There is a secret garden behind the 1835 Greek Revival shotgun owned by Rachel Collier and James “Jim” Vella in Marigny. “I knew this was our house the minute I drove by and saw a ‘For Sale’ sign,” says Jim, a glass artist and owner of Vella Vetro Art Glass. “I could see that it had everything we wanted – off-street parking, a front yard and located on a block of attractive, mostly restored historic houses – but I had no idea it also had a lush garden hidden in the backyard.”
It is easy to see why Jim and Rachel wanted to live in Marigny – it’s a hip place populated by mostly young professionals, artists and lots of folks who work in the hospitality industry and just want to enjoy the good life New Orleans has to offer. “We had been living in a small French Quarter apartment and the thoughts of owning a home was very exciting,” says Rachel, the general manager of NOTV (The Official Visitor Station for New Orleans). The Vellas’ yellow side-hall shotgun is a jewel in a neighborhood where most of the houses are built cheek-to-jowl with the sidewalk and off-street parking is an almost non-existent luxury. “We both agree that this is our dream home,” she adds as she gives a tour of the 1,400 square-foot treasure they purchased 10 years ago.
The couple respected the integrity of the historic structure, only making changes that enhanced the original architecture by creating a dramatic entry from the front hallway to the living room. “We added square columns where there was a door and a curved cutout above the new opening for added interest,” Jim says. “We also added the same type of square columns between the living and dining rooms and the kitchen to give a sense of separation between the spaces.”
A new kitchen was added where the living room is on most historic shotgun floor plans. “The kitchen is my favorite room,” Rachel says. “I enjoy having it in the front of the house because I love seeing the streetscape through the sheer curtains when I’m preparing a meal or baking, which is one of my favorite hobbies.”
Jim takes credit for selecting the yellow color for the cabinets and walls. “I wanted the feeling of sunshine all the time and yellow walls does the trick for me,” he says with a smile. “The wood floors are original to the house and further add warmth to the space.”
The Vellas’ home is a showcase for Jim’s glass. Almost every room and the garden features glass treasures he has crafted. “Some of the things I have made that are now in our home aren’t perfect,” he adds, picking up a glass doll with her head slightly askew. “My problem is that I don’t want to throw anything away that I’ve made, even if it doesn’t turn out just right, so I often bring a forlorn, not-too-perfect sculpture or goblet home to live with us.” A cabinet along the living room wall has a shelf of Jim’s handsome hand-blown goblets, with the perfect ones in the front and the not-so-perfect lining the back.
“I especially like the space on the tall bookcase that we allotted to our collection of old bottles that we salvaged from a dig in our yard,” he adds, “which is in juxtaposition with the new birds I created.”
Touches of whimsy abound in the home, such as the old White sewing machine that doubles as a display table for some of Jim’s glass and other interesting collectibles. You certainly wouldn’t expect to see Rachel’s old Schwinn bicycle suspended on the wall above the bed in the guest bedroom, and yet it all adds interest to this unique home.
A large side deck extends the living area to the outside, thus creating an ideal place for entertaining. Jim planted a passion flower vine along a trellis on the property line to hide the view of the neighbor’s house and provide extra privacy. A few steps down from the deck leads you to the shady secret fairytale garden, where you’ll find Jim’s marble glass fountain that miraculously survived the nine trees that Hurricane Katrina toppled into the yard. “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it majestically standing where it had always been,” he says.
One corner of the garden features a pond with Jim’s hand-blown flower fountain, and nearby a blue glass fairy sits atop a birdbath in the very center of the garden. “This is a magical place,” Rachel says, and Jim adds, “Everything about this house is wonderful, and the secret oasis in our backyard is my favorite place of all.”