Time & Again
Architect Cordula Roser Gray puts a fresh face on a modernist gem
In the Black Pearl neighborhood of Uptown, between the Victorian mansions and center hall cottages of St. Charles Avenue and the Mississippi River, is a distinctive cluster of four modernist houses (five if you count the one across the street) built in the mid 20th century. More than 50 years later, they are still noticed, coveted and cared for by design enthusiasts with an affinity for their iconic midcentury-modern style. Case in point: the classic modernist home designed in 1959 by architect Bill Calongne of Lawrence, Saunders and Calongne architects. Two years ago, then-owners Elizabeth Mossop and her husband Thomas Alexander reached out to architect Cordula Roser Gray, with whom Mossop collaborated on several work projects, to help renew the home. Initially, Mossop (a landscape architect with the New Orleans/Sydney firm of Spackman Mossop Michaels) and Alexander (a developer), who shared the three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath house with their teenage daughter, wanted to freshen the interior, replace its exterior façade with materials that would reflect “a fresh approach to midcentury modernism” and add a carport (the one part of the wish list that was ultimately dropped from the plans).
“They loved the basic configuration and midcentury modern aesthetic, but wanted to update it,” says Roser Gray, principal of CR Architecture + Design and Professor of Practice at the Tulane School of Architecture. “They wanted to put a more contemporary spin on it.”
Top, left: The original den was reconfigured and is now used as a library. Sectional sofa from Ikea. The original Vitsoe modular shelving is from the 1960s. Top, right: The renovation reduced the size of the powder room to allow for additional daylighting into the reconfigured library from the front of the building. Bottom, left: Carpet was removed from the original floating staircase to reveal the timber treads. Bottom, right: The windows and sliding glass door in the rear of the dining room are original. Period Thonet chairs. Pendant fixture by New Zealand lighting artist David Truebridge.
The house was Mossop’s first midcentury modern, though she collected most of the furniture in her native Australia before moving to the United States.
“I love the simple geometry and the abundance of natural light in the house,” says Mossop. “It is very like the house I grew up in in Sydney, which was a ‘Sydney-style’ modern house from the 1960s. This was a type of regional modernism developed in Sydney that had the same open plans, lots of floor-to-ceiling glass, dark timber and white walls. I did not figure out the connection until after I had lived in the house for a while.”
As renovations often do, the project grew in scope. What started as a partial renovation ultimately became a major undertaking that included gutting most of the interior, salvaging and reusing materials where possible (both the original walnut paneling and cork floors were altered but remained part of the palette), reworking the façade, rethinking the layout of several areas in order to improve the flow of the space, renewing electrical and plumbing, and replacing light fixtures. “After 50 years, you find that some things are not working with your current lifestyle,” says Roser Gray.
Top, left: The living room includes 1960s chairs that have been refurbished, a Noguchi lamp, and an aerial photograph by Ales MacLean. Top, right: The landing provides a visual connection between the first and second floors and a place for the owners’ collection of crime fiction. Sofa by Design Within Reach. Bottom: The previously enclosed galley style kitchen is now open to the living area. Cherner stools from Design Within Reach. Alexander made the laminate backsplash to match the original walnut paneling in the house.
Overall, the modernist features of the house held up well. Inside, walls of white brick, a light-filled second story landing that visually connects the lower and upper levels, a floating staircase with walnut treads and built-in walnut cabinets all resonated with today’s minimalist design aesthetic. The goal of the renovation was to strike a balance between preserving the original intent of the house, while also revitalizing it at the same time.
“The idea was to enhance what was there, not get rid of it,” says Roser Gray.
To that end, the flat roof of the home was completely redone to help resolve leaking issues — but remained flat. The façade of the house was modified with new second story windows, a full-height window where there previously was a water heater, and fiber cement paneling that functions as a rain screen, while still channeling the spacing and rhythm of the original. The front door was also was moved over one bay in order to access the living areas rather than the kitchen. The kitchen itself was redone and reoriented toward the living area rather than the den.
Top, left: The kitchen remodel includes glossy laminate cabinets. Top, right: Fiber cement panels were installed vertically and sized to respond to the existing rhythm of the façade. Bottom, left: The master bedroom’s bed and night tables are from the Modu-licious Collection by Blu Dot. Bottom, right: A full length mirror and paper floor lamp are part of the master bedroom’s minimalist arrangement.
Other changes included completely remodeling the bathrooms, removing the second floor’s wall-to-wall carpeting — now replaced with a smooth surface of vanilla-colored bamboo, and turning the existing den into a library. Mossop also redesigned the back yard to “make it more in keeping with the house.”
Because some of the spaces were reconfigured, portions of the walnut paneling were moved to accommodate the modifications. Cork flooring, faded from decades of wear, was replaced with new cork tiles, maintaining the warm counterpoint to the home’s white walls.
The home is furnished with a mix of old and new that ranges from Thonet to Design Within Reach. Inherited and contemporary art (there are pieces by family members, works of Australian Aboriginal art and pieces by local artists) finishes the modernist designscape that successfully straddles the line between the home’s 1950s origins and its recent revival.
“Cordula did such a great job of helping us to rework the space,” says Mossop. “It really respects the original, but is more in keeping with how we live.”
Top, left: The master closet with original cabinetry leads to the master bath. Top, right: The guest bath is now clad in all white. Scarabeo by Nameeks sink. Bottom, left: The watercolor on the wall of the guest room is by Mossop’s uncle, Peter Lumley. Bottom, right: Daughter Lulu’s room features windows that were enlarged during the renovation and a bed with storage.