Hunting and gathering. It’s what we humans have been known to do. A quick glance around Dannal Perry’s Bywater home, and you get the impression that she’s got a bad case of the latter. The good news, though, is that according to anthropologists, Dannal probably can’t help it. Gathering, they’d conclude, is a primordial instinct.
Good thing, too, because the many treasures Dannal has gathered over the years energize her 1840s Creole cottage. So do the paint colors: vivid blues, reds and even Pepto-Bismol pink. “I have one friend who won’t go in there,” Dannal points to the aforementioned pink guest bathroom with its clawfoot tub. “It makes him want to throw-up.”
Color isn’t just splashed on the walls, either. It’s everywhere: “There’s a story behind everything,” she says, “Just ask me.” For example, a wall in her dining room is dedicated to photographs of “people with animals.” Most of the photos are of strangers, with the exception of her grandparents on camels in front of Egyptian pyramids in the 1960s and her uncle holding a dog.
One day her art collection might fill a hall in a museum called “The Perry Collection: The Whimsy of Southern Art.” Paintings by Clementine Hunter hang in the dining room. A photograph of folk-artist Howard Finster’s car taken by Susan Lee also decorates the dining room wall. A William Eggleston photograph is showcased, as is a diorama of Al Green, and a clown painting by folk-artist Mike Frolich, who is known for his frescoes in the Saturn Bar. A room divider in the Creole home’s “popular culture room” is pasted with original sketches from famous Vanity Fair artist Miguel Covarrubias.
And what about that “pop culture” room? The room’s genesis came from an independent study project in college. “I did a project on how the South was perceived in popular culture, what the stereotypes were of the South, and how they were represented in the popular media,” Dannal says. Bookshelves display old board games spawned from television shows, celebrity dolls, Viewmasters, and Pez containers. The room itself is a lesson in New Orleans history. In the 1840s, it served as the original kitchen—its mammoth brick fireplace is intact—and was separate from the main house.
Dannal, who loves a good story, was definitely after a house with a history. “When I saw this house, it was love at first sight. I’m so glad I started looking at the Bywater.” Dannal, who purchased the property in 1997, has traced the house’s roots back to the 1840s and has uncovered artifacts that verify its age. These artifacts are on display in the office and in the dining room: a collection of glass bottles dating from the 1850s, ceramic doll parts, clay marbles, a poker chip made of bone, and an inkwell, among other things.
After a long day at her recently opened gift shop on Magazine Street, called Plum (opened, in pop-culture fashion, on John Lennon’s birthday), Dannal has also created an oasis to unwind in. Her backyard is lush and aromatic, pots overgrown with basil and rosemary; trees that will, in the right season, burst with blood oranges and key limes, or flower with angel’s trumpets, jasmine and sweet olives. Hidden in this southern tangle is an outdoor shower, built by local glass artist Mitchell Gaudet.
There’s also a plastic yellow sofa. “I love the idea of a couch outside, because there is this stereotype, sometimes true, that Southerners keep their furniture outside.” Dannal is definitely a Southerner at heart. She was raised on a farm in the Delta region of Arkansas—“A cotton field really resonates with me. We’d jump in the cotton when we were young. It was like the biggest pillow you’ve ever seen.” Dannal is crazy about New Orleans—“I don’t like leaving New Orleans for a day anymore” —and she bakes, most famously a peach cake, a recipe from her great grandmother.
Alas, there is bad news to this story. Dannal’s gathering instinct, in this house built without closets, may mean that she’ll eventually have to add on.
You know that pesky closet tax that made antebellum homeowners think twice before they built closets? Bite your tongue, says Dannal. It’s not true. People didn’t have closets because they weren’t invented, she says. Closets would have been a breeding ground for mildew anyway. As former curator of the Hermann Grima/Gallier Historic Houses, and as a graduate in Southern studies from University of Mississippi, Dannal seems qualified to say so. Plus, she adds, back then people didn’t own so many things.
Yet it’s all this stuff that has made Dannal’s Creole cottage whimsical, turning it into a veritable storybook to walk through. •