Sunday, May 21, 2017

This Old House: The Origin Story

Whoah! I’m way overdue on this post (durn kids and job — and the actual renovation — getting in the way of my bloggy-time; grumble, grumble), but better late than never. Our series continues. 

(WARNING: The following content contains extremely high levels of geekery. If you get bored, just skim through for the fun bits and look at the pretty pictures. There won't be a quiz.)

Okay, so last time, we discussed the what of the house’s crazy. Now let’s (at last) examine the why. (If our house was a superhero, this is where we would describe its innocent early childhood and dark adolescent traumas that led to its tortured adulthood — nicely setting us up for our ensuing renovation-redemption.)

A Brief Recap

This is how it looked when we inherited it:

A lot of little rooms and not a lot of overarching architectural coherence.

It probably won’t shock you to learn that this was not the original floor plan but was instead the culminating result a many-decades evolution, a long sequence of major and minor modifications, each addressing some particular need of the occupants of the time, all individually sensible enough, but ultimately aggregating to an essentially non-sensical end result.1

I knew that from the get-go. What I didn’t know was the particulars of the home’s evolution: how it started and where it traveled along the way. (And I wasn’t the only one who was stumped. The architects and the contractor all had their share of head-scratching moments.)

The solving of this riddle (in as much as it’s been solved) has been a thoroughly enjoyable bit of sleuthery. So let’s get on with our story!

In the Beginning

Fortunately we have a tidy bit of documentation telling us  the circumstances of the home's birth. From New Orleans Architecture: The Esplanade Ridge2:

To quote:
The architectural firm of Toledano and Wogan is traditionally responsible for many of the early twentieth-century houses along the Esplanade. One of the firm's trademarks was the shield seen as decoration here on the piers of the central house.
Ok, got it. Early twentieth century. Designed by Toledano and Wogan. Dudes liked them some shields:

Bling, bling, bling!

Straightforward enough.

In Which We Muddy the Waters (the Shocking Plot Twist)

Or is it? [Dramatic music: Duh duh DUUUHHH!]

During the renovations, it came to light that front section may actually be older than the rest of the house. This bit here:

Amazing architectural drawings by Marilyn the Architect (see below)

The clearest evidence for this is found in the attic, where big random beams slant through open space, serving no apparent purpose, until one recognizes them as (we postulate) the vestigial remnants of the roof from when this front section was a standalone structure. (The architects3 first pieced this theory together as they rooted around the house during the initial stages of planning, and it’s been further corroborated by my own subsequent sleuthing-among-the-rafters.4)

And the architects seemed to find additional evidence supporting this theory when they dug up the old Sanborn maps,5 revealing that there was indeed a smaller structure  (well, structures, plural, really) on the property, dating back to the 19th century:

Left: 1895-1896 — Right: 1929-1940

And so we thought, ahh, it all makes sense: this big new house ate that little old house — slapped a giant extension on the back and some fanciness on the front — and now that little old house is just a little part of this big new house.

But... the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit together quite so neatly. Looking at the maps real close-like, we notice that the older structure doesn't quite match the allegedly older front section of the current home (narrower and deeper) And the maps seem pretty damn precise, so one isn't inclined to chock it up to slovenly surveying. So...

It’s all a bit murky and mysterious. The particulars are unclear. But I for one am fully on board with the theory that something was there, and then something else was there, and that at least part of the something that was there before stuck around and became part of the something that was there after.6

But Anyhoo...

What is clear is that at some point in the early twentieth century, as this formerly edge-of-town neighborhood was getting denser and more citified, somebody decided it was worth their while to swap out the old smaller (and presumably) humbler structure for a big new blingy modern dwelling, replete with all the the contemporary amenities  — and lots of nifty decorative shields. And whether it was by tearing-down-and-starting-anew or by cannibalizing-and-extending, an unrecognizably different bigger fancier house now stood on the lot.

The exterior of this new home would have looked very much as it does today (minus the purple windows; more on that in a minute). But what would the interior have looked like? It would have been a fancified elaboration of (what’s known around here as) a shotgun double, a pervasive style for New Orleans homes from that time: two (almost) mirror-image sides; each following the “shotgun” floorplan: no hall, just rooms stacked one-after-the-other, interconnected by doors; one side for the owners to live in; the other side to be rented out. Something like this:

On each side: a foyer, a nice big double parlor; then a couple of rooms for bedroom purposes; and another room in the back, perhaps a shared space; plus a kitchen; and plenty of porches all around. The right side (from the front), with its big fancy bay windows and larger parlor, would have been the “master” side, where the owners lived. The other side would be rented.

This original(-ish) layout was not at all evident to me at first, but having now spent an inordinate amount of time staring at floorplans and rummaging around in gutted walls and pestering relatives with questons and mentally whittling away the subsequent architectural encrustations — and also just generally having a sense of how things were built around here back then — I think this is a pretty good bet.

In Which We Eff Ish Up

This original design is nice and symmetrical and utterly sensible (according to the sensibilities of the time). So what happened? Now we get to our long-sequence-of-major-and-minor-sensible-modifications-aggregating-to-a-non-sensical-end-result. Let’s eff some ish up! (Caveat: the following is my own educated guesswork. There's definitely some unknowns and probably some errors, but the general gist should be about right.)

They tacked some sheds on the back. (We know these were added later because they weren’t on the Sanborn map.) Storage is nice. Seems like a good move.

Somebody split the left side into two apartments, presumably for more rental income. During this process, they would have sealed up the big double doors between the first and second parlor on that side, creating the front bedroom (which eventually became my uncle Chip’s). And they carved out that new little kitchen (which my grandfather later converted into his darkroom).

Somebody said, “Hey, dey got dees new tings called terlets,” which is New Orleans-ese for, “Hey, they’ve got these new things called toilets,” and this being a big fancy house, they of course had to go and slap a bunch of terlets all up in dere (including the servants toilets, a common feature in fancier homes of the time, in the way back of the shed).

(The sequence of this apartment-divvying v. toilets stuff is definitely pretty jumbly: Which was first? Which was second? Was it all at the same time? Dunno.)

Also somewhere in here, they also slapped in a few closets (another exciting modern innovation; previously it was all armoires — or “armors” — all the time). And maybe shifted a door.

The family who lived in the house prior to my grandparents, thought to themselves, y’know, the facade doesn’t have quite enough going on. Let’s add some purple stained glass windows. So they added some purple stained glass windows: bling, bling, bling, bling, bling, bling, bling, bling, bling, bling! (My grandmother, apparently, was a fan of neither the windows nor the family who put them there.)

(Then my grandparents moved in, and the details get a little clearer.)

My grandparents enclosed their side porch, creating the hallway-formerly-known-as-a-porch.

With this new fangled hallway thing, one no longer had to pass shotgun-style through each room to get to the back, and so they were able to close up between the first and second parlors (because really, who needs that much parlor?) and create a convenient new little guest bedroom (which they could then stuff oppressively full of plantation-scale antiques).

At this point, the house was still three separate apartments, each sensible enough. But then my grandparents started slicing doors between the apartments (apparently a non-trivial task for the poor carpenter who had to saw through the home’s giant old timbers with a handsaw), turning the multiple units into a single family dwelling. And that’s when the nuttiness really notched up, with the separately sensible elements tumbling all together and turning into one kooky colossosus. (First, my grandfather’s demented aunt Tantsie came to stay in the back apartment for a spell. Later Chip and Annou returned home and occupied the front and back apartments respectively.) The mid-house doors were cut first (those “mystery doors” from our tour). The doors at the back were cut later, spawning the famed double-kitchen. (Oh yeah, and now there was that spare third kitchen  — because two kitchens is company, but three's a crowd — so my grandfather converted it into darkroom. And they ran some stairs up into the attic.)

And voila! That’s how you make the crazy! Thusly the labyrinthine house of my childhood was born:

Cool, huh?

And Just a Little More

But wait, there’s just a little bit more to bring it up to its recent pre-renovation state.

After my granparents passed away (my grandfather died at the age of ninety-three, shortly after Sarah and I moved to New Orleans post-college; my grandmother had died a few years earlier), the doors between the two halves of the house were again sealed up. My uncle chip ultimately moved into a home. And my aunt Annou continued to stay on in the house by herself. She rented out my grandparents’ half. And Chip’s apartment became the family warehouse, crammed full of all the belongings that had once been distributed throughout the large house — a dense warren, traced through with “goat trails”, stuffed high and low with generations of stuff, great and small, mighty and minor. (The stuff is its own whole conversations, so we’ll save that for later.)

And so at last, the house came to me — wonderful, complicated, bewildering. And we were presented with the riddle: what could be the next iteration of this house? Can we devise a solution that adds coherence rather than subtracts it? (Is renovation-redemption possible for our tortured hero?) If so, what does that look like? What to preserve? What to remove? What to add?

More on that soon.

And really, I will try to pick up the pace a bit. Three posts in, and I’m already going George R.R. Martin on this thing. (Though you will understand, this has been a labor-intensive couple of posts.) Until next time...

1 There’s an interesting book on this subject, How Buildings Learn. It examines exactly this: how buildings evolve over time, what are the driving forces and the common patterns. And it argues that change is a buildings natural mode, not an aberration; that any structure that’s around long enough will deviate — a little or a lot — from its original intent and design. And that this is an interesting and appropriate thing, to be examined and understood.

2 It’s part of a cool series, each book focusing on a particular historical New Orleans neighborhood, giving a broad overview of the architectural trends and also block-by-block accounts of the particular buildings found there.

3 The fabulous and talented Feldmeier Galyean, known colloquially to us as Taylor and Marilyn. (More on them later.)

4 Further details for the amateur architectural historians and wood-nerds amongst you: Being a big old dork, I’ve now done plenty of rooting around in the far recesses of the attic (carefully placing my steps so as not to fall through the ceiling below), and the evidence is there: rows of nail-holes in these now-interior beams, from when they once supported the exterior roof; and even a few lingering obsolete cross planks from the former decking, big old boards of a type not found anywhere else in the attic.

5 The Sanborn Maps were produced for the better part of a century for the purpose of calculating fire insurance, and they show, among other things, the footprint of every structure on every lot in the city — a fantastic resource for historical inquiry.

6 (I’m slapping the next bit in a footnote because it's highly conjectural. But it’s my goddamn blog so I’ll conjecture if I want to.) So I thought to myself, well what might that previous structure been? A Creole cottage is a reasonable guess. And what might that cottage have looked like? Well, if we were to whittle away the extensions and the bay windows and the froofery from the later structure, we'd end up with a plain little rectangular building with a hipped roof and a deep porch. Maybe a little something like... this?

The Joseph Petitpierre-Kleinpeter House, a genuine old Creole cottage in East Baton Rouge. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe probably not. Dunno. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

This Old House: Enter the Labyrinth

The series continues.

Last time, I promised you the home’s origin story, but I've realized that before we get to the why of the crazy, I need to show you the what. It's changed only slightly in the past few decades, so let’s take a tour of the house as I knew it in my childhood, when my grandparents lived there. (I may make the occasional minor memory misstep, but my family will fact check me.)

Pulling up to the front of the house (perhaps having just bumped along Airline Highway back from the airport in my grandparents’ K-Car), the house makes a grand and reasonably coherent impression:

I say “reasonably coherent”. One could argue that the combination of rectangular brick Doric columns, round wood Ionian columns, clapboard, masonry, stucco, Tudor-style framing, dentils, bay windows, and decorative shields, further blinged up by the addition of purple stained glass windows, is pushing it a bit.

Inside is where things get weird. Behold!

Yeah, one big house with a whole lot of little rooms. But a simple diagram doesn't quite convey the nuttiness, so let's get moving. (Bring your breadcrumbs.)

Entering the front door, things are sensible enough: a foyer, a formal parlor on the left. We could duck into the parlor and check out its antiques and curiosities, shelves full of old books in French, etc. But we’re not going to do that, because mostly people didn’t go in the parlor very much, because mostly not a lot happened there. So we proceed onward, through a glass-paned door, into the hall towards the back.

The hall is where things get quirky. The left interior wall looks like an exterior wall: wood clapboard siding, windows looking (further) in onto dark interior(-er) rooms, tall shuttered French doors. The right (actual) exterior wall is dominated by a huge bank of jalousie windows letting in a flood of light, striking but incongruous, more typical of mid-century Miami than early-century New Orleans. (This all makes more sense if you know that this "hall" was created by my grandparents' enclosure of a side-porch.) There's also an (actual) exterior door, but that just leads out to a little side alley, which isn't very exciting, so let's not get distracted.

Passing through another glass door at the end of the hall, we enter the dining/living room, the principal communal space of the home, modest-sized and densely packed: a large dining table and chairs in the center; four large lazy boys around the perimeter, one for each resident (grandfather, grandmother, aunt, uncle); and in the corner, a  color television, always tuned to the news and always turned up very loud for my very deaf grandfather (and kind of deaf other family members).

From the dining/living room, there are of lots of ways to proceed, but for the moment let’s keep heading straight, out the back door and onto the back porch (well, one of the back porches; more on that later), light and airy, with a big trunk of toys for the various visiting children. And we could keep heading back, out the screen door, and into the little courtyard (well, one of the little court yards; more on that later), containing a small cinder block pond full of lily pads and goldfish and tiny little frogs.

Or retracing back to the dining/living room, from here we could instead hook a left into the kitchen, well, the first kitchen. And continuing through that, we could enter the second kitchen. Yeah, two kitchens. Both small and chock full of curious cookware and dishware and sundries (including a number of demitasses, which years later would form the core of my now vast and glorious demitasse collection), interconnected by a door, and collectively fulfilling the kitchenly duties of the home.

And of course, from either the first or second kitchen, we could hook respective rights, heading respectively back to either the pantry or the laundry room. And naturally we could then pass back and forth between the pantry and the laundry. And from the pantry, we could either exit back out onto the first back porch or head further back to one side of the large attached back shed. Or from the laundry, we could either exit out onto the second back porch (more on that later) or head further back to the other side of large attached back shed. (Are you taking notes?)

But let’s re-retrace. From the dining/living room, there is yet another option. Let's instead hook a sharp left into my grandparents bedroom, immediately adjacent. (In later evening, we might perchance find my grandmother praying the rosary here.) Off to the right is my grandmother’s bathroom (my grandparents had separate bathrooms; very civilized), which was notable for its large skylight directly over the bathtub, which I greatly enjoyed peering up through, as a wee bathing whippersnapper. On the left is a window and set of French doors which open "out" onto the hallway-formerly-known-as-a-porch where we first came in. (Yes, we're now in those aforementioned "interior(-er)" rooms.) But let's instead proceed through their bedroom, because this is New Orleans, land of shotgun houses, where bedroom-as-hall is par for the course.

Here things get increasingly complicated. (I know, right?) We have entered “the sewing room”, though I don’t remember much sewing happening here. It’s mainly a sort of short wide passageway, with a bed, where I slept when I visited, and where my father slept when he lived here as a child. Now we can proceed on every which kind of way:
  1. To the left out through another set of French doors, back into the hallway-formerly-known-as-a-porch
  2. Through a mystery door in the far wall, one of the several routes into my aunt Annou’s semi-autonomous apartment. (More on that later.)
  3. Around the bend, then to the left, into my grandfather’s bathroom, with its large bowl of loose change on top of the toilet, which when older, I was allowed to raid for bus fare down to the Quarter.
  4. Around the bend, then to the right, through the second mystery door, one of the several routes into my uncle Chip’s semi-autonomous apartment. (More on that later.)
  5. Or we could head around the bend, then straight ahead, through the last door. 

And here we dead-end in the guest bedroom, the home’s Southern Gothic inner core: dark, crammed with dark antiques, many of them Mallard, dominated by a towering Mallard half-tester bed, elaborate furniture of a scale appropriate for a large plantation home but utterly overwhelming when packed together in this one small room. Other notable contents included an odd little prie-dieu (prayer bench), which for a long time I thought was just a ridiculously short chair, and a huge armoire (pronounced “armor” in my family's Creole vernacular) crammed with oddities, including several porcelain dolls (just to really notch up the Goth). This is where my parents stayed when we visited. Also where Sarah stayed when she came to visit in college — a good and proper culture shock for my Miami gal, coming from a city where her childhood 60s ranch home was considered "vintage". (Note: I said we "dead-ended" here. We could actually go "out" through another set of French doors to the hallway-formerly-known-as-a-porch, but these were usually closed and shuttered.)

But let’s re-re-retrace our steps, back again now to the second kitchen, and proceed on through it to Annou’s (semi-autonomous) apartment, entering her eclectically cluttered sort-of-personal-living-room (more papers, books, and curios than you can shake a stick at). Off to the right is the (long anticipated) second back porch, and beyond that is the second courtyard, an approximate mirror image of the other, where she grows her herbs. (Though wait, was that later? Hmm.) A door in the corner leads to her bathroom. But we will continue on through to the left.

And we arrive in her (also eclectically cluttered) bedroom.  Here there are yet more French doors, though these ones actually lead out-outside to an actual side porch. (We're now on the opposite side of the house from where we started.) But they're closed and shuttered, so to preserve our sanity, let’s pretend they aren’t even there and just keep trucking, across the room and through the door in the far wall. (Again, New Orleans: bedroom-as-hall). Now we are presented with three more options. (Egads!):
  1. Hook a right, follow a long skinny passage, and exit through a side door out onto the just-mentioned actual side porch.
  2. Go through the mystery door to the left, in which case we'd be back in the "sewing room"! (Remember? This is that first mystery door from a while ago. Kaboom! Mind blown.)
  3. Or go through the mystery door straight ahead. And we enter…

Chip’s (semi-autonomous) apartment! Now we are entering the maziest maze of this amazingly mazy house. To the right is Chip’s private bathroom, a vintage vision in tile-y white. To the left, another mystery door, leading back to round-the-bend-from-the-"sewing-room". (This is that second mystery door from a while ago! Kaboom! Mind blown-er.) And straight ahead is a dark narrow hall with walls finished in a strange super-textured stucco that isn't found anywhere else in the house. (I don't really remember what was here when I was a kid. I didn't go back here much. Later, when Annou was living alone, it was lined with full-height bookshelves, housing her huge library, heavy on philosophy, fiction, and "Macs for Dummies" books). We head down the hall, through a weird arch, hook a dogleg, and find ourselves in an odd little space of indeterminate purpose. And now we again have three options. (Oh. Come. On!)
  1. Right: A door leading to a former kitchen (another one), since converted into my grandfather’s dark room. (He was an avid and talented amateur photographer.) Here a set of rough open stairs leads up through the ceiling into the attic, (which if we went up there, we’d see the cavernous raw space spanning the whole width and breadth of the house, home to a massive herd of wickerless wicker chairs).
  2. Straight: Another set of French doors, also leading out onto the actual non-hallway side porch.
  3. Left: Passing through this door we enter…

My uncle Chip’s bedroom, also eclectically cluttered, though with Chip-clutter (musical instruments, records, typewriters, CD players) rather than Annou-clutter. The room is dominated by another giant bed, this one a full-tester, even larger than the other, though simpler (a notable absence of curlicues). And passing through the bedroom, we arrive at the very last room on our tour (!!), Chip's piano nook — which even though this feels like the deepest depths of the house, is actually the other front foyer to the other front door. Here we find, well, his piano. Chip was a capable classical pianist (and occasional composer), though in his later years, his repertoire diminished mostly to scales, which I would hear him distantly playing, sometimes for hours at a time, through the walls from where I lay in my bed in the "sewing room".

And that’s the tour, folks! Oh wait, the garage. Do you want to see the garage? Later? Okay, later. Now how do we get back out of here...?

But really, do you get now why we had to give a serious think-or-two before deciding to tackle this labyrinthine behemoth? It was not a knock-out-a-wall-or-two kind of situation. So I think we've established the what of the nutty. Next time for real we'll get to the why, the twists and turns that got this house so twisty-turny. Stay tuned!