When Charles Gillis and Thomas Uskali were scouting residences prior to moving back to New Orleans in 2010, they agreed they wanted a place that wouldn’t require renovation or a lot of ongoing maintenance.
They thought they had found the perfect space when a fifth-floor unit at the mid-century modern Gallery Condominiums on St. Charles Avenue became available, but just as quickly as it had appeared in the real estate listings, it was withdrawn.
“So we ended up in a Georgian in the Fontainebleau area with a yard,” said Uskali. “It was lovely, but not really what we wanted.”
Every once in a while, however, opportunity knocks twice. In this case, the coveted condo went back on the market in the summer of 2014 and the couple pounced.
They wasted no time decamping from their vintage Georgian to their sleek new home.
“I remembered the building from when we lived here before moving to Fort Lauderdale,” said Uskali. “It stands out because the modern architecture isn’t what you expect for St. Charles Avenue. The building is flanked by historic houses but it’s set back as far as they are so that it respects the established scale.”
Anyone who has ever watched a Mardi Gras parade on St. Charles Avenue between Second and Third streets has likely noticed the building. Its modern façade features a sculptural concave screen of cast cement rising four stories, offset by a panel of pebble-encrusted concrete.
Smooth cement balconies cantilever outward on both sides of the building, affording residents unobstructed vantage points for taking in the views. Raised 12 feet off the ground to accommodate parking beneath, the building appears to float.
Since becoming a resident of the Gallery, Gillis has immersed himself in the history of the building and its architect, the late Victor Bruno (1921-2011) of New Orleans.
The quest led him and Uskali to redesign the lobby furnishings to reflect the building’s midcentury modern esthetic and connected them with Bruno’s widow, Jeanne, who gave them copies of renderings from when the Gallery was built in 1962.
“If I recall, art critic Roger Green said it looked like a radio,” said Jeanne Bruno. “I don’t think Victor was too happy about that.”
Yet the architect was undeterred.
According to his nephew, sculptor Tom Bruno, “Uncle Vic” was bound by his personal code to produce residences that functioned the way he believed they should. His designs invariably included glass walls opening to patios and clerestory windows to provide light. Materials were unfussy but used creatively: concrete blocks, birch plywood, brick, and terrazzo or slate floors.
“He grew up working in my grandfather’s cabinet making shop and mastered skills when he was still a kid,” said Tom Bruno. “Uncle Vic learned line, form, volume and careful attention to detail. He wouldn’t do things any other way. When he was designing, he would sketch and sketch until he felt he got it right.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Tulane in 1943 and then spending time in the military, Bruno received his master of architecture degree from Tulane in 1947.
His classmates were noted architects Nathaniel “Buster” Curtis, Arthur Davis, James Lamantia and Albert Ledner. Before beginning his solo practice, Bruno worked for a construction company to ensure he understood the mechanics of building. By 1954, ads began appearing in newspapers touting “Tomorrow’s house … for today’s joy of living,” designed and built by Victor Bruno.
“Victor and I were close friends and we admired each other’s work,” said architect Albert Ledner. “We shared the same principles and both preferred the organic approach to architecture over what was popular then, which was the international style and Bauhaus. He thought so much of the modern movement lacked a certain warmth and quality of livability and I felt that way, too.”
“Livability” — and the spectacular views of the downtown skyline — is what drew Gillis and Uskali to the unit at 2511 St. Charles in the first place.
“The lines are clean and everything is laid out well,” said Uskali. “When you walk in you face a big window and think ‘Wow, what a view!’ but then you turn the corner and look out through the glass doors to the balcony, and it gets even better.”
The 2000-square-foot unit encompasses a living room, kitchen, dining area and den, which the couple call the “playroom” because it’s where they spend much of their leisure time. Two bedrooms have been taken over for offices, one for Gillis and his property development work in Mississippi and the other for Uskali.
The master bedroom opens onto the 300-square-foot balcony through glass doors. Exactly as they had planned, there was little to do in the way of renovating the place other than painting and upgrading kitchen appliances and cabinet pulls.
Furnishings are a refreshing mix of antiques and contemporary works, tied together by off-white walls (Farrow & Ball’s “Clunch”) and warm-toned wood floors.
Some of the large paintings are by Dub Brock, a native of McComb, Mississippi (where Gillis grew up). Other paintings, including the two over the bed, are by Uskali, who etches passages from favorite books into their multi-layered surfaces.
A 1904 sculpture of “Eve,” by Rodin student Anna Hill, takes center stage on a pedestal in front of the north facing window and etchings of buildings hang nearby.
“If everything looks good where it is, it’s because our friend, Jane Henson, helped us when we had decisions to make about placement,” said Uskali. “That, and the fact that Charles laid everything out on the computer in 3D. That’s how we knew that everything would fit.”
Recently, the couple hosted Jeanne Bruno, several of her family members, and a few of her friends from Lambeth House so that all could experience what Victor Bruno had created.
It was the first time any of them had been inside a unit at the Gallery.
“Uncle Vic was a perfectionist,” said Tom Bruno. “He was passionate about his principles and wouldn’t compromise. This place is the perfect expression of what he believed.”