The unique vernacular style of New Orleans resides in our living with their teenage daughters, are on minuscule plots, quite close collective imagination, as much aesthetic fantasy as actual locale: the French Quarter’s gingerbread Creole entresol townhouses with wooden shutters flung open to filigreed wrought-iron balconies; the pediment porches of Greek Revival cottages in the Garden District; high-ceilinged, antique-laden interiors in pastels and saturated jewel tones that evoke the overripe thrill of Mardi Gras. In an era of strip malls, big box stores and McMansion subdivisions that have homogenized much of the country, this idiosyncratic and proudly louche city, with its diverse population and lushly baroque sense of style dating back to the 18th century, hardly feels a part of the U.S.
Those were among the many reasons that one couple—a commercial real estate developer raised in Connecticut, and his wife, from a Chicago suburb—chose to make New Orleans their permanent home after meeting as undergraduates at Tulane University more than two decades ago. But while they remain entranced by the city’s redolent charm, a few years back, they found themselves longing for a residence that might be a refuge from its cacophony. They wanted plenty of room within to spread out but also some outdoor space: Most houses in the city, including the capacious Victorian where they were living with their teenage, are on minuscule plots, quite close to the often-noisy streets.
After a search, they found a red brick 1911 neo-Georgian on a generous third of an acre in the historic Uptown neighborhood, near Audubon Park (the famed naturalist himself lived in the city starting in 1921). Among the selling points: an ancient live oak in the backyard, its boughs offering abundant shade. With the help of designer Ann Holden and local architect Patrick Melancon, they set about more than doubling the living space to 7,000 square feet and transforming the exterior with white stucco. The intent was to burnish the original residence’s gravitas while expanding its footprint to create an airier flow—a modern mix virtually impossible to find among original New Orleans’ residential structures.
Holden was an obvious choice to conceive the interiors. A New Orleans native, she has been a design force in the city since opening her practice more than four decades ago, and, like her clients, attended Tulane and stayed put after getting her degree. “I see it all the time,” she says. “You come to school here and you just fall in love with the place.” Holden also shares with the couple a love of relative minimalism and a muted palette—unusual in an environment where maximalism and bright hues reign. “We knew she was on the same page as we were,” says the husband, “and it’s a rarity here.” In fact, during the first years of her career, Holden says, she conformed somewhat to the city’s de rigueur style—19th-century French antiques including bergères uphol- stered in pale silks, scenic wallcovering and crystal chandeliers. As time passed, however, she has become increasingly contemporary and spare in her approach. If someone calls these days and wants a tradi- tionally theatrical interior of the sort she was once known for, she tells them she is not the right person for the job. “At this point, what draws me is shape and material,” she says. “I’m simply tired of ‘too much.’ I regard a room as a canvas. I think negative space can be so moving.”
As such, the house, which now has a high-ceilinged two-story addition that echoes the original structure’s neo-Georgian dimensions, is commodious but elegantly streamlined, free of the sort of clutter of vintage objets and idiosyncratic “conversation starters’” one finds in many New Orleans homes. It is awash in neutrals, but sharpened with touches of matte black and some cool blues. The effect is tranquil yet sophisticated—a subdued series of choices which, ironically, seem particularly fresh, even shocking, considering the context.
Holden does not discriminate by period, style or culture; her vision is dominated by proportion, texture and line. She is careful not to obscure good architecture, but to highlight it, employing large-scale pieces that become part of a striking tableau. The tone is set in the entry, which Melancon designed to be a white-on-white space with a geometric open stair that slashes through the volume. The living room, in the new addition, has towering ceilings with geometric carved plaster detailing that winks at the traditional scrolly medallions and moldings found in many historic houses, and tall, consciously plain windows on all sides that let in the luscious Louisiana light. The dining room has a slightly more classical ambiance, with Klismos-style chairs that evoke Grecian antiquity.
While the art in the house is sparsely hung in keeping with the minimalist nuance, much of it is African in origin, collected by the wife’s grandparents. She treasures these pieces, and their spirit has infused the house, echoing throughout the rooms. Playing on the gestural nature of the objects, among the few purely decorative touches that Holden has brought to the home are several black matte stoneware vases—almost flat, like silhouettes—made by the Houston artisan Liz Marsh.
On the top floor, in the primary bedroom, all is airy, light and quietly Zen, the ultimate escape from the often chaotic, decadent city. A Wegner-inspired lounge chair sits across from a wall adorned with an installation of small white ceramic blossoms by the local artist Bradley Sabin. “When we think of this house, we think of 360-degree light, air and just a feeling of clean,” says the husband. “That’s one word you might not associate with New Orleans. To have that and also be here is really wonderful.”
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE SUMMER 2022 ISSUE OF FREDERIC. CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE!