A visit to the Contemporary Crafts Village at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell offers much more than an opportunity to slow down and detach from the teeming crowds.
It offers a portal to the creative world of dozens of potters, glassmakers, jewelers and other crafts artists, including Nancy Alexander and her line of paper and vinyl bags known as Blue Maya Designs.
“I’ve exhibited at Newport and other major festivals in the northeast, but there’s just nothing like Jazz Fest,” Nancy said. “People really appreciate you. This year is my ninth year, and every year I do something a little different.”
Nancy and her husband, Neil (an accomplished and sought-after photographer), have made their home for the past 34 years in a masonry townhouse on Tchoupitoulas Street in the Lower Garden District.
“We were living here when there wasn’t really a neighborhood to speak of, just brick warehouses and mills,” said Neil.
The couple’s home was once one in a row of six townhouses built by entrepreneur and developer Laurent Millaudon in 1834.
Several identical townhouses faced Race Street. Running behind the Tchoupitoulas houses was — and still is — Hog Alley.
The Alexanders’ home is one of the two townhouses remaining at the corner of Race Street. Like its neighbor and the sole surviving townhouse facing Race, theirs stands 2½ stories tall and features a balcony facing the river.
A two-story dependency is separated from the main building by a courtyard. The entry from the Tchoupitoulas sidewalk leads directly into a stairwell, plus a door to the courtyard. Upstairs on the second floor is where the living room, dining room and kitchen are located; sleeping quarters are on the third floor.
The living room has been co-opted by Nancy to serve as her sewing studio, where she makes intricate collages of vintage paper and then sandwiches them between sheets of vinyl to make her distinctive bags. All are sewn together on her 1953 Singer “Featherweight” machine and then stitched with gold thread. Each bag is unique.
“This year, I have used 5,000 yards of gold thread, more than double what I used in the past,” she said. Complementing her vintage and antique papers are the fabrics that line the bags, vintage silk grosgrain fabric that she acquired from Herbert Halpern of Promenade Fabrics.
The one-time dining room has been converted to Neil’s photography studio and design workstation, which occupies the top of the round table in the middle of the room. Before the couple’s children — Maya and Calder — grew up and left home, the family would eat together in the evenings.
“But now, most of the time, Neil and I eat at the bar in the kitchen,” admitted Nancy.
The interior decor of the couple’s home reflects the interest in color and fanciful pattern evident in the handbags Nancy makes.
The dining room-studio is painted a serene blue shade, one of the historic paint colors that Nancy prefers. The sewing-living room is another historic Benjamin Moore hue — Providence Olive.
A multicolored, geometric patterned kilim on the floor under the dining table reinforces the esthetic of the couple’s art collection, especially the works by Italian artist Oscar de Mejo inherited from Neil’s family.
Just a few months ago, the couple completed a 15-month-long project during which they converted the dependency to two bed-and-breakfast rooms and the courtyard into an inviting common space for guests to enjoy.
“I couldn’t show at Jazz Fest last year because Neil and I were too busy working to get the place ready so we could start taking guests this spring,” Nancy said. “We just got our license from the city and were able to start taking guests on March 1.”
The renovation process included restoring an original arched opening to the ground level of the dependency and installing French doors to the guest rooms. Craftsman Nick Conner built a two-panel door to match those that are original to the house. The courtyard was bricked and a stair reconfigured to make the space more welcoming. A 60 foot tall cypress tree in the courtyard was harvested by arborist Chris Harvey.
“It was a delicate operation because of the 25-year-old orange tree right next to it, but Chris was able to do it,” Neil said. According to Nancy, “The tree never had fruit while the cypress tree was there. Now, it’s covered with sweet oranges in the winter.”
The bed-and-breakfast operation is a new chapter in the history of the 180-year-old house, and a new horizon for Neil and Nancy.
“I love being able to really explain the New Orleans culture to our guests and to help them understand what a different place this really is,” said Neil. “We’ve had visitors from Holland and France and Australia — all sorts of places — in just the short time we’ve been open. It’s so much fun to share the city with our guests — we’re loving it.”