Maybe you are a connoisseur of historic architecture, or an avid student of interior design. Perhaps you prefer history to fiction and local history to all other. Or perchance you admire gardens and those who create them. If any of these applies to you, the new book “Longue Vue House and Gardens” by Charles Davey and Carol McMichael Reese will leave you, as it did me, spellbound.
Longue Vue celebrates the release of its biography on Nov. 4, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. with a panel discussion, exhibit premiere and book signing. More than two hundred pages of text, architectural drawings, garden plans, color images and vintage black and white photos fill the tome from cover to cover, painting a vivid portrait of Edgar and Edith Stern and the evolution of their home and gardens.
Panelists at the book launch include Tina Freeman, the local photographer whose color images capture the heart stopping beauty of the place; book co-author Reese, who writes eloquently about the Stern family’s legacy of civic engagement; and Walter Stern, whose brief biography of the couple and their families of origin provides context.
Despite the fact that I am a lifelong New Orleanian who has visited Longue Vue on dozens of occasions, I realized the minute I opened the book just how little I knew about the estate. Situated on 8 acres just off of the high ground of Metairie Ridge, the Stern home was originally accessed via Garden Lane, instead of the current entry point of Bamboo Road. At the time, the Sterns’ was a 1923 Colonial Revival house designed by architect Moise Goldstein. As the gardens developed around the home — led by landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman — the Sterns realized that the seamless integration of house and gardens that they desired required a different house altogether. So “Longue Vue I,” as it is called in the book, was moved to Garden Lane, and architects William and Geoffrey Platt were engaged to design the Sterns’ new home in concert with Shipman’s garden scheme.
The Platts drew heavily on classical architecture for their design of “Longue Vue II,” especially the country houses of Andrea Palladio in Italy. Inspiration for the home’s south-facing portico and double curved staircases came from the Beauregard-Keyes house on Chartres Street in the Vieux Carré. I discovered in the text that although the house bears little resemblance to English country homes on the exterior, its interior — especially the floor plan — has been influenced by them.
In the foreword, biographer Walter Isaacson notes, “To truly understand a beautiful home, it helps to know who created it. To truly appreciate inspiring leaders, it helps to visit where they lived.”
Reading about Edgar and Edith Stern in the context of the city they loved and the home and garden they created gave me a deep appreciation for their civic engagement and philanthropy. Edgar Stern was awarded The Times-Picayune Loving Cup in 1930, largely for his work in expanding and improving Flint-Goodridge Hospital “where black physicians could gain postgraduate training in the New Orleans region for the first time,” and in helping to create Dillard University by serving on the biracial board that merged Straight College and the New Orleans University, Dillard’s predecessors.
Both initiatives were undertaken in concert with the Rosenwald Fund, established by Julius Rosenwald (Edith Stern’s father) to educate rural black Southerners.
When the Sterns moved into their new home in 1942 (named for the Hudson River inn where they were engaged), there was already a sizable allée of oaks on the west side, made possible by installing 20-year-old live oaks rather than immature specimens. One of my favorite images in the book is a 1941 black and white photo of workmen standing in a planting trough next to the massive root ball of a mature oak about to be planted.
Edgar Stern died in 1959, but Edith continued developing and tweaking Longue Vue for almost two more decades.
As her collection of modern art grew, she engaged William Platt to design a way of enclosing the east-facing portico so she would have a suitable place to display works by Pablo Picasso, Jean Arp and other artists.
The 1960s-era enclosure of the previously open porch was handled in such a way as to preserve the illusion of freestanding columns, inspired by those of Shadows-on-the-Teche in New Iberia.
According to the new book, the Sterns had always intended for their home and gardens to become public and to serve an educational purpose. When Edith Stern won the Loving Cup in 1964, it was due in large part to her commitment to education, specifically for her role in founding Metairie Park Country Day School and Newcomb Nursery. In 1965, she established the Longue Vue Foundation and, in 1968, opened the gardens to the public on a limited basis.
When she died in 1980, her home became a house museum. Stern bequeathed much of her art collection to the New Orleans Museum of Art and provided an endowment so that her home and gardens could be maintained and kept open by the nonprofit foundation.
Longue Vue was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991 and named a National Historic Landmark in April 2005, a few months before its gardens were gravely damaged by flooding associated with Hurricane Katrina. If there is anything at all missing in this immensely successful story of the estate’s creation and its creators, it would be a brief acknowledgment of the resurrection of the gardens following the devastating storm.