When Colleen Evans and Greg Lusignan were dating, he said something that hooked Evans immediately.
“Greg told me he had a dream of renovating an old house, maybe in the Irish Channel, and then working his way down the block. That was my dream, too,” said Colleen Evans, now Lusignan. “A lot of people say that renovating a house together is bad for a relationship, but in our case, it just bonds us more tightly.”
This afternoon, the Lusignans show off their most recent project, a 3,400-square-foot centerhall house in the Faubourg Lafayette neighborhood of Central City.
The event is the first in a new series sponsored by the Preservation Resource Center and titled “Old House Stories.”
Beginning at 1 p.m., guests will tour the renovation in progress and learn about the house’s past from the city’s premiere architectural researcher and notarial archivist, Sally Reeves — who happens to be Colleen Lusignan’s mom.
“I remember being in the car with my mother driving somewhere when I was 15 or 16 and she would slam on the brakes and stop in the middle of the street and say, ‘Would you look at the house?’ I couldn’t have been less interested at the time, but it made an impression on me all the same,” Lusignan said. “Now I do the same thing.”
The Lusignans and their three young daughters live on Baronne Street at Erato in an 1852 double gallery house that was dismantled and then reconstructed on the site by Felicity Redevelopment.
The renovation was their first, located just around the corner from the centerhall in the 1800 block of Clio Street.
Since moving to the area 12 years ago, the couple has undertaken four or five more projects, all in a six-block radius of their home.
Even before they bought the centerhall on Clio, the couple was experienced enough to realize that restoring it would be an extraordinary undertaking.
“Louis Kennedy grew up in the house after his family bought it in the 1970s, and he lived there until he died in 2013,” Lusignan explained. “After he died, we bought the house from his son.”
Reeves researched the property as a gift for the Lusignans and discovered it had been built in 1882 by one of the city’s most prominent cotton brokers and philanthropists, Julius Weis, a benefactor of Touro Infirmary. Weis built the house as a rental property but lived in an extraordinary mansion on Jackson Avenue at Chestnut (demolished). According to Reeves’ research, Weis sold the property in 1893 to a clerk in his office, Lazard Hayem, who owned it for eight years before selling it in 1901 to Isaac Cahen, a Canal Street dry goods merchant. The Cahen family lived in the house for 15 years, then sold it to Charles Spizale, a barber at the Poydras Market who was born in Italy. The Spizale family lived in the house for more than 50 years before the Kennedy family purchased it in 1971.
“In a way, the history of the house encapsulates the history of the neighborhood,” said Reeves. “There was the German Jewish era, then the Italian Catholic era, then the Kennedy era. Colleen and Greg represent the trend of young people coming in and renovating in the neighborhood.”
Although the house appears from the outside to be a traditional Italianate centerhall, Reeves said the 1885 Sanborn (fire insurance) maps indicate that it was originally a double with a larger left side (composed of the hallway and a string of rooms) and a narrower right side (en suite rooms without a hallway).
Although the house had deteriorated when the Lusignans acquired it in 2014, it retained the lion’s share of its rich architectural details. Full-length arched top windows on the front flank a dramatic entry surround of cypress incised with delicate carvings. Recessed slightly, the half-glass front door has a frame embellished with raised, carved elements in the shape of vases and flowers. Likewise, the millwork around the pocket doors separating the front rooms on the left features elaborate woodwork carved into egg-and-dart pattern. Wainscoting in the dining room (down the hallway) is cypress and installed unexpectedly on the diagonal.
Many of the home’s distinguishing details were nearly disguised by multiple layers of paint, painstakingly removed by the carpenter who works on the project with the Lusignans. The biggest find, however, happened quite by accident one day when the couple was standing outside in the yard.
“Something was poking up out of the dirt and when we dug it up, we found these huge saw-toothed spandrels. We were still trying to figure out how they were supposed to be installed when Mr. Kennedy’s sister from Chicago showed up out front one day. She gave me a photo of her family standing in front of the house, and it shows where the spandrels are supposed to go. Finally they made sense,” said Lusignan.
The spandrel mystery may have been solved, but plenty of questions remain. Why would Julius Weis have invested so much in embellishing a rental property? How is it that the house looks like a traditional centerhall on the outside but in reality has always been an asymmetrical double?
“Working on this house has been like putting together a puzzle,” said Lusignan. “We are so fortunate that so much of the original fabric — like mantels, doors, windows, wainscoting, transoms and floors — were all there to help us figure it out.”