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!


  1. Exceptional. Excited for the next installment.
    Welcome back!

  2. impressed, interested and curious!

  3. Fascinating mazy labyrinth!

  4. This makes me ever so curious about the house's inhabitants.

    Also, it just sounds great.

  5. New episode please!

    1. It's been a spell, but the next installment is imminent.

  6. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Slimbolala. That's my cycle.