In Jane Henson’s world, the comfort of guests is paramount.
So when she realized that the antique dining table she had inherited from her grandmother was uncomfortable because of its apron, there was only one thing to do.
“I got rid of it and bought another,” she confessed. “To me, the table is the heart and soul of the house so it had to be a place where my guests could sit and converse. The old table would make them restless, then they’d get up and the spell would be broken.”
Today, the “new” table awaits guests that Henson expects at her Garden District home for the Bacchus parade Sunday and for Mardi Gras.
True to her style, it is set lavishly with French silverware, cut crystal, and a dramatic flower arrangement in Carnival colors. To top it all off, a gold wrapped box tied with Carnival-colored ribbon sits atop each place setting.
“Everyone gets a party favor, even if it’s just a piece of chocolate in a pretty box,” she explained. “I love china and crystal and silver and like to set a table that looks inviting. I probably have six different sets of china, most of which came from friends and family.”
At a time when formal dining rooms are disappearing in favor of open kitchens and countertop meals, Henson approaches dining as if it is an art form. And when she dines, even on informal occasions, it’s always in the dining room.
“I light candles every night and eat at the dining room table, even if it’s just a sandwich,” she said. “I don’t have many cardinal rules in my life because I can’t stick to them, but candles are a cardinal rule.”
So is hospitality.
Henson’s “open door, open heart” policy affords guests a wide selection of handsome rooms to explore and enjoy. The formal living room to the left of the entry foyer features a cushy sofa with pretty needlepoint pillows made by Henson, plus upholstered slipper chairs. An oriental rug covers the floor, and an array of Audubon prints distinguishes a wall.
“The reason all the art is hung so expertly is that my friend, Charles Gillis, made a graph and laid it all out on the floor before we nailed it up,” she said. “Charles had a vision about were everything should go when I bought the house in 2012.”
For quiet conversation, the library beckons. Built-in bookcases flank the mantel and serve to display family photos and items Henson has collected. Nearby hangs a favorite piece of art, a portrait of a spaniel, rendered by Louisiana artist Newton Reeve Howard.
The room’s monochromatic scheme — which friend Tom Uskali helped select — creates an enveloping space for reading or chatting. Henson enjoys the room often, keeping company with her lab mix, Brooklyn.
Across the rear of the house, the den connects to the rear courtyard via a bank of glass doors. A colorful Carnival triptych by Henson’s friend, artist Tim Trapolin, adds a lively rhythm to the room.
Outside in the courtyard, garden beds hold mature plantings which produce a secluded and tropical feel. A brick guest cottage (possible the vestige of a stable or carriage house) stretches across the rear of the outdoor room; its three arched openings and wall fountain provide a picturesque view from the courtyard table and from the den inside the house.
Henson welcomes any reason to share her home — and dining table — with family and friends.
At Thanksgiving, many guests contribute dishes to the feast, including spinach Madeleine and oysters Rockefeller. At Christmas, Henson may host a reveillon meal, then, at carnival, she’ll stage “open house” parties on Bacchus Sunday and Mardi Gras.
St. Patrick’s Day provides what Henson describes as “a built-in party,” seeing as how her home is just half a block off Magazine Street. Later in the spring during Jazz Fest, she throws what her friends and family know as “the chandelier crawfish boil:” Fifty pounds of spicy crawfish atop layers of newspaper on her dining room table, lit from above by a crystal chandelier. Sons Al Minor, 35, and Powell Henson, 29, are frequent visitors from their homes in Manhattan and Texas, respectively.
Henson credits her father with teaching her — by example — how to host guests in style.
“My father was a great entertainer, a larger-than-life character,” she said. “It’s what I grew up with, and it’s all I have ever known.”
If cleaning up after a dinner party or crawfish shindig sounds laborious, Henson has a different perspective.
“I always clean up after everyone has gone, not just because I don’t want to look at the mess in the morning but because it gives me a chance to reflect on the evening while it’s still fresh,” she said. “I think about what was said, the bits of conversation I heard, the mood of the evening — even if I’m washing linens at 5 a.m. It’s all about the people and making it so that they want to come back.”