RESURRECTING THE DEAD: The Story of a French Quarter Restoration and other Vignettes of the Crescent City
by John Messina
resurrect: to bring back into use
vignette: a short descriptive piece of literary writing
New Orleans: September 17, 1998
I am sitting at a large conference table with the seller and closing attorney. The seller, a frog-like woman, is glaring at me because I forgot our partner’s power-of- attorney. My wife and the realtor are racing across town to our hotel where the paper work is stashed in my luggage. It’s only 4:15 p.m. but outside it is as dark and gray as dusk, and the air beyond the air-conditioned office suite is moist and still. A tropical storm, fast becoming a hurricane, is out in the Gulf of Mexico headed toward Louisiana and maybe New Orleans. Young, attractive, well dressed black women and young tame-looking white men are floating from room to room carrying thick legal size file folders. Earlier the realtor told me that this is an “act-of-sale assembly line.” He said that the lawyer is able to do four closings per hour. I have no reason to doubt him, but my forgetfulness is probably causing a disruption in his schedule.
We are surrounded by modern art. The lawyer is a noted collector. There is more framed art on his walls than in a small museum. He tells me that I should see what’s in his house – “the best stuff.”
The seller is still glaring at me from across the table. Some how I do not think that she is going to wish us best and thank us for taking a three-story hulk of trouble off of her back. Her look says, “Just give me the damn check and I am out of here.”
I ask the closing attorney if the insurance on the house is in effect? He affirms with a nod. I quickly calculate that if the building we are purchasing is destroyed in the on coming storm we will have made a fast one hundred thousand dollars. Just then, in walk my wife and the realtor with the power-of-attorney. “Let’s sign,” I say.
The realtor, my wife and I go to a new restaurant on Magazine Street to celebrate - I suppose. The place is practically empty. I order a pasta dish that is fair, not great. I do not know why, but I offer to pick up the check. The realtor who has just made a five or six thousand-dollar commission lets me pay the bill. Outside, we say good night to the realtor, and drive a few blocks to our hotel. The night air is still, humid and ominous.
New Orleans: September 18th.
Tania, my wife, and I go by the house. It’s still standing. The storm veered eastward and was knocking the hell out of the Florida Panhandle. New Orleans is calm. Even so the mayor called a day off for city workers just incase the storm changed its mind.
We turn the key for the first time as owners and enter. We now have or have had, for eighteen hours, one-half ownership in a French Quarter building. People working on the house two-doors away come over and speak with us. Sidney, who is running the renovation for the owners, introduces himself. He is a classic New Orleans ninth ward white boy – funky but street smart. He gives us a recommendation for a trash hauler by the name of Wallace.
We are feeling pretty good even with all the dirt, junk and problems that we readily see before us. Tania is in good spirits. I try not to show that I am nervous. The building is relatively sound but still needs a great deal of work to make habitable, not to mention marketable. We decide to walk over to the Napoleon House for lunch.
After a muffuletta and red wine I am in better spirits. “We are on a roll,” I say. “Let’s go over to the Vieux Carré Commission and introduce ourselves.”
The Vieux Carré Commission is located in offices above a police station on Royal Street. I suppose that there is something symmetrical about that fact, because in a way the “Commission,” is the historic preservation police force of the French Quarter. Even so, it’s kind of creepy having to enter a police station in order to access the Vieux Carré Commission. The desk sergeant - the type one sees in old detective movies being surly to the desperate husband whose wife has disappeared and doesn’t know where to turn - looks up and stares at us as we enter the stairway to the Commission’s suite of offices. City government is shut down and I forgot that the Vieux Carré Commission is a city agency. Nevertheless, the director himself is in the front office as we enter. He doesn’t remember that we once met. A mutual friend, an authority on New Orleans jazz, introduced us while attending the Bywater Mirliton Festival several years ago. New Orleans is a festival-crazy town. It seems as though there is some type of festival almost every weekend. I attempt to remind him that we had previously met, and even though he still has no recollection of meeting me, his face glows at the sound of our mutual friend’s name. Before being appointed by the mayor to his current position, he had been an excellent restoration carpenter. I heard that he once built a winding Creole type stairway – a true mark of a master carpenter. Past Commission directors, as far as I can remember, have been trained architects. The director seems to be pleased with what we say that we plan to do with the building. He seems extra pleased when my cell phone rings and I announce that it is our mutual friend, the jazz historian calling. The director tells me to say, “hello,” for him. The jazz historian wants to meet for lunch tomorrow at Fiorella’s where he is crazy about the fried chicken. Once I hang up, the director picks up his telephone and calls to an inner office. I hear him instruct the Commission’s historian to come out and meet us. I can tell from the director’s side of the conservation that the historian is resisting, but he insists. Something tells me that this is not the best way to meet the historian. I am right. The historian, an attractive woman probably in her early fifties, seems preoccupied and wanting to be left alone to do her work. After all, it’s a holiday, and she probably came in to try and catch-up. Nevertheless, she studies our drawings and hears our description of what we plan to accomplish. She and the director disagree concerning our intention to stucco the building’s façade. She feels that the street front never had stucco and that the brick was always left exposed, and, therefore, should remain that way. The director feels otherwise. He thinks that the stucco is appropriate. I am not certain either way, and just listen to both of their arguments. At the end, I am still not certain as to the correct action. We depart on most congenial terms.
On the way out, I stop to use the men’s room that is shared with the police station. A man is at the sink washing his hands. He is not in uniform, but the pistol on his belt causes me to assume that he is a plainclothes officer. As he leaves he gives me a stare that indicates either displeasure or surprise that I would be using this restroom. I am not certain which. Before leaving the French Quarter we peek in our building one more time. Needless to say, it looks the same – dirty, full of junk and problems. We drive back to the hotel where I make some phone calls.
Later we are at a Ford dealership on Carrollton Avenue. I ask for the salesman who sent truck brochures me during the summer. He expresses surprise that I would seek him out. Why not? He probably mailed the packet of brochures at his own expense. I like him, and he sells us a one-year old Ford Ranger pickup truck. Now we can dump the money eating rental car.
It raining like hell, so our friend Dave drives Tania in the rental and I drive the truck out to the airport lot. Before going back to the hotel, we stop Casamento’s for oysters.
The Next Morning:
Wallace, Sidney’s recommended trash hauler, shows up around 8:30 with his beat-up truck and trailer. We met for the first time last night when he came by to size up the job of hauling away all of the junk. This way I would be left with only dirt and problems, and thus one-step ahead.
With Wallace are four guys. He starts them working and then Wallace disappears. He pops by several times during the day, and when he’s around his men work a little harder and faster. Wallace leaves, and things slow down. One of the guys, younger than the others, is friendly and talkative. I think that he is looking for another line of work. By the end of the workday, most of what I wanted done was done. Wallace asks for $100 more than I think we had agreed on. I give it to him. The place does look a lot better.
The Next Day:
I go by City Hall and wait two and one-half hours before obtaining an exploratory demolition permit. Only two and one-half hours? Others waiting for permits tell me that it’s a miracle that I got one that fast.
The Following Week:
The honeymoon is over. It’s a lot easier finding black men with battered trucks who are more than willing to haul trash, than finding skilled carpenters, masons, electricians and plumbers. Wallace and his crew want to do the demo, but I don’t feel they have the qualifications – not after watching one of them attempt to remove a screw from a piece of historic wood trim with a crowbar. I need people who will do as little damage as possible to the building.
The State Historic Preservation Officer is in town and she fits us into her schedule. It’s a fast visit, as she is rushed to make other calls. There are no problems with our plans other than removing a proposed spiral stair from a front upstairs room. A general rule in preservation policy is to not alter principle spaces. She also does not like the existing plaster ceiling medallion in the downstairs front parlor, but doesn’t say why. I am crushed. She rushes off in a State vehicle.
For the past couple of days I have been walking the streets of the French Quarter looking for renovation projects. I am hoping to locate some decent sub-contractors who might be working on these jobs. Generally, the experience is always the same. I notice some construction activity and enter the property. Three or four guys will be standing around talking. I ask if the plumber or electrician is present? The answer is always, “No, but he might be back later or maybe tomorrow.” No one ever seems to be working. If anyone is doing anything except shooting the breeze, it is the plasterer. I come to the conclusion that only plasterers and concrete finishers work at a reasonable pace, because if they don’t their materials will harden and be unworkable. For the other trades time does not exist.
I also learn that white plumbers and electricians have plenty of work in other parts of the city and do not care to work in the French Quarter. “Too many parking tickets,” they tell me.
That night, over dinner at a Mexican restaurant run by Hondurans, our friend Dave tells me about a contractor he knows who works in the Quarter. “I should call him.” That is exactly what I do the next morning.
The Next Day:
I meet William, Dave’s contractor friend, at a bar on Bourbon Street where he is completing a remodel. We walk over to my project on Saint Louis Street and sit down on some old chairs that I held back from Wallace’s crew. I like William. He is very relaxed – a necessary characteristic for a general contractor who often has to deal with the mentally underdeveloped segment of society. He tells me that he may be able to spare a couple of carpenters. Because of his overhead they won’t be inexpensive. I have no choice – the meter with the bank loan is running – so I agree.
The Following Day:
William calls and says that he can have two, maybe three, men on my job on Monday. Cost is vague, but I say, “let’s go.” If the arrangement proves too expensive I can always stop and try to find others. At least we can begin. He also recommends an electrician and a plumber.
It’s Friday and raining hard. There is another tropical storm in the Gulf. I meet the electricians at the house – three hippy looking brothers, with bandana headbands and earrings, whose father directs them from his fishing camp out on Lake Pontchartrain. This fact reminds me of when I learned that Jean Lafitte commanded his pirate crews from his camp on an island in the Gulf. Historians contend that, while operating in Louisiana, he seldom set foot on the deck of a ship. The hippy-looking electricians complete a hook up so that I can have the electricity turned on. That way we can rig some temporary outlets and lights so that William’s men, if they materialize, can see. The three brothers leave in good spirits, but not before telling me that there is a very, very bad roof leak on the second floor. I go up and inspect, and it is very, very bad. Rain is pouring in at a rapid rate. There is not much that I can do except drag over some cleaning buckets that we brought and pray that the rain stops soon.
I think that I will walk over to the Napoleon House for a bowl of gumbo until I see that the street in front of the house is already flooding. The water is overlapping the curbs. I use some rare better judgment and head out, in the pick-up truck, toward the Lakeview house where we are temporarily living. The streets are so flooded that people are leaving their cars on the neutral ground. It takes four hours to make it home, but not before I park my truck on the Canal Blvd. neutral ground, just short of where the street dips under a railroad overpass, and water was flowing like a miniature Mississippi River. I wade in knee-deep water the last two or three miles home, but not before stopping for coffee at a cafe and then at a market on Harrison Avenue where I purchase shucked oysters for dinner. Tania and I celebrate my making it home in the storm with spaghetti, fried oysters and red wine. The rain continues all night yet we are as content as two hounds at their master’s feet.
Three Months Earlier:
“I’m screwed,” I tell Cordelia. She turns and tells Dave, “He’s screwed.” We are sitting on the front steps of a bed and breakfast inn with two friends and watching the streetcar pass by. The inn is a large late nineteenth-century house on Carrolton near St. Charles. It is owned by two men - one is a downtown banker and the other is a graduate of the LSU architecture school. Since I also graduated from LSU architecture, and even though there are quite a few years separating us, I attempt to exchange notes. I soon realize that for him it wasn’t the greatest of experiences, and he had little use for one of my favorite professors. That’s understandable, as one teacher does not fit all students. That also could be why he is operating a bed and breakfast inn and not practicing architecture.
I am devastated because this morning in front of the Orleans Parish courthouse, with dozens of greedy speculators watching, I was outbid for my wife’s family house. We had planned to purchase it from the estate, renovate and enjoy it for a while, and then hopefully sell it for a profit. No such thing. Some guy kept throwing money at the auctioneer, and I even reach beyond my limit before folding. This project was to be our new start after closing our business in Tucson. Now I am an architect, floating between two cities, without clients or prospects.
One of the B & B’s owners, the banker, comes out and asks if we would all care for some complimentary wine. His hospitality helps me to feel a little better. Soon another couple joins us, an architect friend and his wife, and the B & B proprietor brings out two more glasses of wine without even asking if they were desired. Later, all six of us go to Mandina’s for dinner.
Later that night, back at the B & B, I am freaking out. Tania is also freaking out. I do not know what I will do with my life. Tania says that, with or without me, she is going to turn our Tucson house into a B & B. I tell her that the zoning will not permit that use. She says that there already are several B & Bs in the neighborhood. She wants to know why we always have to follow the rules when others do not. I don’t have an answer. We panic ourselves to sleep.
In the morning during breakfast we meet a couple from Chicago. The husband develops real estate. I tell him about losing the house at auction. He tells me that he has never regretted what he has paid for property. He says, “real estate always goes up.” He and his wife are trying to decide if they should rent bikes and ride around the city or take a riverboat cruise. I suggest the riverboat.
After breakfast Tania and I take a drive. We find ourselves in the French Quarter. On Saint Louis Street, near Rampart, we notice a property for sale. It is a two-story townhouse that clearly needs work. The front is exposed brick that has been painted a bad blue-green. The balcony is sagging and littered with a faded plastic chair on which a stuffed animal rests, a trashcan, flowerpots with no flowers, several sheets of plywood, and some plumbing fixtures. Three rusty mailboxes had been depressed into what was once a lovely Greek Key surround at the entrance. Weeds are sprouting from the corbelled cornice at the roofline. The structure looks the way a French Quarter building looked before the post-war era of gentrification. Even so, structural settlement appears about normal – that is about a foot lower than when first constructed - and the exterior walls are relatively plumb.
I always dreamed of owning a French Quarter building, but by the time I had graduated from architecture school they were already unaffordable for a young architect without a trust fund or a wealthy wife. This house needs help and it’s on the so-called “wrong side” of the Quarter. “Let’s check the price,” I say.
Back at the B & B we call the realtor and learn that the asking price is $285,000. That would hardly buy you a one-bedroom French Quarter condo today, so I make an appointment to see the property. The realtor, a charming gay man, meets us at the property. The interior of the building has been cut up into three units – as the mailboxes indicated. A black man who waits tables at a French Quarter restaurant occupies the two principle downstairs rooms. His walls are covered with posters of black athletes and black women in bikinis. An attractive young Cuban woman rents the second floor and attic. She says that she is a Tulane student and tells us that the roof leaks and the owner will not have it repaired. The tenant for the rear dependency (That’s real estate lingo for what use to be the slave-quarters and kitchen.) is not home, but we enter and I see water damage on the ceilings and floor. In architect talk we would say that this building has “good bones” but needs much help.
Later, because we are both temporarily mentally disturbed and therefore not being of sound minds, we call the realtor with a verbal offer of $240,000. He calls back within minutes and tells us that our offer is accepted. He is immediately coming by for our deposit. Something tells me that we should have offered much less for “good bones” on the “wrong side” of the Quarter.
The Next Day:
The realtor has provided the name of a banker who we go to see at the downtown branch of his bank. He is a taut and humorless man, and tells us that his is not the right department for our project. He recommends the bank’s mortgage banker who was located across the river in Gretna. Since we do not have time to go to Gretna before flying out, and because we have no funds for a down payment that would be commiserate with a loan of the size we need, we postpone, contacting this mortgage banker.
Tucson: Several Days Later:
We have no idea how we will obtain the money required to purchase the building much less fix it up. I put together my version of a prospectus in order to attract investors. It is mailed to everyone that I know in New Orleans. No one responds. I come to learn that the New Orleans people I know seldom, if ever, go to the French Quarter (other than dipping in and out of Galatoires for lunch or an early dinner). They say that parking is a problem and crime is prevalent. If they were going to invest money in real estate it would probably be in an Uptown neighborhood. Things are not looking very promising, and the realtor calls every other day asking when can we close?
Two Weeks After Our Offer Was Accepted:
A Tucson acquaintance, with plenty of family money, real estate investment experience, and fondness for New Orleans restaurants and music, happens to call. I tell him that we are buying a French Quarter building. I try to sound confident. He is not worried about parking and crime, because he instantly asks if we would like to have a partner. Even though I am desperate, I say. “Let me think about it.”
The Next Day:
Our acquaintance calls. “Am I in or not?” he asks. “You are in,” I answer. We have a partner with, in banking language, strong financials.
The Next Few Weeks:
Our partner and we flirt with the idea of being greedy and convert the building to three condominiums. However, after a few days of preliminary sketching the building starts speaking to us. It tells us that it wants to be what it originally was – a dignified and loved residence. We listen to the building and agree that the best use of the property is to restore it back to a single-family dwelling. In preservationist jargon, we will not treat the property as a “rehabilitation,” but instead we will perform a “restoration.” The Vieux Carré Survey indicates that the building, a side hall townhouse, was built around 1842 for an Antoine Cruzat who bought the lot for $1500. The property remained in the Cruzat family until just after the Civil War. Then it went through a series of ownership, some with African-American sounding names like Nellie and Walter Mae, until 1967 when the building was purchased by two hippie couples who apparently had some financial resources. It appears that it was they who made the most extreme alterations to the dwelling. They stripped most of the plaster from the second floor in order to expose the brick and they turned the attic into a bedroom with a small bath. They also removed what remained of the heart pine flooring from the first-floor rear parlor, lowered the floor level eighteen inches with a concrete slab, and installed a sleeping loft along with a small kitchen and bath. In late 1960’s fashion, they hippyized the house.
An 1896 Sandborn Insurance map designates the adjacent property on the river-side with the initials “F.B.” I assumed that meant frame building, but was baffled, because from a 1930’s photograph I knew that building, since demolished, had been constructed out of masonry similar to our property. Then one day while researching at the Historic New Orleans Collection, a staff historian explained that the Sandborn F.B. designation meant “female berth” – a euphemism for brothel. Later at the New Orleans Notarial Archives a friendly black man explained that during the early part of the twentieth century our section of the French Quarter was know as the Tango Belt and functioned as an African-American entertainment zone with bars, music and houses of prostitution. A 1963 photograph of the adjacent building on the lakeside corroborates this because it shows a suspended sign on the façade with the name La Tropical Bar in neon. Even today, painted above one of the building’s two entrances are the words, “Open 24 Hours.” Our property had some interesting neighbors, and probably an intriguing history of it’s own. In the archives, I did find a lovely pink and yellow watercolor illustration of the lot on which our house sits. This type of colored drawing was the custom, in nineteenth-century New Orleans, whenever properties were offered for sale or auction. Apparently, because no building is indicated, this one was issued prior to the house being built.
Even though we plan to bring the house back to a single-family residence, I decide to go for the Historic Preservation Federal Tax Credit as a back up incase we decide to use the building as a rental. Since the building is located in a National Historic District and listed on every survey as a property that contributes to the significance of the district, I have no doubt the project will qualify. We are talking about a tax credit of twenty percent of the restoration costs. For us, that would amount to $40,000 since we are budgeting around $200,000 for construction and design. Also, there really isn’t any magic involved in obtaining this historic tax credit, if the historic building qualifies as depreciable property and one obeys the rules as laid out by the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. More than occasionally, when historic properties are purchased by extremely wealthy people, there are issues. On one hand this is good because it takes a shit-load of money to restore or rehabilitate an old building. On the other hand wealth can sometimes, maybe often, breed arrogance. The wealthy owner wants what he wants and to hell with some bureaucratic regulations. That’s when the skirmish between the owner and the regulating jurisdiction happens. Usually the architect is caught in the middle. My advice to the architect is, say no to the unreasonable client, and to the owner, who wants it only his way, I recommend avoiding historically protected properties.
I am speaking twice a week with the mortgage banker in Gretna. He recommends going for a purchase-construction type loan, then role over the loan to a conventional mortgage once the project is completed. This means that I need to submit to the bank, for an appraisal, a complete set of construction documents that indicate each and everything we plan to accomplish. Up to now I have been working with the realtor’s laser measured floor plans. I need much more detail information on the building’s existing conditions. This means a trip to New Orleans in order to measure and survey the structure. I call the realtor and tell him that we will not be able to close, or in New Orleans language, “pass the act of sale,” by the sixty day time deadline in the offer. I say that I need another six-weeks. For some reason he has lost the charm that he once possessed. However, he will break this news to the seller. Tania and I schedule a trip to New Orleans for over the Fourth of July weekend.
New Orleans: July 4th weekend:
As we walk from our hotel on lower Chartres to the house on Saint Louis Street, we pass dozens of attractive black couples. It’s the weekend of the Essence Music Festival. They seem happy and enjoying themselves, and unlike us they do not seem to mind the ninety degrees temperature and high humidity. They graciously return our nods, smiles, and greetings as we pass on the sidewalk. Their affability to a white couple is encouraging. They must be from out-of-town.
The tenants have vacated so we have an empty house in which to work, and our friend Dave offers to help. Dave is a successful Cajun musician equally terrific as the bass player in his brother’s band or playing solo. He grew up on the prairie of southwest Louisiana, (FACT CHECK) but loves living in New Orleans. He is the type of born-again New Orleanian who inhales the culture of the City with the same vigor that some people suck crayfish heads. We measure, photograph and observe. The building needs a lot of work, and I want to think that is doable even on our tight budget. A fig tree in the patio is laden with ripe figs, and we consume them all day. The next morning the realtor meets with us at the French Quarter boutique hotel where we are staying. He expects that the offer will extend only an additional thirty days. I explain that it will take several weeks to produce the construction documents, and then they will have to be shipped to the mortgage banker in Gretna. He will have an appraisal made and that will involve another couple of weeks. “We need until early September,” I say. The realtor is clearly not happy, but he agrees. I understand that he wants his commission, and the seller wants to unload the house, especially since she is no longer receiving rental income. That said, she should have taken better care of such a significant historic property. There are serious roof leaks, rotten floors and thresholds, as well as termite damage. Old buildings, like wooden boats and children, require a lot of “tender loving care.” If you can’t provide that, then don’t take on the responsibility.
The next day we treat Dave and his wife to a late lunch at Galatoire’s. I have never seen Dave wearing anything except jeans and an open button-down collar shirt. For this occasion he is wearing a blue suit and tie. I am touched. After lunch Tania and I take an evening flight back to Tucson.
The partnership agreement has me on site acting as owner, architect and contractor for $2,000 per month. It’s not much, but Tania and I know how to live on that amount. Hiring a general contractor to run the job would add at least an additional twenty-five per cent to the final cost. Our partner is getting a bargain with me and he knows it. At thirty thousand feet above the North American Continent, I am making mental notes of all the things that need to be done by September.
Tucson: Three Weeks Later
The drawings have been shipped to the mortgage banker, and I am working on our financials. Our partner and his wife left for Italy without completing his. He leaves word that I should go to their place of business; a Mexican imports store where an assistant will complete the needed bank forms. The assistant is twenty-one, and sexy. A woman like her is a liability to a mom and pop business, because Pop might do something crazy. She and I sit at a computer and look at the financials he started. His liquid assets are in excess of several million. I am wondering what she is thinking. I am thinking that the mortgage banker in Gretna will be happy. With those financials, I am not worried about our qualifying for the loan. We need $240,000 for the purchase, $200,000 for construction, $20,000 to pay me, and ten percent for contingencies and miscellanies expenses. To make it simple we round off to $500,000 total. With our $100,000 down (My share was borrowed from a dead relative. This will be explained in the epilogue) we are applying for a $400,000 loan. The assistant hits a command on the computer and then sashays over to the printer.
The mortgage banker calls from Gretna. He says that the appraisal came in at four hundred thousand, the same amount of the requested loan. Why am I am not surprised? He tells me that the loan is approved. I call the realtor with the good news. He wants to close in two days. I say that it is not possible. We need to make preparations for a temporary move to New Orleans. The earliest is September 1st. Again, he is not happy but agrees. Our partner calls from Italy. I tell him, “It’s a go.”
One Month Later:
I arrive at the house and find three of William’s men waiting for me. The largest of the three is a Nicaraguan called Manuel. The smaller man, also from Nicaragua, is Enrique. The third is a medium size Cuban by the name of Francisco. Manual and Enrique do not seem to speak much English, but Francisco does all right. They begin the demolition of the sleeping loft, bath and kitchenette on the first floor. A roll-off dumpster that I had ordered arrives. Fortunately, there is a Tuesday and Thursday parking ban (FACT CHECK) on the street in front of the house from seven to ten in the morning. It is supposed to be for street cleaning, and in fairness the cleaners with their brooms and can on rollers do their best, but this is the French Quarter and within a few hours the curbs are littered with go cups and other debris. However, the ban works to my advantage, because that’s when I can slip in deliveries and things like dumpsters – that is if the meter maid has already passed or is off having coffee somewhere else. I come to notice that the New Orleans Police are pretty reasonable about parking and deliveries during the ban, but the meter maids take no prisoners. They are indifferent, relentless and unyielding in their quest to ticket parking violators.
About an hour into their work, Manuel calls me to come over and see some termites he has disturbed in a damp, no not damp, a water logged bathroom cabinet. Formosans?” I ask. “Si, Formoistas,” he answers. The Formosan Termite is the most feared of all termites in New Orleans. It is said by certain people in the extermination business that they can eat concrete and steel. Supposedly, they were brought to New Orleans shortly after World War II on ships coming from Formosa or what is now called Taiwan. They lay dormant until the big money started rolling into the French Quarter, then they awakened from their slumber and commenced a ravishing and expensive feast on local buildings. Nowadays when you spot termites in your house, you pray to God that they are the old fashion pre-war variety. Even though Manuel was not a trained entomologist, I figured that he was probably right.
The Bank Lady:
At this point it was time to obtain some of the loan money that we need in order to pay for materials and labor. The mortgage banker in Gretna gives me the name of the banker, on this side of the river, who handles construction funds. I call this person, a woman, who wants to know the name and license number of my contractor. I explain to her that I am functioning as the contractor. She tells me that the bank requires a licensed contractor for any construction project that they fund. I tell her that I have been a licensed architect for forty-years and know a bit about running a project such as this one. “Besides,” I say, “your mortgage banker in Gretna knew of our owner-architect-contractor plans and did not say anything about a requirement for a general contractor.” She says that I better come in tomorrow morning so that we can discuss this matter.
The Next Morning:
It’s already hot and humid as I walk from my truck to the downtown branch of the bank. I am wearing Khaki chinos, a button-down oxford shirt and a tie. The bank lady has a large corner office and a title of vice-president. It seems a little high up the pay scale to be taking time with an only 400K customer, but maybe my partner’s financials impressed the bank. She is quite tall and slender. I am not certain why, but this makes me nervous, and I usually like tall women. Also, she is a very officious acting tall woman. I have the feeling that she can be ruthlessly officious. That’s probably why she has a vice-president title and a corner office. She puts me in lousy mood from the beginning when she tells me that architects are notorious for exceeding their budgets. She says that often they will spend excessively on a fireplace mantle and then run out of money. I am really pissed. I am the buyer and she is the seller. She sells money with a markup (interest). As the buyer, I should not have to listen to this stupidity. Maybe she doesn’t know the difference between an architect and an interior decorator who has a fetish for fireplace mantles. Then she asks if I can complete the project in six-months? Is she totally naive about French Quarter construction, or is she just testing me? I tell her that it would be impossible to finish a project of this scale in that amount of time, and that I have scheduled twelve-months minimum. (Actually I am really hoping to finish in ten.) Then unexpectedly she agrees to my time frame, doesn’t even mention the licensed contractor issue, and says that she will open a checking account for the project in my name and even deposit $10,000 in start-up funds. The whole episode is inexplicable, but I don’t care. I just want to shed the tie and get back to the French Quarter house.
The demolition is going well, and the dumpster is about two-thirds full. However, a tropical storm in the Gulf has been upgraded to hurricane status. It’s Saturday morning so Tania and I decide to evacuate to Lafayette where I have a cousin with a large, welcoming house. We spend the weekend watching the weather channel and eating shrimp. The hurricane veers eastward, thus sparing New Orleans. On the return trip back, my cell phone rings. It’s a guy with the city’s sanitation department saying that there have been complaints from neighbors that because of all the rain our dumpster was overflowing trash into the street. I say that it’s not possible because it was not even full and the contents were heavy building materials that would not float. Apparently this reasoning does not interest him, because he tells me that I need to have it immediately picked up by the dumpster company or receive a fine from the city.
We drive straight to the Quarter, and as we approach the building I see that the dumpster is indeed overflowing, not with building materials, but with full black plastic trash bags and loose garbage. It looks like a pre-EPA New York City garbage barge. The kind that used to take the city’s trash and dump it in the ocean. Apparently, half the French Quarter population was using our dumpster as their garbage container over the weekend. I suppose that the regular nightly sanitation trucks were grounded because of the hurricane alert. I call the dumpster company and request an immediate pick up. The woman I speak with is not surprised because her office had received a call from the city too. She laughs and says, “This always happens in the Quarters during an evac.”
The Building Permit:
Up to now we have been operating on an exploratory demolition permit. With walls and floors open, I can see better what needs to be accomplished, and it’s much more than I first thought. This is not a surprise. The construction documents (blueprints in popular jargon), haven been revised to reflect what I now know needs to be done to the building, although one never knows everything (renovation and restoration are always moving targets), are with the city for permitting. Our partner is coming to town for the first time since we bought the building, and he keeps calling and asking if the building permit has been issued.
I call the city to inquire about the status of the permit. I am told that there is a problem and the permit application has been rejected. But, I cannot be told why over the phone. For that, I would have to come to City Hall and pick up the rejected plans. Our partner calls with the same question, and I tell him that there is a small glitch, but not to worry.
I go to City Hall and learn that the problem is the attic room. The building code requires that all “habitable rooms” have an “emergency escape and rescue opening” (window). Our attic has none. Since the space had been made “habitable” more than thirty years ago by the rich hippies, I erroneously thought that the condition would be “grandfathered.” It was not.
Not knowing the lay of the New Orleans building department, I call an old friend who happens to be an architect in the city. He suggests that I go and talk to the head building official. My friend tells me that this man, who is also an architect, will probably offer a way out, but I need to be, “fast on my feet” to catch what he is offering.
I am in the head building official’s office. We begin by discussing my problem of the lack of direct access, but somehow his side of the conservation drifts. He talks about heights of French Quarter balcony railings and drunks. I am not aware that there is a problem with our balcony railing as it meets residential current code, and I am not sure where or how this fits in with the permit rejection, but I hang on his every word. I want to be “fast on my feet.” Then all of a sudden he tells me that if I place a restriction in the property deed that prohibits the attic being used as a bedroom, he will issue a building permit. I am thinking to myself, how can such a restriction ever be enforced, but so what? He is providing a not-so-subtle solution to my problem. I am fast on my feet and agree.
An old high school friend practices law out of his Uptown apartment. I ask if he can add a restriction in our deed. He says that he can. Two days later, I have a building permit.
The electrician, who directs his three sons from his fishing camp out by the lake, has not given me a fixed price for the electrical work. I know that he is playing contractor chicken with me. It goes like this: owner requests fixed price based on the work indicated on the plans. Contractor has enough work at the moment; therefore, does not want to take the time for estimating the job or accept the risk of providing a fixed price. But, he doesn’t admit that to the owner and promises a price. Owner keeps calling contractor, but calls are not answered or returned. Contractor hopes that he will out last the owner who will give-in and accept a time and materials agreement. Finally, contractor answers owner’s call because owner uses someone else’s phone and the contractor’s phone does not recognize the number. Contractor promises to have a price by the end of the week. The price never materializes, and the owner either agrees to an open-ended price or moves on to another contractor and another game of chicken.
Out of desperation I talk to the electrician who is working on the neighbor’s projects. He must need work, because he provides a fixed price. It’s fair, so I accept. It seems too easy.
Finding a plumber is much more difficult, even though William recommends a guy who he uses. I meet this plumber, a jockey size man, at the house. He can begin immediately and that’s good. He wants $300 up front for materials and that’s bad. When a contractor asks for an advance I always get nervous. There is the possibility that once they have your money, they take off never to be again seen. Usually I tell them that I cannot provide any up-front money until they are mobilized on the job. By that I mean their tools, equipment and materials need to be on the site. That way I know that there will be no immediate disappearing act. But because of this plumber’s past relationship with William I give him the money. Fortunately, he does return and completes enough work so that I can have the water turned on. However, he will not give me a price for the complete job. He wants to work by the hour. I can’t take that risk, as I need a fixed price. I am paying Manuel and Enrique by the hour, but the scope of their work is impossible to predict. The plumbing and electrical are much more quantifiable. So, I let this plumber go. I think that William is a little miffed.
While walking the French Quarter streets looking for tradesmen, I enter a large house on Dauphine Street that is undergoing a major renovation. To my amazement the plumber is actually on the job. He is a good-looking African-Creole guy with a cool French name – Marcel. I imagine a long line of gens de couleur libre among his ancestors. What a great source of genius loci to have on the project. I immediately like him, and he promises to come by and look at the job. I take his cell number and he takes mine. He says that he will call.
The plumber with the cool French name does not call. I call him, and to my surprise, he takes my call but still will not commit to the project or even coming by the house. This goes on for about two weeks, when one day I receive a call from another plumber. He says that he was Marcel’s mentor and that Marcel asked him to call me because he feels bad about not being able to schedule my project. Unbelievable, Marcel is a man with ethics.
Marcel’s mentor comes by the house. His name is Ken and like Marcel he is another seventh ward African-Creole. However, his complexion is lighter than mine. Ken the plumber could easily pass as a black man posing as white, or a white man posing as a black. New Orleans is that kind of a place. He has a relaxed personality and is willing to give me a fixed price with a few loopholes in his favor. So it’s almost a fixed price. Since I need a plumber badly, I agree.
The Roofers Part 1:
I know that the roof has some serious problems. This is apparent whenever there is rain. I speak with a guy who is known around the Quarter as the person to call for roof repairs. On the phone he is very talkative. He tells me that the main problem with French Quarter roofs is the slate shingles. He says that slate shingles need to breathe, but because they are attached directly to the roof decking they can only breathe from one side – the upper side. He tells me that because of this condition, the slate “interiorates.” I say, “you mean deteriorates. He says, no, the slate shingles “interiorate.” I don’t think that there is such a word in the dictionary, but I give him the benefit of the doubt. However, I don’t feel that he is right for our roof. Besides other than the slave quarter and link, our building does not have slate shingles. Instead, the main building is roofed with cheap asbestos shingles that were probably installed in the 1940’s. They and the underlayment are long overdue to be replaced.
I see a roofing job on lower Royal Street. I ask for the boss and this preppy, Tulane fraternity looking guy appears. This is very odd, because most roofers are on the scruffy side in appearance – more Chalmette or Kenner than Uptown. It turns out that this roofer kind of looks Uptown, but he is actually from Kenner. I ask him to take a look at the roof. He recommends a complete re-roofing, and I know he’s right. He says that he can do the main house for $8,000. It entails stripping the existing asbestos shingles and replacing them with Vieux Carré Commission approved fiber-cement substitutes. Since the slave quarter and link still have old slate shingles, I decide to let them remain, at least for the time being. I run this by our partner who is not pleased in spending that kind of money this soon. I tell him that a faulty roof can cause everything we do in the future to be destroyed. I argue that a bandage approach will haunt us down the line. He reluctantly agrees. I give the roofer the go ahead and even up grade from galvanized metal to copper flashing for an additional $800. The copper is much more in keeping with a historic building and will last twice as long. I do not tell our partner about the added cost, but pay for it out of my own pocket.
Our partner is in town and sees the house for the first time. He does not seem surprised or daunted by the condition. I know too much and I am daunted, but also know that there is no turning back. I remember that someone once wrote that a historic restoration is like pulling a loose string of yarn on a sweater. The more you pull, the more the yarn extends. There is no end.
Manuel and Enrique have removed all of the interventions that the rich hippies made on the first floor of the main structure. We now need to rebuild the floor that they had removed, as well as replace the rotten plywood that we found under a water soaked carpet on the second floor of the slave quarter. Also the stair wall is buckling so we strip the plaster and lath from one side. We find that some of the original studs have rotted at the sill. Manuel braces the wall with temporary shoring and asks me what would I like done. I suggest cutting out the decayed wood and splicing in matching replacement pieces. I want to use antique lumber whenever possible. It’s larger in dimension than current lumber (an antique 2x4 is actually 2”x 4” rather than 1 1/2”x 3 1/2”) and it is well seasoned – probably more than one hundred years – and hopefully more termite resistant. We also need old lumber for the floor joists and enough antique heart pine for any floors that must be replaced.
William takes us to visit Willie White’s salvage lumberyard over near the Industrial Canal. There are stacks of old lumber surrounding a corrugated metal clad shed structure. Several black men are outside languorously pulling nails from old boards. I tell Willie that I need so many studs and so many square feet of heart pine flooring. We sit in his office, a room within the shed, while he proceeds with some calculations. I notice a DKE fraternity paddle on his wall. I am wondering was Willie a Deke at Tulane or did he salvage the paddle from some demolished house? I always thought that the Dekes were the patricians of the New Orleans frat world. Even though Willy is dressed like a house demolisher he might be a New Orleans patrician. Here, appearances can be deceptive.
I am curious as to how a guy like Willie got into the architectural salvage business. He tells me that some years back the historic Cabildo building caught fire and the top level was seriously damaged. A request for bids to provide antique cypress for the restoration was advertised. Willie knew of a stash of such lumber and submitted a successful bid. The effort proved to be profitable, and since then he has been in the antique lumber business.
Willie tells us that there are two ways to calculate our heart pine flooring quantities. If we place the pine on a plywood sub-floor we will need less material than if we attached the boards directly to the spaced joists – the historical way. That is because the latter technique requires that the ends of the boards fall on a joist, while the former can have joints almost anywhere. Therefore, there is more waste with the no sub-floor application. Willie says that there is a different feel to walking on flooring with a sub-floor versus one without. It’s still early in the project and not that much money has been spent, and we do not want to feel like we are walking on a new floor even if it is one. Our partner agrees. So we decide to be authentic and go with the historic method of no sub-floor. Willie White says that he can deliver the lumber in a couple of days.
A Couple of Days Later:
As promised, Willie White arrives with a flat bed trailer loaded with the antique lumber we ordered. The instance he drives up, Manuel, Enrique and Francisco are outside unloading Willie’s cargo. I love these guys. You practically never have to tell them what needs to be done. They understand this old house renovation work so well it’s like they can read my mind. Sometimes they are way ahead of my mind. I still cannot believe that William has lent them to me.
As soon as the lumber is offloaded, Manuel starts reconstructing the dining room’s floor joists while Francisco begins scraping and cleaning the tongues and grooves of the heart pine flooring with a hook blade knife. Enrique is applying a vapor barrier and furring to the interior brick walls where the rich hippies had removed the original plaster.
The Roofers Part 2:
The Uptown-looking roofer and his crew arrive. Before I can blink an eye, their extremely long ladders are in place and they are scampering all over the roof. Four guys are prying up the existing shingles and tossing them down to a dump truck parked in front of the house. It’s parking ban time so when the roofers’ scout spots a meter maid he takes off in the truck, drives around the block a few times and then returns to the same spot. The meter maids surely must be on to this game, but they don’t ever seem to circle back to the same spot once they pass the first time.
Once the roof is stripped of all of the shingles, the roofers beginning rolling out new roofing paper over the existing paper. I see this and say, “Whoa.” I need to see the condition of the wood decking before it’s covered with new materials. The clean cut looking roofer is annoyed but tells his men to pull up the old paper. Good thing, because I find a few areas of decayed wood, as well our friends the Formosans where the chimney penetrates the roof. I have Manuel and Enrique replacing the bad wood decking while I treat the termite infested area with borax and diatomaceous earth. I want to avoid toxic chemicals whenever possible. The roofers are impatient while Enrique and Manuel replace the bad decking, but too bad. They finish the job in just two more days. It’s a good thing because heavy rain is in the local weather forecast.
Description of physical appearance:
The building is a two-story, brick, Greek revival style townhouse with an American-style side-hall floor plan. The street façade contains two pairs of French doors, as well as an entrance on the ground floor, and three pairs of French doors on the second level. The entrance has a crossette (Greek key) surround and granite steps. Heavy box cornices top the other openings and all of these are protected by louvered shutters. A front balcony with a wrought iron balustrade is off the second floor front. There are three horizontal attic windows set between a stringcourse and a corbelled cornice. One side of the building shares a wall with an adjacent structure and the other side, a former party wall, is now exposed. The former kitchen and slave quarters (dependency), a two-story brick structure, is at a right angle to the rear façade of the main house. This structure has a balcony with a wooden balustrade and turned columns at the second level. A double- pitched roof covers the main building, and a shed roof that extends out over the balcony, shelters the servant structure. On the second level, the link between both structures has been roofed over. A brick in-fill wall has enclosed a similar space on the ground floor. Inside, with the exception of the dining room and ground level of the rear building, where there is concrete, the floors are heart pine and the millwork is cypress. Most of the exterior and interior doors have multi-light transoms. The major rooms of the main building all have fireplaces with boxed cypress mantles. The servants’ wing contains a large cooking fireplace on the ground floor and two smaller fireplaces on the second floor. A small patio, parallel to the servant wing, is located at the rear of the lot.
Statement of significance:
This building is a fine example of a Creole influenced American-style townhouse built after the Louisiana Purchase. Residences such as this were built both in the French Quarter and in the Anglo-American neighborhoods on the up-river side of Canal Street. In the main building most of the salient details, such as main stair, pocket sliding doors, Greek key surrounds, and vertical panel doors, survive. The block contains at least four other examples of this building type.
Statements provided to the United States Department of the Interior – National Park Service in the Historic Preservation Certification Application Part 1 – Evaluation of Significance
No change -- green. 2-story, c. 1840 side-hall plan, American-style townhouse with attic frieze windows. This building was most likely constructed as the mirror image of the now altered 1015 St. Louis Street.
As described in the official Vieux Carré Survey
Francisco, the third member of the Manuel and Enrique team that is on loan from William, is a gentle, likeable fellow. He never talks about himself, and all that anyone knows is that he was born in Cuba, and must have come to New Orleans as a teenager or a bit older because he is fluent in Spanish and his accented English is good. No one knows exactly where he lives, although he lets me know that he likes a certain bar in the Bywater neighborhood. When he is needed for a job, Manuel seems to be able to reach him by calling a third party. Sometimes he just shows up. I trust him explicitly, as I do Manuel and Enrique. One day he came to me with a rusty knife blade that he had found the day before in the patio while excavating some old bricks. He had taken it home that night and cleaned it, but then decided that as the property owner it really belonged to me. So he brought back to the job. It might be a nineteenth-century artifact, who knows? Even so, I told him that it was his to keep. He seems like the kind of person who can feel hurt easily. On one or two occasions when, because of the stress of the project, I was insensitive to him, I hated myself.
The Slave Quarters:
Francisco is breaking an existing crudely poured concrete slab on the ground floor of the slave quarter. He is using a pneumatic jackhammer that I rented and the companion air compressor is humming continuously. In the main building, Enrique is working with a nail gun that uses 22-caliber ammunition, and Manuel, who is rebuilding the dining room floor, is using a heavy mallet to set the tongue and grooved flooring planks. The cacophony of different sounds is reverberating in the empty house.
Other than its roof, the slave quarter is in such horrible condition that I am basically having it gutted. However, I am retaining any original material that has not decayed beyond repair. It does have a wonderful brick cooking fireplace on the ground floor and two fireplaces on the second floor. The windows and door on the patio side are in just passable condition, and I am not certain if they are original or not. At this time, because of the uncertainty of their authenticity and the budget, they are being retained. At some point in time the original ground level brick pavers were covered or removed and replaced with the crudely placed concrete slab. Also, the second level pine flooring had been replaced by plywood and carpet. Moisture retained in the carpet caused the plywood to rot, so it has been removed. This part of the project will devour more of the architecture budget than I had hoped.
I am also having Francisco jackhammer the concrete slabs that sometime in the building’s history had been poured in the link and under the stairway. With the ground exposed all through the rear portions of the house, we will be able to lay drain pipes for the kitchen sink and the new power room that I plan for under the stairs. Also, we will install PVC conduits in the subsoil to run from the mechanical closet in the link to the rear of the patio where two air conditioner compressors will be positioned. This way, the gas and electrical lines for the compressor units will not be exposed as they are on so many French Quarter retrofits. I should have Francisco demo the crude slab in the stair hall, but I don’t and will later pay a price for that false economy.
Even after the demolition we are still producing a large amount of construction debris. The only place to put it is in the small patio. In order to prevent damaging the historic brick pavers, I have laid down some sheets of plywood and the debris is piled on top. Once the pile reaches an unsustainable size, I call Charlie, or actually his wife who schedules her husband’s jobs. William put me on to Charlie who comes when there is a morning parking ban. While his sons remove debris from our pile and carry it through the two principal ground level rooms and out through a French door to their dump truck, Charlie stands by watching for a meter maid. Once one is spotted he commences the same tactic as the roofers by driving around until the threat has passed. Also, for some reason that I have never quite understood, Charlie’s sons do not like to use a wheel barrel even though they have one or two on the truck. They prefer to carry every thing by hand or in a heavy canvas cloth, which the two of them lug fully loaded like a body bag. It turns out that we need Charlie’s services about every two or three weeks.
The Bank Inspector:
We are about six weeks into the project and we need money for labor and materials. The initial startup funds have been exhausted, so I call the bank lady and request our first construction draw. She says that she will send out an inspector who will verify that I have done what I say that I have done.
The next day I meet with the bank inspector who conducts a ten-minute inspection. He tells me that everything looks fine and that he will recommend that the bank release the first draw. I am a curious person, so I ask him about his job as a bank inspector. He tells me that this is only part time for him. Most of the time he works in his family business of developing French Quarter timeshare apartments. I ask him where in the Quarter are they developing these units. He says in the 100 block of Decatur Street.
Now I am really interested, because my very first job (I was fifteen.) was summer employment for a ship chandler whose business was located in that very same block of Decatur. It was between my second and third years of high school, and not only was it my first real paying job, but also it was probably the most interesting day job that I have ever had. It was a small, but well run business. The owner, a large, portly man, would sit at his desk, facing Decatur Street, all day. Across and facing him sat Martin, his mainstay. Other than two black delivery truck drivers and Sam, and elderly man with a mahogany colored complexion and who served as my mentor, there were no other full-time employees. Most of my responsibilities were purchasing produce at the French Market and picking up marine supplies at businesses in what is now called the warehouse/arts district. I would then deliver these item to ships berthed at docks up and down the river from St. Bernard Parish to Nashville Avenue. My days were spent in some of the most interesting places and situations of the city. Sometimes I would bring invoices to the ships’ officers, and an envelope with cash usually accompanied those bills. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that the cash was a kickback for the purchases made by the captain and his direct subordinates – chief engineer, first mate and chief steward. My employer, if he were still living, would probably say that those payments were no more than sales commissions earned by the recipients. I have since learned that this is practically standard operating procedure all over the maritime world. In two summers of being a ship chandler’s bagman, only one captain ever refused the “commission.”
Back when I was a teenager of fifteen, the captains and officers of the ships to which I made deliveries were usually friendly. If the deliveries were around mid-day, I would often be invited to have lunch with them in their dining room. Since I was a picky eater (my mother’s words) I really did not enjoy the international cuisine served on the various foreign vessels. Given my choice, I would have preferred a po-boy at one of the numerous corner grocery stores within the riverfront neighborhoods. But it would have been rude to refuse some English, Italian, Greek or Yugoslavian captain’s invitation, so I often had a multi-course lunch of steak and potatoes, or spaghetti and veal, or maybe even Moussaka. Today, I would relish in such gastronomical opportunities. I am no longer a picky eater.
Undoubtedly my most interesting and, at the same time, depressing assignment was picking-up a Pakistani seaman at his ship one morning before sunrise. Besides being a crewmember, he also was a Moslem cleric. We drove down to Arabi where there was a slaughterhouse or abattoir. It was necessary for him, and only him, to slaughter the cow that would be consumed by the other seamen who were practicing Moslems. Once we entered the killing floor, I witnessed a sight that I have never forgotten. Straddling the chute, in which the steers passed, was a muscular man, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, who while munching on a donut held in one hand, swung a sledgehammer with his free arm, striking the foreheads of the poor bovines as they passed. One blow usually administered the coup de grâce, but sometimes it did not. While this was occurring, my Pakistani was prostrate on his prayer rug, in the center of the arena like space, uttering a prayer in his language and blessing a long knife that he had removed from its sheaf. Then a western-attired worker using a rope harness led a steer to the man. The handler forced the poor animal to its knees, and the Pakistani with one rapid stroke sliced the steer’s throat. The dead animal was tagged for delivery to the ship, and we drove back in silence to the docks.
Once, while waiting for a ship to dock, a stevedore foreman overheard a remark I made about the potential of theft on the docks. The mention that any of his dockside gang would be considered untrustworthy upped his blood pressure and raised his hackles. He promptly threatened to throw me into the river. He was a large man and I was a skinny kid, so wisely I followed my instinct by literally holding my ground but keeping my mouth shut so as to not further provoke the adversary. This seemed to defuse the threat, and I didn’t take a swim in the Mississippi. A week later on another wharf, I crossed paths with the same man. We were four feet apart and face-to-face. I could tell from the look of recognition on his face that he realized that I was the kid he had promised to feed to the river the week before. I thought, this is trouble and held my breath while anticipating more hostility from him, but instead he gave me a sly wink, as if to say all was forgiven.
Since for that job I had worked in one of the buildings on the lakeside of Decatur Street, directly across from the old Custom House, the block enlisted a kind of nostalgic memory. The building that my ship chandler employer’s business occupied was, like most in the block, a multi-story brick structure with commercial space on the ground level and warehouse space on the upper floors. His building, as several others on the block, was built in the early nineteenth-century and has considerable historic value, but is not in the jurisdiction of the Vieux Carré Commission and thus not protected from misdirected alterations.
I am curious as to how the bank inspector’s family was treating these structures. He tells me that they just gut the interiors and pack in as many time-share units as possible. Now I also realize that the irritating people standing around street corners in the French Quarter, with clipboards and flyers, work for his family’s business. They attempt to entice tourists to attend a timeshare sales presentation and receive a free breakfast or lunch for their time. He tells me that recently the NAACP filed a complaint with the city stating that the irritating time-share street hustlers were not soliciting enough African-Americans. In response, his family has installed video cameras in the reception areas of their properties in order to prove that a representative number of black people were indeed attending the sales presentations. In my opinion, if there was any substance to the accusation, then the NAACP should thank his family for not attempting to seduce black folks into spending their hard-earned money on those sheetrock lined timeshare cubicles. Also, I am secretly gloating because I hate the manner in which his family is treating these historic structures. But I do not wish to antagonize the bank inspector this early in the project, so I hold my tongue. I should have the first draw in our account by tomorrow.
A Typical Day:
My day really begins the night before, because that’s when I draw the details for what Manuel and Enrique need to work their magic on the next day. We will determine a condition or area that requires their attention, and I will figure out how I would like to be done. In the morning I usually leave the house around 7:30, and the drive to the French Quarter is like a trip through New Orleans’s growth history. We are staying in a small house in the Lakeview neighborhood, one of the last areas of the city to have been urbanized, if you discount New Orleans East which is a non-place for me. Lakeview does not really have a view of the lake as do some other neighborhoods closer to the lakefront - like Lake Vista and Lake Shore. It was developed between the two World Wars when the marshes between the higher ground of the Esplanade and Metairie Ridges and Lake Ponchartrain were drained. Most of the post war houses have been built on concrete slabs and have settled a couple of feet into the resulting subsiding soil. Companies that pump river sand under these houses, in order to prevent more settlement, are always in demand. Of course, soil subsidence is common throughout New Orleans, and buildings, especially houses, often require leveling. That’s why, as Julia Reed has stated in her amusing book, The House on First Street, one of the two oldest businesses in the city is Abry Brothers Shoring.
Lakeview is predominately white, and has the lowest crime rate in the city. Even though I am white and hate crime, I am not wild about this section of New Orleans. But it is here that we have a free place to live for the duration of the project. However, most people who live in Lakeview love the place. Perhaps it’s just my own neurosis, because when in high school a big kid, a bully, who lived in Lakeview use to pick on me. Finally I had enough, and one day before track practice, hoping it would once and for all get him off of my back, I socked him one. Since he out weighed me by at least fifty pounds, he commenced to beat the hell out of my face. Forty years later, I still hate that jerk.
I cross City Park on Harrison Avenue where one morning I experienced what was as close to a beatific vision as possible in this profane world. In a light ground fog and framed by spreading oaks I saw six or seven snow white egrets wading in the black water of a lagoon. It was a magnificent vision of nature within a stone’s throw of a city street.
I then follow Bayou Saint John to the main entrance to City Park and Esplanade Avenue. Along Esplanade are numerous architecturally significant houses that had once been occupied by old Creole families who departed the French Quarter for this neighborhood in the middle nineteenth century. In 1872-73, the French impressionist painter Edgar Degas spent almost half a year in the house of his relatives on this very street. I enter the French Quarter, the oldest section of the city, at its “wrong side” and make my way to the house on Saint Louis Street. I usually fine a parking place nearby, and once we complete our morning greetings Manuel and Enrique will tell me if they need anything. If it’s hardware they want, I take a walk to Mary’s Hardware on Bourbon Street, but not before saying, Voy a regresar (I will return.). That’s pretty much my limit. Manuel always responds with the same, “Okkaay, John.”
Mary’s is a French Quarter institution. It is next door to another institution, the Clover Grill, a twenty-four hour dinner frequented by drunken gays and straights, as well as by sober gays and straights. On the opposite side of the street from Mary’s is a gay bar with apartments above. I have never been to Mary’s, morning or afternoon, when there wasn’t a couple of drunken gay men hanging over the balcony above the bar soliciting anyone passing on the street. (Maybe this is what the Head Building Official had in mind when he was lecturing to me about drunks and balcony heights.) Inevitably, on the sidewalk under the balcony with the drunken vociferous gay men there would be several lesbians razing cane with one another. This must be the epicenter of the city’s deviant demi monde.
The couple that runs Mary’s Hardware knows me now as I usually come in at least twice a day. They don’t even ask for identification when I write the ubiquitous check. They are very in tune to the needs of French Quarter handymen and renovators and their inventory reflects this astuteness.
On the way back to the house, I stop at the CC’s Coffee House on Royal and St. Philip Streets. I make necessary phone calls while enjoying my first cup of French drip coffee of the day. Effectively, CC’s is my working office. Coffee houses must be places of habitualness, as I always see the same people drinking some brew, working their laptops or just staring into space. I bring coffee back for Manuel and Enrique even though they never ask me to do so. Strangely enough, Francisco the Cuban does not drink coffee.
If the guys need building materials, such as lumber or sand and lime to make mortar, I go to a small lumberyard on the down river edge of the Marigny neighborhood but still only a five minute drive from the project. Wilson Bourg Lumber and Building Supply is an endangered species – maybe even an endangered artifact. Nestled in among converted old warehouse buildings, residential cottages, sumac and cat’s claw vines; this smaller supplier has practically everything that I need for the restoration, save expensive antique materials. But more importantly, Arnold Watson, who takes your order from his desk while chain smoking, is a wealth of helpful information when it comes to old time construction methods. Then there’s Ronnie, the good-natured yardman, who loads my truck. If Ronnie is the yin, then the other yardman who is always sour is the yang. This is not meant to be prejudicial toward the yang, but it’s simply the best way to characterize this guy’s opposite attitude. I always try to avoid him and wait for Ronnie even if he is helping other customers. On Friday afternoons, Arnold has boiled shrimp or crawfish spread out on a makeshift sawhorse table for customers to enjoy. Even the yang yardman seems a little more yin on Friday afternoons, but it is probably because it is the last workday of the week. William, Manuel and Enrique would often tell me to go across the river to the Home Depot for materials. I once made a mistake and went, and came back with nada.
When I arrive at the job this morning I see a young man, with a head bandana and baggy paints helmed at the calves, up on a ladder re-pointing brick in the link where the mechanical equipment will eventually be placed. He tells me hello as though we are old friends even though I have never seen him before. His name is Luis and he is Manuel’s nephew. I figure he needs work and Manuel, thinking that we could use the added help, brought him in. I am not happy to have another person on the pay role, but Manuel is so valuable to me and I do not wish to offend or embarrass him, so I say nothing. I am hoping that the kid will disappear in a few days.
The next morning Luis arrives a little after nine. I have sometime that needs to be done and since he is short it could be the right job for him. Besides, I do not need for interior brick walls in a utility closet to be re-pointed. The low-ceiling, uninhabitable attic space is full of debris. It probably has not been cleaned-out in a century. I give Luis a five-gallon bucket and ask him to remove all of the junk and debris. Admittedly it’s not pleasant work, as one must crawl on ones knees over the ceiling joists. It is impossible to stand up straight, and if one tries to there’s the risk of a protruding rusty roofing nail penetrating ones scull. After about twenty minutes Luis comes down and tells me that he does not want to clean the attic. He says Manuel will give him something to do. Apparently he doesn’t feel that he works for me, the guy who writes the checks, but instead for Manuel. I start to set him straight, but stop myself. Best to not make this an issue, at least this early in the project. I trust Manuel to direct the kid to some productive tasks. He probably is just looking out for his nephew who I learn already has a wife and child. I will wait and see how this develops, before risking any ill feelings. Later, I do tell William about my concern with Luis just showing up. He seems to be surprised that I do not welcome the extra help. Fortunately, after the first week and a paycheck, Luis stops showing up. I do not ask Manuel or William about him. I do not want them to think that he is missed.
I try Francisco in the attic, but he is not much more productive than Luis. I decide that I will just clean out the attic myself between other tasks. In fact, I am the only one who seems to be able to clean up construction mess. So at the end of each day, I pick up a broom and become the utility guy. There is no sense in using skilled mechanics like Manuel and Enrique to do the menial work that I can handle. As much as I try to get Manuel and Enrique to use a drop cloth, my imploring is to no use. Therefore, I become a sort of human drop cloth by following their progress with a broom or mop.