We almost always think of our jobs as a lot more than “just a job”. We don’t take lightly the fact that so many plotlines are woven into anything that is called “home”: the joys and pain of all its occupants, the historical context that wrought its architectural heritage, the soul of its neighborhood, the sweat of loggers, the diligence of civil engineers. The Cunningham house in Uptown New Orleans may take the cake for houses we’ve worked on that have stories to tell.
Silas, the home’s owner, grew up next door and participated in its last remodel in his youth, so we’ve learned more than we often do about its story. What’s more, a tragedy for the house has become for us a series of lessons in our craft. Some ten years ago a Christmas tree fire destroyed the front of the house and damaged much of the rest. The homeowners at the time, already moved away and renting it, sold the place to Silas, who set his mind to a long, arduous renovation project. At length he decided that it was too big a house for one guy to finish on his weekends, so he invited us to have a look at the project. On a bitterly chilly evening in the winter of 2010 we toured the place with him; we didn’t have to see or hear more than “I want it to look like it originally did, but with better plumbing” before we jumped at the chance to help him finish this project.
Having been worked on in pieces at various intervals over the past ten years, and drastically changed by its remodel thirty years ago, the house has presented many challenges. What were its original details, and how to match them with modern materials and amenities? Which of the older parts to keep, and which to rebuild? How to get it done quickly, durably, and affordably?
We sought answers from a couple of decades-old photos of the house next door that showed the edge of Silas’ house before the fire and one photo of it the day after the fire, plus our experience with similar houses. We agreed to have new windows built that would nearly match the originals, with some updates: more glazing and one half-width window in the guest bathroom. The front porch entablature we designed after those on nearby houses in the same Neo-Classical Revival style. Most of the flooring will be heart pine salvaged from this house, supplemented with flooring from houses being dismantled to clear space for the new hospitals in Mid-City. We’ll use the original interior doorjambs and trim, with baseboard, window casing, and crown molding to match. We are currently seeking three matching columns in the Doric Order to complete the exterior.
By last spring we were repairing burned, rotten, and missing floor joists, rebuilding the front porch, and framing the new floor plan. By the time summer became seriously sweaty, Silas had the shell of a house for the first time since it burned, and the unenviable task of painting the exterior while we absconded for several months to carry out the Samish Island remodel project.
Since we returned this fall, we are preparing the place for the plumbing and other trades; by spring Silas will be enjoying his home at last.