Dragan Segvic stood on the sidewalk in front of 1421 Josephine St., watching intently as his men installed millwork on the home’s façade.
Despite the heat and the sun, the contractor directed every move, determined to ensure that every small bracket, every snippet of millwork was placed precisely where it belonged.
“The house deserves it,” he said.
Segvic and the home’s owner, Andrea St. Paul Bland of Cygnette Inc., are of like mind when it comes to doing right by the faded Lower Garden District beauty, a singular architectural treasure called the Rountree House.
Talking to Bland about the project, it becomes increasingly clear that her primary incentive isn’t financial, nor is it the triumph of seeing the work complete.
Instead, Bland is a renovator who adores the process, a passion she will share with others at the Preservation Resource Center’s Renovator’s Happy Hour event on Thursday, Aug. 28, when she will outline the past and future of the 4,200-square-foot Gothic Revival “work in progress.”
Bland’s delight in discovering the home’s original characteristics extends to the smallest of details.
“I knew something seemed to be missing on the millwork in front but I wasn’t sure what, until Dragan showed me a decorative element that was present in one place on the side. It could be replicated, so that is what we did,” she said. “It’s probably been a hundred years since that detail of millwork was in place on the front where it belongs.”
The missing millwork wasn’t the only change the house had endured since its construction in about 1869, when the eminent architect James Freret designed it.
At some point, possibly in 1965 when a property investor acquired it, the front porch on the first floor was removed, leaving only the columns.
Decorative strips of metal trim — which Bland calls “piecrust” — had rusted away, and many pieces were missing. Columns and railing details had rotted.
Painted dusky hues, the home’s exotic railings and details were too dark to be able to distinguish their Gothic Revival patterning. And the house had developed a dramatic list to one side, counteracted by a few pieces of inadequate bracing.
Inside, the house had been divided into multiple apartments, each with what Bland described as “ramshackle” baths and kitchens, often accommodated in porches that were enclosed to make room for them. Rain found its way into the interior through untended roof leaks, rotting floors and damaging plaster. Just about every indignity imaginable befell the grande dame on Josephine Street in the mid- to late 20th century, but Bland has put all of that in the past.
“When I am done here, the house will stand tall for another 200 years,” Bland said.
For structural and architectural advice, she consulted with Ivan Mandich, who identified the cause of the tilt and worked with Segvic to undertake the straightening process.
“We had to remove the front gallery to be able to lift and level the house,” Bland said. “The house had to come up anywhere from 6 to 10 inches, depending on where. Now we have steel in place that connects through to the foundation to make sure the house has a strong central core.”
As partitions for apartments were eliminated and their kitchens and baths torn out, Bland was able to reopen a second-floor rear porch that she plans to screen.
The Historic District Landmarks Commission (which has jurisdiction in the Lower Garden District) allowed the enclosure of a side gallery on the service wing to create an interior hallway, under the condition that Bland agree to keep its columns and railing in place on the exterior, signaling its origins.
A shabby addition on the rear was removed to make way for a deep porch that now connects the living area to the yard.
Inside, the floor plan mixes the home’s elegant past with accommodations for gracious contemporary living.
Two parlors on the right of the entry hall will serve as formal living and dining areas, each outfitted with custom chandeliers by Luis Colmenares and James Vella. The entry hall leads to a vast informal living and dining area that flow into a kitchen. Blown-in cellulose insulation makes the space comfortable even on a hot August day.
Upstairs, a master suite with study and bath occupies the front of the house (for best access to the front gallery), with two additional bedrooms located in the service wing. The original stair curves upward to the third floor where a fourth bedroom is situated under the slope of the roofline; windows in front and back and dormers on the sides offer 360 degree views of neighborhood roofscapes.
The exterior millwork and its rare (for New Orleans) Gothic Revival patterning are what make the house spectacular, and Bland has spared no effort to ensure that rotten and missing pieces were replicated to precise specifications by either Conner Millworks or New Orleans Millworks. Ceiling medallions and elaborate crown moulding will get the same treatment.
But of all the discoveries that Bland has made, the revelation of the home’s original color palette may have been the most thrilling.
“I just kept seeing pink in my mind, and when Louis (Aubert) and I met at the house, we decided to sample a few shades of pink with a creamy trim, so that the details of the gallery railings could be seen better,” she said. “So what do you think we found when we scraped away some the paint on the side gallery downstairs? Pink and cream! It turns out we had done an even better job of picking than we thought.”
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about houses and gardens. Contact her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @rstephaniebruno