More than three years ago, a monstrous storm blew into New Orleans and tried to wash away much of our past. It was a time of quick decisions, some life and death, and a test of our city’s spirit. Now, I look back on all that we lost as a city, and personally, I marvel at what our family and friends have accomplished and what we have left.
Like the homes of many New Orleanians, our home of 32 years — a solid place of refuge for three families since the 1920s — took in about 9 inches of water when the levees broke and the floodwalls collapsed. When my husband, Philip, and I returned to New Orleans that nasty weekend in September to survey the damage, we were shocked beyond words at what we found.
Antique furniture that we’d collected over three decades of marriage or inherited from our parents and grandparents marinated for weeks in mucky water and heat. Reproduction pieces were upended and, in some cases, splintered beyond repair. The spinet piano my parents bought when I was 10 years old was in 26 pieces strewn across the den floor, and the antique Chickering baby grand piano that belonged to Philip’s parents perished in the heat and humidity. Cherished antique books disintegrated into a globby mess when a bookshelf collapsed. Many pieces of antique silver now looked like cast iron. A favorite ceramic sculpture and a Boehm porcelain limited edition piece were both decapitated. Down sofas and chairs were upside down and waterlogged. We were sure all was lost, and God knows, much of it was.
However, with some quick action, instant research and a measure of good luck, angels often appear when we need them most. One by one, we found them. In future columns, I’ll feature the works of each individual who helped Philip and me save the splinters of our past, which are more precious today than ever, thanks to the talents and energy of some of the restoration angels who came into our lives.
The first to enter was a gifted furniture restoration expert from Baton Rouge who rented an 18-wheeler and a large warehouse on the outskirts of her hometown and arrived in our city ready to pick up the pieces, literally, and make our antiques more beautiful than before. This gifted furniture historian/artist has restored antiques for two presidents of the United States and some of the most prestigious antique dealers in America, and now her beautiful dedication and passion for saving fine antiques are displayed all over our home.
Silver my mother, mother-in-law and I preserved for generations was reduced to blackened mush. Could these elegant pieces be saved? Most of the silver plate pieces went into the FEMA pile (though not at first, as I was clinging to every remnant of the past that I could). But the sterling and Sheffield pieces were lovingly restored over an 18-month period by the expert hands at a Magazine Street shop where the owners patiently went through every piece with me — and on one afternoon allowed me to have a sobbing meltdown on the floor of their elegant store when memories flooded my heart as I discarded yet another unsalvageable piece.
The sculpture Philip gave me one birthday — a piece I’d lusted after each time I drove past Cole Pratt Gallery — was now headless, and the artist refused to repair it. A Sevres plate, dating back more than 100 years, was split in two. A rare antique lamp had soaked in muck for weeks and was now chipped and discolored. Fear not: All were restored, with no hint of the ugly past, by a local ceramic artisan, a wisp of a woman who packs a ton of talent.
There were other angels who helped restore our treasures, including our contractor, Michael Carbine, and his crew, who rebuilt our 1920s home to its earlier, beautiful state. That home had become too large for these empty nesters and is now owned by a young family who will love that stately architectural gem for at least three decades as we did.
And us? Well, lovers of all things old, we are now living in an 1890s cottage in the Garden District, a home we’ve admired for years and snapped up the day it went on the market. Each room is now filled with our restored antiques, a process that took us three long, educational and at times heartbreaking years. Each piece has a new chapter in its long, storied past, and if our furniture, silver and porcelain could talk, these newest chapters, undoubtedly, would be their finest.