NEW ORLEANS — The home of Tom and Gayle Benson in Audubon Place in New Orleans is everything you’d expect. Except stuffy.
A former interior designer, Gayle Benson tries to keep the couple’s home as traditional as she can while infusing it with a welcoming feeling.
“I approach each place differently, but before, I had to adhere to my client’s wishes,” says Gayle Benson. “This was my project. I did it my way.”
The project, she admits, was huge.
And, at least for Tom Benson, it wasn’t love at first sight.
When the owner of the Saints and Pelicans first saw the house, he was less than impressed.
“He walked in and said, ‘I don’t like it,’ ” she says. “But visit by visit, he came around.”
On the other hand, Gayle Benson says she could visualize what the home could be.
When the couple moved in six years ago, the house was empty and painted all one color — white.
“It was a blank canvas,” she says. “I’d collected over the years. He had things, and we’ve bought things together.”
On this particular day, Tom Benson isn’t home.
“He’s having a moment with the Saints,” Gayle Benson says with a smile. “It’s hard for him when they don’t win. I have to remind him that the ball doesn’t always bounce on your side.”
The Benson home has a long lineage, from carpetbaggers and railroad tycoons to bankers and businessmen. The site was originally part of a plantation acquired by Pierre Foucher in 1793 and is registered as a historic property.
Constructed in 1902 for an international coffee dealer, the home’s classical façade came and went before finally returning. It currently sports a Saints crest.
They’re not the only saints in the house. A papal blessing hangs just inside the front doors.
“I was thrilled to get that,” Gayle Benson says. “Our faith is strong. Everything will be OK.”
The home is pure New Orleans: reminders of the past with hints of Paris and Versailles. Collections are common, Catholicism is a motif and individual expression pervades the rooms.
For a fresh start, the walls and 14-foot ceilings were painted a warm biscuit hue.
The physical presence of the house and the classical architecture are also brought down to earth by a palette of golds and mushrooms, personal mementos, a rare statuette of an expectant Virgin Mary and tapestries brought to Gayle Benson from Rome by Archbishop Gregory Aymond.
All crown moldings and woodwork are original to the house, as is the stained glass window on the landing.
The draperies took a San Antonio seamstress two years to make. Antique oriental rugs extend the traditional aesthetic underfoot as well.
“I went shopping in New York, not all at once, but a little at a time,” says Gayle Benson.
A Garland Robinette portrait of her hangs above the mantle in the first parlor, which flows into the formal dining room where 15 can gather beneath a classic chandelier.
A second parlor adjoins the library, where drapery fabrics are from London and Scalamandré fabrics cover the twin sofas. Along with touches of chinoiserie, personal photographs and rosaries, there’s the Bensons’ Carnival memorabilia next to a photograph of four archbishops.
An armoire from Paris stands opposite a framed Miró in the kitchen, where Gayle Benson has added granite counters and a stove hood.
“I really redid everything,” she says of the traditional furnishings juxtaposed with contemporary art, original works by Salvador Dali and Miró. “I just like the balance.”
One of the features Tom Benson wanted was a wine area, and he got it. A stained glass window encloses a wine closet off the kitchen with space for 1,000 bottles.
The kitchen itself can be closed off by 12-foot wood-and-glass folding doors original to the house.
Elsewhere, religious objects congregate next to a crystal ship’s decanter and brandy glasses, a touch of the sacred alongside the secular.
Gayle Benson has collected Royal Doulton figurines for four decades — a slow process, perhaps, but one that makes for a home that’s not only beautiful, but meaningful.
There’s an orchid by the silk drapes and, by another window, a philodendron, while dried hydrangeas grace the tabletops, in addition to books on Chanel, the Vatican gardens and sports legends — a true marriage of interests.
It’s that New Orleans knack for integrating the old while embracing the new. “I wanted something comfortable and livable,” Gayle Benson says. “We entertain a lot. We wouldn’t want someone to come over and think they couldn’t sit down.”