When Lolis Eric Elie undertook the challenge of renovating an old house in Tremé, he labored under a popular misconception.
“I thought it would be quick and easy, but I discovered that the idea I wouldn’t have any headaches because I hired a contractor wasn’t true,” he recalled. “I found out very quickly that you have to be there every day because you still have to see the work and make esthetic decisions.”
Elie turned his renovation experiences into fodder for a column for The Times-Picayune and reprises the experience on Feb. 20, with a talk titled “How NOT to Renovate a Creole Cottage.” The talk is one of a half-dozen or so to be presented at the Williams Research Center’s New Orleans Architecture Symposium.
“I learned when I was writing the column that there were a lot of other poor fools out there who would be able to sympathize with my trials and see themselves in my stories. I thought if I wrote about how stupid I was, maybe they wouldn’t feel so stupid and would realize they were not alone in their efforts,” he said.
The houses that Elie renovated are in Tremé, the neighborhood showcased in the documentary he made with Dawn Logsdon for PBS, “Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans” and in the acclaimed HBO series “Tremé.” Elie was the story editor and blogger for the HBO show, which wove together stories of New Orleanians rebuilding their lives after Hurricane Katrina. He drew on the series, its characters and the local dining culture it featured for his 2013 cookbook, “Tremé: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans.”
Elie and his father, well-known civil rights attorney Lolis Edward Elie, purchased properties in Tremé in the 1980s and 1990s: a Creole cottage and a two-story Creole townhouse on Treme Street and another Creole cottage on Henriette de Lille.
“One wise thing we did was buy in Tremé before Tremé was hot,” Elie said. They purchased the homes for sums ranging from $65,000 to $140,000. “You can’t find those opportunities in Tremé anymore.”
The first renovation that Elie tackled was the 1830s double cottage on Henriette de Lille in which his father now lives. Although the building had won a restoration award about 20 years before, it was time to renovate again.
“The main cottage was divided into four units and now there are three. I worked with contractor Jack Stewart and got to follow him throughout the whole process,” Elie said. “I found out that a place might look decent, but given the ravages of time and termites, you don’t know what needs to be done until you look behind the sheetrock. Even then, you miss things until that first hard rain.”
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Elie said, his house on Treme Street looked like it was in good shape, having no obvious wind damage.
“It didn’t rain for months after the storm, but when it finally did, there was water pouring through my AC vents by the bucketful,” he said. So much for appearances.
In the course of renovating, Elie said, he spent a good bit of time thinking about his historic houses in the context of New Orleans history.
“Our architecture is crucial to our culture and identity. We should have figured out by now how to help people renovate their houses before they get into bad shape. I can imagine nothing more crucial for city government to invest in than in renovating (rather than demolishing) houses,” he said. “If (the houses) create the atmosphere for crime to take place, then the solution is not to demolish them but to renovate them.”
Those concerns made national headlines in 2011 when the city demolished a row of five blighted houses that had been used as a cover photo for the Tremé Season 1 DVD.
A litany of familiar issues has plagued the renovations that Elie and his father have undertaken. Termites, he said, were “always an issue, especially after you think you have solved the problem.”
Leaks can be tricky to fix, he said, as is the case with one window that has defied all solutions.
Then there were problems with “guys who don’t show up, or do half the work and don’t show up, or do 99 percent of the work and don’t show up because they have moved on to another project that pays more.”
What Elie said the experience taught him is that renovation ends up costing the renovator both time or money that wasn’t anticipated.
“We all know for certain that you will not win. A contractor will either take three times as long (as expected) and cost twice as much, or take twice as long and cost three times as much,” said Elie. “But it is possible to do it without going bankrupt and you have lots of people to commiserate with, a kind of community.”
The serial renovator, however, has no plans of undertaking a new project any time soon.
“Not until I win the lottery,” he joked. But there is still plenty of work to do on his Tremé houses. “Everything I did 20 years ago needs to be redone, so, according to latest projections, I should finish by 2093.”