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Renovating an Artistic Retreat

New Life in New Orleans

By Anthea Gerrie | Photography by Sara Essex Bradley

With a large, sprawling family house to care for, designer Jill Dupré had long fantasized about a more pared-down life, a cozy place to downsize to when her children flew the nest. But before that happened, the mother of two stumbled upon a romantic, near-derelict little house in the eclectic Fairgrounds Triangle neighborhood of New Orleans.

“It was such a special property with so much history and original detail,” says Dupré, who worked as a graphic designer in advertising before turning her hand to home decorating and accessory making. And what a project she created for herself, describing this little house of barely a thousand square feet as “a beautiful mess” when she and her husband took possession. “The previous owner called it the Art House, as she used to store stuff for her installations in it—and she also held some insane parties here, from what we were told.”

Many potential buyers would have thrown their hands up at the challenge of making a rapidly deteriorating house habitable in a climate dogged by humidity and termite issues, but Dupré and her husband found the greenery surrounding the property simply irresistible. “It was the hundred-year-old date palm, the bamboo, and a wonderful canopy of trees sheltering the L-shaped backyard that persuaded us to buy it.”

“It was such a special property with so much history and original detail,”

You get that seductive sense of a home cocooned by tropical foliage from the get-go, thanks to the welcoming shade of a banana tree in the front yard whose precise shade of leaf green has been picked up in floor-to-ceiling shutters. “We loved the worn look of the original front, so we chose to keep the sun-bleached aged appearance, giving the house a contrasting crisp, modern feel by painting the trim and shutters,” Dupré says.

Inside, a wealth of dusty lath behind the original plaster walls was much more than a nuisance to clear away for Dupré, who with her magpie instinct envisaged it as material for the kind of wood-plank ceiling that’s common in the Caribbean. It has indeed been reused to give the bedroom ceiling “a life from its past” while a new four-poster bed with a spare, gold-accented black frame adds a touch of twenty-first-century romance. The wood lath also reappears on the bathroom ceiling, this time painted in different shades of gray. Dupré says, “I tried to reuse as much as I could from the renovation.”

A wooden ceiling likely once also topped the large living room at the heart of the house, which before Hurricane Katrina had been divided in two. The previous owner did not add paint after the drywall was put in place to repair it, liking the primitive feel of an African fabric print suggested by the mud lines. This engaging geometry is paid homage to in a ceiling now freshly painted, like the walls, but with that much-admired grid pattern casually daubed on afterward with a small roller.

Wood is never far away in this house; it’s in the new floorboards, the old distressed baseboards left here and there to add texture, the original French doors, and the rough-hewn console table above which some of the couple’s fabulous collection of graphics are displayed. “We asked to keep the console when we bought the house because it was custom-made to fit on the wall,” Dupré says. It was not the only piece retained by the new owners. “A tree-stump stool in the bathroom, which I love, also came with the house.”

“We asked to keep the console when we bought the house because it was custom-made to fit on the wall,”

Old wood is also represented in the door that leads from the living room into the kitchen—New Orleans shotgun houses have no halls—although here a wall of white-painted brick above the prized vintage stove the couple inherited from the previous owner is the star feature. The curved lines of the stove inspired the purchase of a new Smeg fridge, making this room, like the others, an inspirational mix of old and new; note the painted screen (a thrift shop purchase) that sits beside IKEA shelving in the living room.

Dupré says the whole house reminds her of an adored summer camp in Holly Beach, Louisiana, that her grandparents rented when she was a child. So it’s no surprise that she has named the couple’s Airstream—the surprise star of the magical backyard—Ann, after her beloved grandmother. “We joke that we bought the house so Ann could have a home!” she laughs.

“I never traveled as a child and had always dreamed of hitting the road in an Airstream after staying in one in Marfa,” confesses Dupré, recalling her grandfather addressing his own itchy feet with a call of “It’s time to hit the road, Ann!” This also explains the “Let’s Hit the Road” legend inscribed in a light box on the wall of the Airstream kitchen and the monogram mugs that spell out “A N N” hanging from a row of hooks.

As well as an excellent place for children or guests to sleep, the silver trailer is an absolute delight of light, bright, witty design in its own right. Color and graphics are everywhere, including an indoor dining area that is undoubtedly only used when it rains, given that the yard paved with old brick provides such an enticing setting for alfresco meals. A lovely feature of the yard is an outdoor shower that complements the more conventional indoor one above the vintage clawfoot tub.

Grandma Ann is not the only person to whom tribute was paid during the sensitive renovation; the original art studio in the backyard where the previous owner stashed her canvases is finding new life as what Dupré calls “a drinking porch” with recycled windows. But found art is hung inside and sometimes made there too. “From the day I walked in, this house was an artist’s vision, and I love it even more now it has transitioned into a space that sings to the future as well as hums with the past,” says Dupré. “It has texture and grit but is also warm and inviting, eclectic and modern, raw—but not stale.”

— V —

Anthea Gerrie is based in the UK but travels the world in search of stories. Her special interests are architecture and design, culture, food, and drink, as well as the best places to visit in the world’s great playgrounds. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, the Independent, and Blueprint.

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