WHERE AM I? The 4600 block of Spain Street, on the odd-numbered or east side of the street, between Carnot on the north and Lombard on the south. The block is in historic Gentilly Terrace, a neighborhood bounded roughly by Filmore on the north, Gentilly Boulevard on the south, Peoples Avenue on the east and Mandeville Street on the west.
Gentilly Terrace was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998, the first 20th-century neighborhood in New Orleans to be honored on the register. It began its development in 1909, when a consortium of businessmen (Lafaye, Baccich and deMontluzin) wisely recognized that the Gentilly Ridge (the natural levee along what had been Bayou Gentilly) gave the area added height above grade. Not only that, but the consortium terraced the lots, providing an extra measure of height above sea level. Small wonder, then, that promotional materials for the development promised houses that were “built on hills.”
Why I’m here : With the recent conclusion of the annual San Fermin festival in Pamplona a few days ago and last weekend’s mock-version of bull running here in New Orleans, I get to thinking about our Spanish heritage. Though we often think of ourselves solely in terms of our French heritage, our territory was owned by Spain from 1763, when the Treaty of Paris was signed at the end of the Seven Years’ War, until 1800 when the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso transferred the territory back to the French. We owe most of our “French” Quarter architecture to the Spaniards who rebuilt the city in the late 1700s after the French colonial buildings were destroyed by fire. And we are in debt to the Spanish crown for the colorful names of local streets that honor Spanish governors, including Carondelet, Galvez, Salcedo, Lopez, Gayoso, Casa Calvo, Ulloa, Onzaga and Miró.
If I can’t take a walk in Spain to tip my hat to our Spanish heritage, perhaps a visit to Spain Street will do the trick.
Seen on the Street:
There are a dozen houses on the block, almost all of them built in styles that were popular in the early 20th century. The standouts are two “Storybook” style houses with precipitously steep gables in front, including one having a roofline with an asymmetrical swoop to one side. I also spot three houses that hint at the Colonial Revival style, two ranch houses (no doubt later additions to the block), a double shotgun and three bungalows with asymmetrical facades (two with screened in porches).
The two subtle but characteristic elements that all of the houses share are the short flight of steps leading from the sidewalk to the front walkway and the curvilinear forms of the walkways themselves. The steps are necessary, of course, because the lots are terraced and so above grade. But the winding paths from the steps to the front door are purely romantic.
The first house in my sample of five is a blue stucco Storybook cottage with steep double gables and an asymmetrical façade. The gables intersect a second, less obvious, roofline that runs perpendicular to them, resulting in a “cross-gabled” construct. The rounded front door is recessed in a small vestibule, its entrance having the same shape. Faux stonework rendered in smooth stucco surrounds the entry, another element of the Storybook style. And what of that little folly in the higher of the two gables? The tiny nonfunctional balcony rimmed with wrought iron beneath the small round-topped window? Purely for whimsy.
The second house pictured, a yellow double shotgun, displays little of the playful character of the first, yet I am sure I notice a little wiggle in the pathway that leads from the terraced steps to the front porch — a nod to its neighbors. Although it presents few in the way of notably stylish elements, it mixes well with the other early 20th-century houses on the block and demonstrates the variety of house types and styles. With little to go on, I’m going to stretch things a bit and describe this house as Neoclassical Revival for its distinctive cluster of three Tuscan-style columns supporting each edge of the front-gabled roof.
Next in the quintet of featured houses is a cottage that has much in common with both a Cape Cod-style house (one and a half stories) and a Colonial Revival house (usually two and a half stories). Both the Cape Cod cottage and Colonial Revival house have gables on the side, so that the roof slopes toward the street and toward the rear. Both have symmetrical facades — a door in the middle, an equal number of windows on either side. And either may or may not have dormers that punctuate the roofline. In the end, perhaps, it’s a matter of scale. I wouldn’t hesitate to call a wider version of this house with more windows and a second story a Colonial Revival, so why do I debate it? It must be a matter of scale.
The distinguishing features of the fourth house suggests to me it’s a bungalow — low profile, asymmetrical façade, close connection to the ground, intersecting rooflines and prominent front porch. Yet, a bungalow can come in many styles, the best-known of which are the Craftsman bungalows that made brothers Greene and Greene well-known in Pasadena and upon which many of the high-style Craftsman houses in Gentilly Terrace are modeled.
In New Orleans, we have raised bungalows that we call raised basement houses, and they may be Spanish Colonial Revival, Craftsman or another Arts and Crafts style in appearance. Though less glamorous than some of them, this modest house, nonetheless, fits the bungalow description.
My final stop is the second of the two storybook houses on the block, this one white stucco with red accents. “Picturesque” is another word often used to describe this style of house, and who could argue with that? The dramatic dip of the roofline on the right of the front entry highlights the complexity of the various intersecting rooflines and contributes mightily to the fanciful design. If it is true, as some sources suggest, that the Storybook style was inspired somewhat by Hollywood, I wouldn’t argue. Hansel and Gretel or Snow White would be right at home here on Spain Street.