Renovated Home of the Year

The Lake Vista home of Donna and Tom Russell is a work of art.
Sara Essex Bradley Photograph
Windows that are 10 feet tall overlook the front and back courtyards. |!!!|

Donna and Tom Russell were looking forward to the next chapter of life after being in their home for more than 30 years. The couple had always loved the Lake Vista neighborhood, and they began to casually look for available homes in the area.

When the neighborhood was created around 1939, it attracted residents because of its “Garden City” plan, a method of urban planning characterized as being a self-contained area with greenbelts, pedestrian networks and a lack of through-streets.

As the couple strolled through the neighborhood one day, they paused to admire the rays of sun streaming through the canopies of the massive live oaks. The smell of fresh-cut grass filled the air. They looked over the vista, and Tom pointed across the green space and said, “That’s it. That’s the house.”

What he pointed out was a late 1940s two-story, split-level cottage. It sat on a pie-shaped lot. Facing north, it caught the northern breeze from Lake Pontchartrain. It had lovely views and a picturesque large oak tree in the front. It was perfect – but it was not for sale.

As fate often dictates, however, the house went on the market two weeks later, and the Russells purchased it, finally onto their next adventure.

Originally, they only planned on renovating the kitchen and master bathroom of the old structure. But they discovered hidden damage that hadn’t been seen during the real estate inspection. It became a matter of cause and effect: A hole in the roof decking caused roof and ceiling damage, which caused mold; leaky windows caused wood rot; termite damage caused extensive floor joist damage; old electrical issues and plumbing posed a doubly dangerous threat; the HVAC lifespan was expiring; and so on. The Russells decided that a total renovation was the only option.  

The footprint of the house would remain the same since the lot is pie-shaped. There were building restrictions to abide by that had been set forth by the homeowners’ association and the Orleans Levee Board. The renovation was planned and built to the maximum that the footprint would allow. The Russells explain, “We did as much as we could. Remember, it was the view that sold us on this house. We love the area, and being so close to the Lakefront is priceless.”

Donna Russell is an interior designer who’s gifted with “first sight” – she had a clear vision of what the renovation would look like. Upon just glancing at a space, she can envision it completely designed, decorated and done. She says, “One may call it a ‘sickness’, but I see a space completely finished the moment I walk into it, or I see the missing elements needed to complete it. I am told that when I get into that zone, I become quiet. I raise my hand up to my chin and survey the space, taking it all in.”

Donna feels that every space needs a sense of balance and calmness. She is personally drawn to a more contemporary style, one that is warm and uncluttered with clean lines.
However, she can appreciate all design styles. “Every room needs to be perfectly appointed and tell a story and flow from one room to another,” says Donna. “I love big windows and a ton of natural light, allowing the outside in. I love courtyards and multiple seating venues, water features and lots of container plants, because having containers makes it easy to change things up a bit. At every turn, an environment should make you want to see what’s beyond. Even if it’s a carport, weigh your options and make it fab!”

When the Russells realized theirs would be more than a soft renovation, they called architect Dodie Smith of the firm C. Spencer Smith. Smith had designed many custom homes in Lake Vista and was familiar with the building codes and restrictions unique to the neighborhood. The Russells expressed their desire to Smith for a modern-style home with clean lines. Even though the damaged part of the house would be torn down, it was important to embrace the scale of the original house. It was equally important that
the renovation complement the other homes found in Lake Vista.

Smith’s plan involved removing all the old porches and a small living room. She opened up the space by integrating an entryway where the front and back door juxtapose each other, tying the remaining original part of the old house to the new part being created.

Sliding glass windows that are 10 feet tall overlook the front, where Donna completely carved out and landscaped a special garden. Smith added floating porches designed in the mid-century modern style. Donna designed the landscaping and central fire pit seating area in the front, and the water feature at the back of the house, too. She also designed the walkway entrance to the front and backyard, and she brought in her landscape staples of beautiful towering Sable Palms in the front and added Sylvester Palm trees in the back.

The first thing you see as you come in through a spectacular mahogany front door inset with horizontal glass windows is its twin: a matching door at the end of an open hallway that leads to the enclosed courtyard. It is a striking modern shotgun house effect. The steel beams in the courtyard provide a modern pergola over the seating area near the water feature. There is a masterpiece of a custom made exterior steel door that leads to the carport and street. It is made to replicate the interior mahogany front and rear doors leading to the courtyard. The use of repetition of design elements creates a pleasing visual rhythm both inside and out.

The living room, now located in the new addition has 12-foot ceilings. Tile flooring is used throughout, a nuanced porcelain that looks like horn. Massive wood and steel beams were bolted together in the foyer. A ribbon fireplace used here is another arresting focal point.

A new wood and steel staircase bisects the two halves of the house. The old footprint and shell of the old house contains the renovated dining room, second master bedroom and bath, and the kitchen. The renovated second story, also built on the original structure, has the master bedroom with views of the lake thanks to the floor-to-ceiling windows that were installed. The spectacular master bathroom features a walk-through shower. Upstairs, there is also a ladies dressing room, and a handsome office/den for the man of the house. The desk in the office was made from the floor joists that were removed from the old house. Having that old wood reinvented in this way is a connection to the past that the Russells deeply appreciate.

Donna Russell has the design philosophy to use every component of a house as if it is a piece of art. She advises to let a house speak to you, to let it draw you in. She treated her own renovation as if she were her own client. She started with a storyboard, laying out the entire house from flooring to cabinetry to paint colors to furniture placement. The old house has great bones. It was a box, and she says that one can do wonders with a box. Over the 14-month renovation, she used inspirational ideas she’d been collecting for 10 years to incorporate into her dream home.

A great abundance of very unique floor and wall tile was used throughout the first floor of the house, pieced together in a masterful, clean and modern way. Colors and patterns are cohesive. The ease of caring for tile is a plus. Even though this house never flooded, lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina make tile on the first floor a smart choice for renovators. The upstairs features wood flooring, starting with the oak stair treads. All the upstairs flooring features visually generous 10-inch-wide planks stained black, a rich nuanced tonal color that was achieved by burning and wire brushing the wood.

So now that the renovation is done, what is next for Donna Russell, the designer? She opened her business, ProVisions Interiors, LLC, in 2004 – a decision she made after six years of court reporting school, and she says, “her inability to pass the machine portion of the test.” Donna tells us, “Wow! What a journey that was! During those six years, to keep my sanity, I would volunteer my design services in which I revamped the school offices and rearranged the classrooms for a more effective seating placement. I even had the opportunity to decorate an apartment for one of my teachers after a fire incident. I volunteered my services to the Ronald McDonald House and helped landscape the yard. I continue to volunteer my design services to a family in need once a year. Then one day my teacher called me into her office and asked, ‘Donna, not that you wouldn’t make a great reporter, but why are you not pursuing interior design?’ And so I did.”

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Donna thought, “Oh no. Nobody is going to want a designer. However, it was one of the greatest blessings that ever happened to me. The phone started ringing off the hook. I learned more in the field than I ever did in nighttime design classes.”

Donna is currently working on a residential new build in Lake Vista along with the architect from her home, Dodie Smith. “She is a wonderful and very talented lady,” says Donna.
They are breaking ground very soon. She also has managed to pepper in a renovation on Lark Street, also in Lake Vista, and a complete interior makeover on Canal Boulevard. New clients with projects are on a waiting list. “No complaints here,” says Donna. “I love what I do, and it helps to be in the great company of all the local talented craftspeople I have put together on my team.”

Tom Russell is his wife’s greatest fan. While he weighed in on all the choices with the architect and the interior designer, he hated the chaos of construction. He did one of the hardest jobs: Writing the checks once a week for 14 months for the expenses. He decided to stay away from the job site and wait for the big reveal at the end of the project. On the night of the reveal, he had tears of joy and pride as he marveled at what had been done to the original structure. He remembered the day they saw the house through the filtered sunlight of the big oak tree. With all the renovations and changes, the oak tree still stands and enchants them.

It is with great pride that Donna and Tom Russell are awarded the honor of the 2014 Renovated Home of the Year.

Categories: LL_Home