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Updates from our March and April Trips - April 29, 2009

Here’s an update on our March and April trips.

Wes: March 5th – 17th and April 2nd – 20th
Anne: March 5th – 8th, 13th – 18th, April 2nd – 14th and 16th – 20th.
Joe Loya: March 5th – 8th and April 16th – 20th.
James & Wyatt Martin: March 5th – 8th.
Chris Gignoux: March 5th – 11th.
Jean Marie Callahan: March 8th – 12th
Robert McBride: April 5th – 9th.
Preston Maynard: April 5th – 8th.
Beth Humstone: April 6th – 10th.
David and Alix Harris: April 9th – 13th.
Melissa Ehlinger, April 17th
A crowd of high school kids from Syracuse, NY April 14th and 15th.

Installed the kitchen cabinets and counter tops.
Repaired the floor in the living room.
Trimmed interior doors and closets.
Endless scrapping to abate old lead paint.
Completed all interior painting of the walls and ceilings.
Had the radiant barrier installed in the attic.
Replaced the vent in the rear gable and repaired/replaced/painted that siding.
Painted exterior iron work.
Almost finished the repair and painting of all the windows.
Purchased and rebuilt salvaged exterior doors for the front façade.
Purchased 2 pairs of salvaged shutters for the front doors.
Did all of the tiling in the kitchen and bathroom.
Installed and hooked up the kitchen sink and dishwasher (donated by Dick Buckman – it works)
Installed new flooring in the bathroom, laundry and back hall.
Installed and hooked up the toilet, vanity, shower/bathtub and hot water tank.
Added a 2 x 6 plank to the front sill after discovering severe (but no longer active) termite damage.
Got a letter from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority promising that our house will not be expropriated and that a similar letter will be written to the new owner when we sell it. They cannot, however, remove it from the “blighted property” list, as that list is maintained by the City of New Orleans, and there is no mechanism in place for that.
Had our power tools stolen but then returned.
Entertained the National Trust’s Council on April 17th.
Inherited a cat.
Ate very, very well every day.

3828 Burgundy Street in Bywater. A house borrowed from our friend Roberta Gratz.
The Ambassador Hotel on Tchoupitoulas Street in the Warehouse District.
1412 Thalia Street in the Lower Garden District. An apartment with a fabulous garden.

In addition to all of the great spots listed by Beth Humstone in her posting dated Jan. 16th, we discovered a few other favorites.
The Country Club: An old plantation house in Bywater which is now a restaurant with fabulous, quite price sensitive food as well as a bar and a spa, complete with a large swimming pool out back. The spa is “clothing optional”.
Herbsaint: very serious food. Good spot to take your lawyer to thank him for his donated services to the project.
Community Grill: just beyond the Jackson Barracks on North Claiborne Ave. Makes excellent Po’Boys for lunch – shrimp, hot sausage, grilled chicken or oyster. Wash that down with sweet tea and you’ll be ready for anything in the afternoon.
Frankie and Johnnie’s: On Arabella Street in Uptown. The place to go for large platters of boiled crawfish in season (roughly Feb – May). The waitress there taught us how to dig the tasty fat out of the heads with our pinky fingers. An acquired taste.
The Thai restaurant on Truro Street in the Marigny for a change of palette.
The Arabi Food Store. Excellent breakfast sandwiches, but not great coffee.
Every once in a while, red beans and rice at Roberta’s house.

Finish all interior trim.
Strip and refinish the floors.
Strip and paint the railing on the back steps.
Add all interior window stops.
Find and install a mantle piece for the front room.
Hang doors.
Lots of small, punch list items.
Figure out what to do with the shed in the back yard. Do it.
Replace the front walk.
Paint the front porch.
Work with the local churches to identify a buyer.

James Martin's Musings on a Closet - April 1, 2009

I am holding a piece of plywood that will come, with its brothers and sisters, to make up the floor of the storage space above where the washer and dryer will live. This closet in utero is a space in the shape of a triangle, as far removed from the spotlight, from, say, the kitchen cabinets with their glass doors and knurled knobs, as you can get in this house.

Seen without hyperbole, it’s a simple space for forgettable things: inherited sheets that don’t fit any of the beds, strands of Xmas lights one will fix in some unknowable yet possible future, the stack of Medicare explanation of benefits for a relative long gone – the stuff, frankly, you should throw away, but don’t.

You see, in 5516 Dauphine, built circa 1910, the closets of today, walk-ins with California Closet engineered racks of space don’t exist. In fact, the storage spaces that do exist, with the exception of a single tight rectangle (wide enough to house one row of suits or dresses) in the bedroom are housed above one’s head, in the space under the roof.

Right now, I am standing on a ladder peering into the dark triangle and wishing, no praying, for a simpler, easier geometry. A rectangle or even a trapezoid. Something without multiple measurements, numberless cuts, endless work. And if I ignore the studs that protrude into the space, 1.5 inches wide, 4 inches proud, if I ignore the various bulges and meanderings of slopes and angles, I can find a simple shape.

And yet what happens if the gaps aren’t closed, what happens when someone reaches up to store a diary, the Zippo lighter their uncle carried in the war, and it misses the floor? What happens is simple: the stuff falls. It falls a long way, all the way down to the foundation. It falls into a space where recovery, no matter how precious the loss, becomes too costly to undertake.

This is why all decisions are moral. Pencil that onto scrap plywood. They weigh time and ease versus utility and perfection. They ask: What matters most? And: What are you willing to sacrifice? And finally: Where do you draw the line?

Of course, there is its corollary: All measurements are flawed. Leaning into the dark triangle, one end of the tape measure hooked to the joist in the corner, the other smushed under the sloping roof, the inches I read are, at best, at approximation and, at worse, concrete proof that all human actions are imperfect, fallen, tinged with sin.

At the same time, I can see better why we say we take a measurement. That the verb implies the measurement is being given to us; that we are, in the act of repair and restoration, engaging in a dialogue, a chat with the wood and nails, with gravity and warping river water, between what we could do given infinite time and inexhaustible resources and what we can do in the here and now, with our timed lives and finite means.

And it’s ok to know that we fall short. Or more precisely that the miraculous need not be perfect. That one can build hope, repair loss and create a floor for a closet that will work, that will serve its purpose, do its job and that, in some way, this is all that can be asked of us – to care, to consider, to be present at the decision and account for its consequences.

By now, the plywood looks like a gigantic communion wafer an entire congregation has taken bites out of – my son, helping me, stands on the scaffolding and tries to wedge it into place. Here, house, take, eat, this is … no, not quite. My son is hitting it with his fist and it still won’t fit. One more, fracking cut. If it that doesn’t do it, I am done, I’m gonna start running and not stop until I hit the Mississippi.

Then it’s in. Just like that. I hand my son the nail gun and with the zeal (and X-box honed reflexes) of a teenager with more than a passing familiarity with the term, first-person shooter, he ensures that this piece of plywood will not be moving for a good long time.

Now it’s done and it’s time to step back. If you travel due north from this house, you’ll run into one of the houses refinished by a group of artists. It’s painted a blinding, eye-cringing yellow. Go northeast and you’ll run smack dab into the Brad Pitt houses. They form two sides of triangle. What I like about this is at the apex, the point between art for art’s sake and the unreality of celebrity-fueled concern is 5516 Dauphine, and inside it, inside a small triangular closet, is a piece of plywood flooring with two scrawled names on it that no one will ever see. It feels good. Real good.

A Pause in the Project - February 4, 2009

We’re back at work in New York, catching our breath.

“Is the house done?”, people keep asking. The short answer is not quite. Here’s where we are today:
Builders’ Risk insurance has been bought.
All structural work is complete, including rebuilding the back room.
Insulation is in.
The exterior siding has been replaced or repaired and painted.
A new back door has been installed.
Almost all of the original windows have been re-glazed.
The roof has been fixed and gutters hung.
The storm shutters have been found.
Front railing and columns have been stripped and primed.
All of the plumbing is in and the water turned on.
All of the electrical is in and the power was turned on in the house two days ago.
All light fixtures have been purchased and installed.
The HVAC system is mostly complete.
All new interior partitions have been built.
Lots of wainscoting has been stripped.
The interior has been completely sheet rocked and primed.
Kitchen cabinets are on order.
All appliances have been selected.

Still to do:
Get the property off the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority’s “blighted property list”.
Install the kitchen cabinets, counters and appliances.
Install all the bathroom fixtures.
Install radiant barrier in the attic.
Build a small platform for the HVAC condenser.
Straighten out a couple of piers.
Re-glaze the last 2 windows.
Prime and paint rest of the exterior trim, including windows.
Strip and refinish all floors.
Strip all interior trim, including rest of the wainscoting.
Select interior colors and paint.
Find and hang both front door and French doors for front façade.
Find and hang interior doors.
Site work – not sure what that will involve.
Sell it to someone who wants to come back to Holy Cross.

Next trip is March 5th to the 17th. We’ll also be there in April - 2nd to the 20th. We’re still welcoming volunteers!

Snakebite - January 28, 2009

I was 20 feet up a ladder last Thursday puttying nail holes, and Wes was working out back. Nailing up siding, I think. I heard my sister Mary who was scraping the railing at the front of the house saying to someone “Oh, you need to talk to my sister Anne”. Around the corner, looking a little bemused, came a guy who said to me “This was my house”. Snakebite! Trim, healthy and sporting yellow sneakers and a maroon fleece. He’d just gotten into town from California and was playing several gigs at a large convention of car dealers. We were startled and delighted. He got the full tour and kept saying he wished he’d done to the house what we’re doing now. We gave him a project hat, feeling he had done as much as any of us to keep the house intact for the neighborhood. I wanted to pepper him with a thousand questions, but held back a bit as this was clearly an intense moment. His reunion later that afternoon with our neighbor Herman Robinson and his wife was a wonderful moment as well.

He lived in the house for 25 years, moving there in the 1970’s when most other white families moved out of the neighborhood to Arabi. Houses were cheap enough then for “hippies like me”. He had bought the house from an elderly brother and sister, the Butts’s. We think their parents built the house around 1910, although Wes found out the original owner was a Confederate pensioner, so there may be another owner in there.

He told us about his dog Fat Head who was a legend in the neighborhood, biting almost everyone. That’s when he wasn’t “doing his business in front of my house”, as neighbor Dolores Wells told me later.

He also mentioned that his friend Mike (or Big Earl, depending on the mood of the moment) had the storm shutters for the house in his garage in Uptown. We had assumed they were long gone, stolen right after Katrina, and that we would have to replace them at considerable expense. However, shortly after the storm, Mike drove by the house and noticed that a pair of shutters had been taken down by someone who must have left just then, perhaps to get a truck. He grabbed all of them and took them back to his house, where they have remained since October of 2005. They are all back now at 5516, stored safely in our POD, waiting to protect the beautiful original windows through the next hurricane.

We went to hear Snakebite and two friends play at Dos Effes, a cigar bar 5 blocks from the apartment we’re renting. The first set was fairly traditional jazz, but the energy level shot up when another old friend, a trombonist, joined them. Here were four guys, all superb musicians, who were delighting in playing together again after too long a time. The sound was almost gleeful. We were eventually driven out by the cigar smoke, but will remember that night for years.

Inauguration Day - January 20, 2009

It’s early morning on Inauguration Day, and I’m listening to NPR’s coverage. I’m always moved by this country’s ability to transfer power peacefully, but the excitement and hope around this one feels more than usually effervescent.

Which makes me think that no one could be so stupid in this new age to take our house. Perhaps I'm being foolish - New Orleans is, after all, a very different place. Almost un-American in some ways.

I got an email and a call back from the lawyer at the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority telling me that our file has been "set aside for 90 days after which it will be reevaluated". He also said in a tone that made me think he was fishing around for a compliment, "Don't worry, you won't be harassed". I didn't think we were doing anything harassable. Quite the opposite in fact. We remain vigilant, but still want to get ourselves off that list now. Kevin Mercadel is on top of the situation. At his suggestion, we have posted a Home Again project sign on the front of the house so that unscrupulous contractors who read the blighted property lists will know that the National Trust is involved in the project. That, apparently, can be enough to turn them away.

It's cold again here which may delay the painting job we hoped to start today. The window reconditioning – scraping and reglazing where necessary – is moving along well, and all of the exterior siding should be finished in the next couple of days. The dry walling is done except for one small section of the bathroom. The time of that crew was donated to us by the contractor who just completed Mr. Robinson’s house next door. That was a completely unexpected and extremely generous gesture that has saved us weeks of time.

Off to get muffins to eat with our neighbors Dolores Wells and Natalie Alexander as we watch the swearing in with greatest pleasure.

Thoughts from Beth Humstone - January 17, 2009

A year ago, I was attending at National Trust for Historic Preservation Board meeting along with Anne and Wes. Late one night - well-fueled with Bourbon Street’s resources - a group of us talked about our frustration with the slow pace of restoring the people of New Orleans to their homes and neighborhoods and our own feelings of helplessness. When Anne and Wes hatched their plan to buy a house, fix it up and sell it to someone in the community at cost, I immediately signed on to help.

From January 6 to January 12, my son Christopher Gignoux, an architecture student, and I joined the 5516 Dauphine project. It was one memorable trip! What I liked about it was feeling that we were part of a larger community all working towards the same goal – getting people back in their homes and rebuilding the neighborhoods. In this spirit, the neighbors, including Dolores, who shared her electricity and water, and Mr. Herman, whose contractor volunteered a full day of sheetrockers, supported our project. In return, Wes and Anne helped them with labor and ladders. When we attended a Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, we could see that Wes and Anne were now part of the community. We also learned of the tremendous issues that residents were coping with, including post traumatic stress disorder, and other health issues and the annoyances of city government. (Were all those bridge raisings and trains blocking our passage into and out of the Lower 9th Ward a conspiracy as some suggested?)

There is a great network of people all over New Orleans available to help with anything from recycled building parts, tools, volunteers and reputable contractors. The Preservation Resource Center's Parts Warehouse is a place to pick up building materials, and the National Trust's staff provides advice on permitting, construction practices and contractors. The Green Store also has building materials, paint and one great ladies room – remember no plumbing at 5516 yet!

We couldn’t get through the day without some sustenance. Anne and Wes had scoped out some fine eating establishments including Capt. Sal’s for fried oyster po’boys and The Joint for ribs. (A more complete list is available on this web site.) Then there was the ice cream truck – along with the school bus, a sure sign that the neighborhood was coming back.

And when we needed a break, there was art and architecture at our fingertips. Brad Pitt’s project, Make It Right Foundation (, was nearby as was Global Green ( Prospect 1, a city-wide art program, had one site a few blocks away – the Flame House. There were also installations (the window on the ladder pictured on this website) and local artists such as Dr. Bob.

Our work was not accident – free. There was the time that a well-meaning college student dropped a full can of paint from her ladder onto Mr. Herman’s car (we cleaned it all up!). I broke one of the original window panes while sanding. We had to redo some of the work of the volunteers. But we managed to feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of our week in spite of these setbacks.

We are so grateful to Anne and Wes for giving us this opportunity to help in New Orleans, and I suspect both Christopher and I will be back.

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous - January 16, 2009

We’ve had several crews of contractors working on the house for the past week. Electrical, plumbing and HVAC – all the trades we can’t and aren’t licensed to do. The project has taken off like a rocket as a result. We had worried about this phase, having heard horror stories from neighbors about contractors who’ve taken off mid work or who simply never show up. One person also told us that “all works stops in New Orleans for the month around Mardi Gras”. So, getting all of this done by the third week of January was crucial. Once again, though, Kevin Mercadel of the National Trust and Calvin Alexander, a neighbor, steered us right and recommended wonderful people. Damon Gibson and his crew have done the electrical, and Oscar Santos has handled the plumbing and HVAC installation. They have all been wonderful – careful, thorough and efficient – and will be substantially done by the end of today. They have also given us more than fair prices, recognizing that we’re trying to keep the cost of the house down. Translation services for a couple of Oscar’s guys have been provided when needed by one of our Occidental College volunteers.

Wednesday, Jan. 14th was a particularly fine Red Letter Day. Both plumbing and electrical inspections passed. We got the sign off on our wiring so the walls can now be closed in, and after a wait at the Sewerage and Water Board, a meter was installed and the water turned on.

And then, later that same day, we were introduced to the dark side of trying to do a project in New Orleans. I got a call from our lawyer Miles Trapolin who told me that he had received an email from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA). Our house is on a list of “blighted properties” and will be expropriated by the City. We had received no notice of this, and certainly nothing came up during the title search or at the closing. I thought Miles was joking, but no. Kafka comes to mind. This has triggered a flurry of phone calls and emails to NORA, and we’re pretty sure the house won’t be demolished when our back it turned. Or just taken from us and “given to a friend of the Mayor’s”, as someone said to us.

Our situation points to a much bigger issue here that has been an ongoing problem for all of the renovation efforts across the City. The various agencies don’t talk to each other. We have had both our Katrina Repair Permit from the Department of Safety and Permits and the Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic Districts Landmarks Commission since mid October, but the NORA staff seem to have no way of checking those against their blighted property lists. Houses that are clearly in the middle of renovation are being demolished by mistake by the City every week. Everyone I’ve told our story to is not in the least surprised. This is a huge drag on private rebuilding efforts, and is one of the main reasons why so many people continue to be so discouraged here.

Stay tuned for an update.

Beth Humstone's NOLA Food and Music List - January 16, 2009


- a starter list –

 Cochon, 930 Tchoupitoulus, Warehouse District (Cajun, Southern)
 Diana’s, also on Tchoupitoulus, Warehouse District
 Ignatius, 4200 Magazine Street, Garden District (New Orleans style)
 Casamento’s, 4330 Magazine Street, Garden District (oysters)
 Port of Call, 838 Esplanade, French Quarter (hamburgers)
 Mona’s, 504 Frenchmen Street, French Quarter (Middle Eastern)
 Bywater Bar-B-Que, 3162 Dauphine, Bywater District
 Elizabeth’s, 601 Gallier, Bywater District
 Coffee place on Dauphine near Bywater Bar-B-Que
 Rose Nicau (coffee), Frenchmen Street, French Quarter
 The Joint, 801 Poland Ave, Bywater, District (ribs!)
 Cap’n Sal’s, 3168 St. Claude, Bywater District (fried oyster po’boys)
 Upperline, 1413 Upperline, Uptown (contemporary Creole)
 Café Reconcile, 1613 Oretha C. Haley Blvd, Central City (lunch)

 The Spotted Cat, Frenchmen St.
 Tipitina’s, 504 Napolean Ave, Uptown
 Rock and Bowl, 4133 S. Carrollton Ave., Mid City

Progress Report - January 6, 2009

Happy New Year from the ever facinating and challenging New Orleans!

Wes and I have finally moved into a real house (as oposed to a tiny, dark room in a hotel) with a real internet connection and real closets. And a kitchen with a coffee maker - very exciting!

Am taking the morning off from the project to catch up on the communications and finance part of the project. That's my department as Executive Producer. Wes being the Technical Director.

The project is moving along well. We've done the mold abatement (disgusting job done by the 2 of us on Christmas Eve), completed all interior demolition, completely rebuilt the back room which will have the bathroom and laundry in it, almost finished rebuilding and siding the east wall (the one with the most huricane damage), stripped lead paint off most of the wainscoting, and built most of the new interior partitions. The electrician also finally showed up a couple of days ago and should be done today. The big milestone yesterday was getting a temporay power hook up. We have been running an extension cord from our wonderful neighbor Dolores Wells since before Christmas. We've accomplished a lot so far, but I still wake up at night stressing about how much needs to be done before we leave at the end of Jan.

All of this has been done with the help of an amazing number of people. They are: Joe Loya (Wes' oldest friend), his wife Lynn and two kids Ryan and Rebecca; my senior year Middlebury boyfriend Jay White, his wife Kathy and sons Jack and Matt; Rachel Russell of the National Trust's Washington Office, her sister and two other friends; retired lawyer Dick Buckman who keeps showing up and who has lent us a table saw for the month; a covey of high school kids doing a community service stint though Young Judea; 6 Occidental College students; two clinical phychiatrists I know from New York who showed up in inappropriate shoes and dress socks; my friend Roberta Gratz (author and member of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission) and her nephew Jessie; and, as of last night, my nephew Peter Courtemanche. So many that I'm running out of project hats to hand out. A large part of my time has been spent managing all these folks, making sure everyone is happy and productive and foraging for lunch.

Wes and my infrequent arguments have revolved around the issues of restoration versus renovation. Are we doing a restoration of this historic structure suitable for a tour as part of an upcoming ICCOMOS conference, or are we renovating it into a house that makes sense for a family today? Do we build closets, thereby altering the interior volumes? How elaborate should the kitchen be? Do we cover up a disintegrated fireplace (one of 4) to make better use of a room? etc. etc. We're trying hard to balance respect for the building and making it work for the 21st century. We have to keep remining ourselves that this house is not for us.

There have been some bumps in the road, to be sure. Torrential rain on Sunday night (5"- yikes!) hit before we had a chance to finish the east wall and prime the new clapboard. Water ran down the inside of the wall, meaning that we may have to take off some of the interior plywood we put up to stabilize it so it can dry out. Not good.

Also, our valiant 1993 Plymouth Voyager van may truly be on its last legs. It gallantly carried us and LOTS of tools and stuff down here and was fine until New Years Eve when the brakes gave out. We got that fixed, but since then it has broken down twice. Last night on the highway, right where people took refuge from the Katrina flooding. We settled in to wait for the tow truck, admiring the quarter moon, thankful for the chance to catch up after a particularly hectic day of controlled chaos. We're not sure if the van is fixable, so V-ger may spend the rest of its days here. It wouldn't be so annoying except that the van has become our tool shed on wheels. We can't leave anything of value at the site over night, and we have lots of expensive power equipment, some of it borrowed, that needs to be taken care of. The logistics of this project are endlessly complicated and time consuming.

Cogitating About Brad Pitt - January 6, 2009

People have asked us if we will be hanging out with Brad Pitt here. That’s a little unlikely. We travel in different circles.

I have been thinking about him a lot, however. More specifically, about what he’s doing in the Lower Ninth Ward. In case you missed People Magazine or the January issue of Architectural Digest, he started the Make It Right Foundation after Hurricane Katrina to build “safe, affordable and sustainable” homes for displaced families in the most devastated part of the Lower Ninth. They are two or three blocks away from where the Industrial Canal’s levee broke and sit on land below sea level. The Foundation raised $30 million, and fourteen architecture firms – some local, others not – were invited to submit designs. Over time, 150 houses will be built. I’ve put a couple of photographs of the first 6 completed houses on the Photos section of this web site. You can also check out the Foundation’s web site – – and make your own decisions about the design and the intent.

There is no question that Brad Pitt deserves an enormous amount of credit for rebuilding what was just a year ago scores of blocks of almost completely vacant land. The only things standing then were some live oak trees and the cement stoops of the destroyed, mostly modest wood houses. The silence was disturbing. This was clearly a place that was being ignored by the City’s rebuilding efforts. Brad Pitt has put his celebrity to good use here by shining a light on an ongoing, terrible story. His brightly painted, all new and sustainably designed houses are popping up now, and the sight is startling. So startling that they have become something of a tourist attraction, at least for people interested in sustainable design. I drive through the area a couple of times a week, and there are always small groups of people photographing, filming or just staring. The owners probably didn’t think they’d be living in fish bowls when they moved in.

We are taking a very different approach with our house at 5516 Dauphine, but I would argue that it, too, is a sustainable design project. After all, isn’t the “greenest” house one that already exists? This is a preservation project, so we are reusing as much of the original fabric of the house as possible, meaning that the only material going to the dump is the toxic, moldy stuff. We will be buying the doors and fireplace surrounds we need from the Preservation Resource Center’s Parts Warehouse, and we are maintaining the original floor plan as much as possible. This house was built long before air conditioning, so has a natural air flow that keeps it remarkably cool in the summer. Green architecture is not just about using new, energy efficient systems and “green” materials. It is also about recycling what already exists on the site and respecting the original builders’ understanding of the local climate and the site. The context is important too. Our house sits in the Holy Cross National Register Historic District on much higher ground than where the Make It Right houses are going up. In New Orleans, the closer you are to the Mississippi River, the higher the ground.

A final comment about the economics of these two approaches to “building green”. One of the goals of Brad Pitt’s effort is to sell the new houses for no more than $150,000. The hope is that the new owners will be able to put up 85% of that from insurance and government disaster funds. I have not seen the finances on the project, but I suspect that these houses clearly cost substantially more than that to build. They are being subsidized by the Make It Right Foundation’s fundraising efforts. I worry about the long-term economic sustainability of that model. In our case, we bought 5516 Dauphine, which is the same lot and house size as the Pitt houses, for $30,000. We hope to sell it for under $100,000, an amount that will cover our hard costs - materials, insurance and fees, the mechanical, electrical and plumbing, and our housing costs while here. The labor is all volunteer. While we can’t do this at the scale Brad Pitt is doing, we are taking a sustainable approach in the broadest sense of the word.

Last Night - January 6, 2009

The elderly gentleman who owns the Arts and Crafts style shotgun house next door moved back in last night. Well over three years after Katrina and he’s finally home. Houston just wasn’t the same. He came out onto his front porch with a beer and a folding chair and settled in to admire the twilight. His look of intense satisfaction and well being moved us deeply. That’s exactly what we are trying to give someone else with our project.

Change - January 4, 2009

Someone said to me the other day that our project has triggered several other renovations on our block. The neighbors have seen our project begin and now believe that this block and this neighborhood really are coming back. I find that incredibly gratifying.

The difference in the neighborhood even in just the last three months is truly astonishing. The houses on either side of us are in full construction. One, a charming Arts and Crafts style shotgun is being lovingly restored by two local contractors. The new house, on the site of another shotgun that collapsed mid-demolition, is being put up quickly by a Mexican contractor and a large crew of Mexican laborers. A small house across the street is getting ready for renovation, and a couple of other neighbors have moved back in. Yesterday it was hard to maneuver down the street between the contractors’ trucks, dumpsters and storage PODS. And, for the first time two days ago, an Ice Cream truck came by playing its enticing jingle. A sure sign of families coming back.

Mold - December 24, 2008

Anne and Wes got into the Yuletide spirit by formally completing the demo phase with mold remediation. Following EPA guidelines, we donned recommended respirators, goggles, gloves and moonsuits, sprayed down all interior woodwork with a chlorine solution, then dusted up the residue with a HEPA filter vacuum. For a few hours everything including us smelled like a very old YMCA. We ended the day uncharacteristically early at 1:00 pm and celebrated the completion of this necessary but unpleasant task with last minute Christmas shopping in the French Quarter.

Bargeboards - November 26, 2008

Antonio Poglianich, Tom Herman, Joe and Wes performed major surgery on the moisture-damaged east wall over the weekend of Nov. 20th - 24th. Tom, who splits his time between Ithaca NY and Tokyo, is a master-builder introduced to Wes by Kai Woo, a mutual friend. Antonio, a Principal with Joe at Mercer, a human resources consulting firm, lives in New York City and labors on his weekend place upstate. Thank you Tom and Antonio for your time, talent, and good humor during an unusually cool long weekend.

Kevin had salvaged some twenty-five yellow pine barge boards from a demolition site and delivered them to the back yard. He had a narrow window of time to remove them from the old site under the terms of an understanding between PRC and the City, and mourned the loss of the house with the former occupant while loading the truck. I hope that she finds some comfort in knowing that part of her house has been successfully transplanted in another.

The four of us were in new territory working with this kind of structural system. While Tom removed what was left of the siding, Antonio deconstructed the interior wainscoting behind the wall and de-nailed the salvaged material, and Joe and Wes replaced more sill, we hypothesized on the sequence of original construction. The sill, floor joists and likely the flooring would have been assembled first, for the joists/floor were needed to counterbalance the weight of the planks bearing on the outer edge of the sill and prevent them from rotating. The short end and interior walls would have been erected next to provide support for 2x6 plate. Then the planks would have been set on the long walls, toe-nailing into the sill and face-nailing into the plate. Having handled these boards after a century of drying, we couldn’t imagine how heavy they must have been when green.

Thanks also to Tracey and Evan for bringing us a delicious lunch of homemade rice and beans on Saturday. Tracey, a graphic designer who works with Antonio, had been guiding us on restaurants, etc. through text messages all weekend. Her husband Evan, who owns two local restaurants, entertained us with stories about New Orleans. Their kind loan of space heaters for the weekend was appreciated greatly.

Holy Cross Before Katrina - November 3, 2008

The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center summarizes 2000 census data on its website and offers an interesting pre-Katrina profile of the Holy Cross neighborhood. Go to ( for a general neighborhood history and description and then check out the census data tables for summaries and analysis about housing, occupations and other demographics. 85% of the neighborhood’s 2,340 housing units were occupied before Katrina, and of these, 42% were owner occupied. Most of the jobs held by residents were in accommodation and food services (16%), health care and social service (15%), education (10%), public administration (6%), and retail trade (11%), all but the latter higher than the national averages. 2.8% of Holy Cross residents were employed in “arts, entertainment and recreation,” compared with 3.2% in Orleans Parish and 1.8% nationally.

Progress - October 24, 2008

Anne, Joe and Wes were in NOLA Thursday 10-20-08 to Monday 10-24-08 and made good progress on the house. Anne and Wes spent lunchtime at the City of New Orleans ( municipal center getting permits. We obtained a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic District Landmarks Commission (HDLC) then proceeded to the Department of Permits and Safety for an emergency repair, aka “Katrina repair” permit. Later, at the weekly meeting of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, we caught up on local news and learned about a program that installs radiant barrier through the Alliance for Affordable Energy ( An attorney from the NAACP ( spoke about the organization’s voter drive. Dan Cameron, the curator of Prospect.One (, presented a slideshow on this city-wide biennial art event, that will occur during January when we’re doing the major build-out. Many of the works are located in Holy Cross and the Lower 9th close to 5516 Dauphine, including an ark and “ghost house,” that were featured in a preview article in the New York Times on October 29. UPDATE: See also the New York Times review of the biennial on Nov. 4th - Election Day.

At the house, we completed interior demolition, filling about 80% of a 10 cubic yard dumpster with moldy gypsum board, insulation and rotted wood. This paves the way to mold remediation. And we began structural work. Removal of the lower courses of weatherboard in the southwest corner revealed the cause of the 4” settlement there and led to replacing 12’ of the 6x6 sill. We hadn’t worked with a bargeboard structure before, so it took a few minutes to figure out how to support the floor and roof while we cut out the sill. Our neighbors pitched in too. Dolores Welles let us plug into her power and drove some materials from Lowe's in her truck, and Calvin and Natalie Alexander loaned us a pair of 3-ton hydraulic jacks. We also shored the roof above the east wall in prep for replacing up to 24’ of rotted bargeboard on our next trip.

Demolition - October 24, 2008

Anne, Wes and Joe spent much of the weekend of October 16th - 20th finishing the interior demolition. Sheetrock (layers of it), wall paper, ancient insulation. All of it had to go before the mold abatement can happen. We worked feverishly, protected to some degree by high tech face masks, goggles, hats and gloves. We evolved a system - huge pieces carried out one by one, medium sized chunks flipped liked frisbees out a window and small bits, dried mud and dust shoveled into large garbage bins and poured into the dumpster, raising large clouds of plaster dust. In spite of the care, none of the 3 of us emerged unscathed. Anne in particular got dinged up by falling plaster and an inability to control the wrecking bar. The plan to wear a snappy short sleeved suit jacket at the National Trust conference in Tulsa the following week was shelved.

The mind wanders during projects like this, if for no other reason than to keep it from dwelling on what that black stuff that’s being dug out of a corner really is. Or what you’re breathing in. Or whether the termites who reduced sills and barge boards to sawdust are still active. Or whether in those spots the ancient plaster board you’re ripping off is the only thing keeping the house standing. My thoughts settled on Snakebite Jacobs, the fellow we bought the house from. Three years after the flood, and in spite of the fact that the house had been mostly cleaned out before we got it, evidence of his life is everywhere. Odd bits – Mardi Gras coins, a woman’s high heal shoe painted blue, the bowl of a pipe.

And under the dust, everywhere, the papers. Bills, sheet music, those annoying cards that fall out of magazines, pages from calendars, all stuck to the floors. The house sat in 8 feet of water for days, its contents slowly swirling around and then slowly draining away, leaving a patchwork of documents scattered throughout every room. The most startling is the black and white photograph of the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, Snakebite’s band, bonded to the floor by the flood water. We’ll never be able to get it off undamaged, and that piece of floor will be tiled over for the kitchen. What to do? Covering it with clear plastic and tiling around that seems too precious. It has been photographed, but is eroding away now every time the floor is swept or materials are moved around. It will disappear as the house evolves into a new home for someone else.

At the end of the weekend demolition felt at times like an invasion of privacy, something none of us intended. On the other hand, evidence of this terrible moment in the life of this neighborhood – the line of grass clippings capping the 4 foot high band of black mold on every wall – is now gone. New construction can start.

Thoughts from Joe Loya - October 7, 2008

I had written some notes back in August and after seeing the website,
it reminded me that I had wanted to share them. Here goes --

In my early career, I had the opportunity to visit quite a number of man-made and natural disasters around the world. In every one of these
places from Guatemala to Lebanon to Ethiopia -- and New Orleans today is no different -- I learned a few things. One lesson is that for most
of us who simply read about these events, the disasters are short-lived, lasting a few weeks, maybe a few months. And when we no
longer hear about them daily on the evening news from the comforts of our homes, we quickly assume that all is well. Unfortunately, nothing
could be further from the truth. Recovering from disasters of this magnitude becomes a way of life -- which lasts well after the headlines. Many of the people of New Orleans continue to be touched in
so many ways by Katrina -- every day of their lives.

Another lesson I learned -- and this continues to amaze me -- is "victims of disaster" is a phrase that is easily misunderstood and
often misused. Yes, it's true that in each case, no one chooses to be thrown into the midst of war or famine or flood. They deserve our help,
not our pity, but these so-called victims also deserve our admiration and respect. We can learn from their inner and outward strength, from
their resiliency and most importantly from their ability to continue to maintain hope, to look to the future and to keep moving forward.

Huricane Gustav - September 1, 2008

Anne and Wes spent Labor Day weekend worrying about Huricane Gustav, predicted to possibly hit New Orleans. Both realized that we weren't particularly worried about the house. It had, after all, survived Katrina remarkably well. We were very worried, however, about the city itself and about the many people we'd met and who had already been so kind to us. The thought of another 100 year storm destroying all the work done since Katrina and the lives just getting back to a little bit of normal was really painful. As it turned out, the storm bypassed the City. We got an email two days after the storm from Kevin Mercadel with photos attached of our house. We hadn't lost so much as a pane of glass, and neither had anyone else. We heaved a huge sigh of relief and started plotting our next trip down.

The Closing - August 15, 2008

July was spent setting up and funding an LLC. (Wes and Anne aren't married, but they're now incorporated.) We had help with that from Miles Trapolin, brother-in-law of a friend of Anne's and a life-long NOLA resident and lawyer.

The closing was scheduled for August 15th, so Anne, Wes and our friend Joe Loya flew down for a long weekend. We discovered at the closing that the seller was Snakebite Jacobs, a tenor sax player who had played for years with Kinky Friedman and his Texas Jew Boys and with the New Orleans Night Crawlers. Who knew that our house had an impressive music pedigree? He had moved to California after Katrina.

The rest of that weekend was spent measuring up, starting the interior demolition, and getting to really know the house. An afternoon thunderstorm that Saturday produced a large puddle in the second room and the realization that something was not right with the east wall - the rain was blowing through the house. Nothing that couldn't be fixed, but still a surprize. Wes and Joe put up a temporary patch with the hope that it would get us through huricane season. Anne also realized that the last time she measured up a building was in 1978 - The Plaza Hotel in NYC was the client. The ceilings in 5516 Dauphine may be as high, but that's it for similarities.

House Hunting - May 29, 2008

Anne and Wes flew down to NOLA at the end of May armed with listings and determined to find a house. We toured Holy Cross with Andrew Wolf, a broker with Latter and Blum. We also sat down with Kevin Mercadel of the National Trust. He was full of wonderful advice and information and offered his ongoing help with the project. We met his colleague Pam Bryan and looked at a number of houses the Preservation Resource Center had in their Operation Comeback program. And we attended the weekly Holy Cross Neighborhood Association meeting. That association is very active and has been around for decades. Needless to say, we also ate really well.

After a lot of discussion and some back and forth with a couple of different houses, we decided to make an offer on 5516 Dauphine Street, one of the houses Andrew Wolf had shown us. That offer was eventually accepted. We came close to buying a house from the Operation Comeback program, but decided not to as it had a three year residency requirement attached to it. We reconfirmed to each other that we were doing this project for someone else, not us, and that our life remains here in New York.

The Project Takes Shape - February 29, 2008

Anne attended the next Advisors' Meeting in Philadelphia in late February. We talked about the project again, and it began to take on a life of its own. Many people found the idea really compelling. Trust Vice President Peter Brink was incredibly supportive and did not think the idea was crazy when Anne asked him for a reality check. Quite the opposite. He offered the help of the National Trust staff in New Orleans. Trust President Dick Moe announced that the project was underway. When Anne told him that we hadn't yet actually decided to do the project, that we hadn't found a house, and that it wasn't real yet, he responded with a broad smile "Well, it is now". It became clear that this was a project that Wes and Anne could and should do.

Wes worked up a construction budget and time line, and we started looking at residential real estate web sites. Our research showed that we could probably get a building in Holy Cross for around $35,000, certainly within the budget.

Genesis of the Project - January 25, 2008

Anne Van Ingen is an Advisor from New York to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Trust held a meeting of its Trustees and Advisors in January, '08 in New Orleans to highlight the work it has done since opening an office there shortly after Hurricane Katrina. Wes Haynes came along. We met and spoke with many thoughtful people who are passionate about reviving their city and toured the Holy Cross neighborhood. Projects were finally getting started, many financed by several programs - Road Home and Operation Comeback in particular - and families were beginning to move back. While Holy Cross is part of the Ninth Ward, it is on high ground and only flooded briefly. While residents lost literally everything, most of the houses themselves remained relatively intact.

That weekend, though, we finally understood the vast scale of the destruction from Katrina and the staggering amount of work that still needs to be done. It also became clear that affordable housing remains a crucial need. Holy Cross has long been an affordable neighborhood with a stable, diverse population, and certainly could be so again. Several late night conversations with fellow Northeast Region Advisors generated the idea of doing a house ourselves outside the arena of public grant programs. Wouldn't it be possible to just buy a wreck with our own funds, fix it up and sell it back cheaply to a low income family? We thought so.

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