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'.


  1. Fantastic, phenomenal, extraordinaire etc.!

  2. The Esplanadesphere is abuzz with puzzles and theories in the wake of this incredible episode. I thought I'd take my questions to the source.

    1) Was the doorway between 'Annou's Bedroom' and what we members of the 'sphere call the 'Horseshoe Hall' there the whole time? Or was it sealed at the time of the great apartmentalization, only to be reopened later? (This might seem trivial, but perhaps has significant psycho-architectural implications, which I can elaborate another time.)

    2) What is the origin of the 'zig-zag' wing of the above-mentioned 'Horseshoe Hall'? (The zig-zag may be the single most disorienting feature of the house; hence the interest in its mystery.) Was it built to carve out a closet for 'Chip's Bedroom'? Seems pretty large for a closet-- many of us are skeptical of this theory.

    1. Regarding:

      1) Horseshoe Hall was created, according to my theory, by the construction of that bathroom and kitchen/future-darkroom. But the stretch of Horshoe Hall leading towards the side door has always, in modern times, been associated with Annou's apartment. But Chip's apartment also opened up on to it. So I wondered if the bathrooms and kitchen and apartmentalization all happened at the same time, and that stretch of the newly formed Horseshoe Hall perhaps became a shared hall, which both apartments opened onto and which both could use for egress. Just a notion. I'll ask the old folks for any intel.

      2) It was formed, again according to my theory, entirely by the carving out of the kitchen and what is indeed a very large closet. But there's a *reason* why the closet is so large. That closet was enclosed by a weirdly big sliding door, which was on of the sliding doors that previously separated those parlors and had been repurposed during the apartmentalization. But what I discovered when the walls were opened up is that it hadn't merely been salvaged and reused. That door was literally exactly where it had always been, still resting on the same track it had always rested on, and they had merely reconfigured the walls around it: a wall was built between the former first and second parlors and then a door was created between the newly formed bedroom and the newly constructed closet, and *now* what had been the doors *closed* position became its *open* position, and what was its *open* position became its *closed* position.

      Am I making sense? Door became wall. Wall became door. Closed became open. Open became closed. The door was repurposed by changing its surroundings, not by changing the door. Really kind of brilliant. But yes, that large closet contributed to the zig-zagginess of hat new 'zig-zag' wing.

    2. Confirmed: that stretch of "Horseshoe Hall" leading to the side door was a shared exit for both apartments. And again, since this stretch of hall was created by the construction of the Chip-bathroom, I'm thinking that the bathroom-construction and apartmentalization may have been concurrent. Actually I'm wondering if the closets were thrown in at the same time. That there may have been a general "modernization" effort that happened in the later early twentieth century a couple or three decades or so after the house was first built (mostly).

  3. The closing is the opening. The zig is the zag. Beautiful.

  4. MCaswell is my type pf person, beautiful. Slimbo, I think this could have legs as an alt-This Old House series or an HGTV Esplanade special. The soundtrack could be a retrospective of all the groups that you have played with over the years.