased to learn that the solid wood interior doors were intact along with the original doorknobs. Even the pocket doors were still in working order.
The fine Empire butler’s desk was acquired in Natchez.
A native of Collierville, Tenn., Smith grew up in a large, 12-room historic house surrounded by fine antiques and nine siblings “My parents still live in the same house that has two dining rooms with seating for 22 at the main dining room table,” he says.
He began collecting antiques as soon as he had his first home. “By the time I moved to New Orleans in 2001 and began shopping for a house, I had acquired a nice collection of antiques and I knew that I needed a special place where my things would fit,” he adds.
Eight prints of Natchez homes and public buildings by JamesBlanchard are displayed in the guest bedroom.
Touring each room with Smith is like a visiting a museum featuring furnishing of the Empire period. “The sofa is American Empire,” he explains as he begins a tour in the foyer, or anteroom, as he calls it. It is quickly evident that everything has a story. “The grandfather clock was given to me by grandfather,” he says with a sense of pride. “The lamps are from France.” It is easy to see he’s a collector of fine things as he crosses the threshold into the living room and recites the pedigree of everything from the mantel clock (French Empire by Honore Pons) to the four small vases (Old Paris porcelain) –even the art in the room is of the period.
The guest bedroom has an Empire sleigh bed and, since it adjoins the livingroom, it is ideal for entertaining.
The tour continues in what is now a guest bedroom. The highlight of the room is the fine American Empire mahogany sleigh bed. Even the needlepoint is from the correct period. The same is true for the dining room where handsome American Empire mahogany chairs surround the just-right table.
Much thought has gone into Smith’s surroundings. He is quick to explain that he will never be finished collecting. “I am always on the lookout for just one more wonderful thing from the Empire Period,” he says in earnest. “I guess it will always be a lifelong passion of mine. I’m just pleased that I have found the ideal house for everything.”