When Corky Willhite proposed to a tax credit agency that he be allowed to alter the facade of his circa 1827 Creole cottage in the French Quarter, the plan did not go over well.
That’s because Willhite wanted to remove fanciful Victorian cornices from above the door and window and take down the milled brackets. Yet his plan was anything but inauthentic.
“I had found an archival watercolor of the house from 1861 that showed it without all the Victorian ornamentation — no brackets at all. I knew that was how the house looked when it was built in 1827, and that’s what I wanted to take it back to — to truly restore it,” said Willhite.
And he did, thanks in part to the enthusiastic support of the Vieux Carré Commission. Today, the house is a shining example of a neoclassical style, two-bay Creole cottage. Viewed from St. Peter Street, it looks pretty much as it would have when it was owned by French-born architect Joseph Guillot (1827-54), a member of the architectural team of Gurlie and Guillot.
Willhite, whose field is cosmetic dentistry, has owned the house since 2010. But this will be the first Mardi Gras that he will be able to entertain there comfortably with his partner, Erin Boh, head of the dermatology department at Tulane Medical School.
“I had renovated a house uptown before, but it was nothing compared to this. I honestly had no idea what I was getting into or how crazy time-consuming or expensive it would be. But I really wouldn’t change anything about the experience,” he said.
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Call the archaeologist
Willhite said that renovation did not truly begin in earnest until 2015 because of the preparation that was necessary.
“There were pressing structural needs in both the cottage and the dependency. We had to remove the slabs in each,” he said. “But that made it possible for Dr. Ryan Gray, the archaeologist, to come in with his students and conduct a dig.”
There are two buildings separated by a courtyard on Willhite’s lot: the main building (1700 square feet), a finely proportioned one-and-a-half-story Creole cottage that sits at the front property line; and a three-story masonry dependency (700 square feet) that stretches from side to side along the rear property line.
The main cottage contains a living room, dining room, loggia and master suite; the dependency houses the compound’s main kitchen and guest quarters. Both buildings glow in the late winter sunlight, thanks to a warm gold color chosen for the exterior with the guidance of Patrick Dunne of Lucullus, the tony Vieux Carre shop on Chartres Street.
In fact, Willhite credits Dunne with successfully advising in wall color, must-have furniture, art work and more.
“Patrick is a genius at finding the right colors and furniture for places like this,” said Willhite. “Most of the furniture we got from him, but Erin and I have fun going to auctions and consignment shops, where we bought a number of pieces.”
Dinner for 12
French doors from the sidewalk lead directly into the cottage’s living room, where a delicate settee faces the fireplace, its mantel topped by a large gold mirror. To the right of the mantel stands a second empire chest, above which hangs an arresting portrait of a young gentleman.
The parlor flows directly into the dining room, which centers on a round mahogany table beneath a crystal chandelier. Willhite said that when the table’s leaves are installed, it can seat 12 dinner guests comfortably. Cabinetry on the walls opposite the fireplace conceal refrigerator drawers, and what looks like a wet bar is actually the kitchen sink. A tiny cooktop takes up just a small area of a countertop.
“I felt strongly that I wanted the second room to read as a dining room,” said Willhite. “It’s also a kitchen, but Patrick (Dunne) came up with a way of disguising that function in the way he designed the cabinetry.”
The third room downstairs in the cottage is a glassed-in loggia where gold velvet armchairs flank a Chinoiserie commode painted with playful monkeys. Across the room, a sinuous stair winds upward to the master suite.
“I sometimes think that this stair (made by woodworker Heinz Gautschi) is the most beautiful part of the whole project,” said Willhite. “I know for a fact that it was the biggest splurge.”
The loggia is outfitted with French doors — topped with a fan transom — that open out to a brick courtyard that’s underlain with crushed limestone and sand, so that it remains permeable. A fountain on one of the bounding walls adds the sound of trickling water to the outdoor space.
“The fish in the pond made it through the deep freeze a lot better than the plants did,” Willhite noted.
Where's the kitchen?
Straight ahead is the three-story dependency where the main kitchen for the house is situated on the lowest level.
“It’s not everyone’s idea of a workable floor plan to have the main kitchen across the courtyard from the house, but it was traditional 200 years ago, plus we also have the small kitchen in the cottage,” Willhite explained.
Interior walls glow a velvety salmon color, lightly contrasted by light olive trim. The suede-like look of the walls derives from the fact that they are plaster, installed on drywall rather than brick.
“I invited Jeff Poree over here to talk about the possibility of plastering all of the brick walls that were exposed during the structural work,” said Willhite. “Jeff told me that it works well to install instead a floating layer of sheetrock — suspended just a little bit from the surface of the brick — and to apply the plaster on the sheetrock. We left small gaps at the top so that moisture from the brick walls could rise and evaporate.” Craftsman Sylvia Thompson Diaz applied the plaster.
Of all the colorful artwork in the house — the portrait of Erin in the dining room, the work by John Preble in the loggia — Willhite said it’s the portrait of the young gentleman in the living room he might treasure the most.
“I don't know how old it is or who he is, but he reminded me a great deal of the portraits that Julian Hudson painted in New Orleans in the early 1800s — he has the same elongated features,” Willhite said. “When I look at him, I feel as though he was someone who might have lived in a house like this long ago.”