When Cathy and Mark McRae started their house hunt in New Orleans in 2011, they had no intention of buying a huge home.
“But this house just screamed at us,” Mark McRae said. “Its architecture, its history, its location, its grounds — everything. When it came down to this house or one near Audubon Park, we asked ourselves: What kind of people are we? Uptown or Mid-City? Mid-City won.”
The raised Greek Revival centerhall house the couple chose was built in about 1850 and faces Bayou St. John. Its wide, deep porch provides a shady spot from which to observe the many activities that take place on the bayou.
The McRaes, who moved to New Orleans in 1996, bought the house and began restoring it while Cathy McRae, a Shell geologist, was still stationed in Brunei and awaiting her reassignment to the New Orleans office.
“We had lived here before Cathy took the post in Brunei, and we had decided that New Orleans was where we wanted to retire,” said McRae, a retired Shell geophysicist. “Still, we didn’t plan on owning a house with more than 5,000 square feet of living space.”
The historic home, a city landmark called the Morel-Wisner house, is raised about 8 feet off the ground on brick piers. Part of the ground level — the “rez-de-chaussée” as it would have been called — is devoted to McRae’s workshop, where he makes cabinets and furniture from salvaged wood. Another portion is finished as a “mother-in-law” suite, favored by the couple’s two grown children when they visit.
The main living area above contains the master suite and an office on one side of the broad central hallway and a living room and dining room on the opposite side. The family room and kitchen stretch across the rear of the house. In one corner of the family room, a stair leads up to the third level, having two bedrooms and baths under the roof pitch.
Original ceiling medallions serve as reminders of the home’s august past. Built by lawyer, notary, and swordsman Christoval Morel after he purchased the land in 1847, it was the family home where he and his wife, the former Eulalie d’Hebecourt, raised their children.
It was also the site of the Bayou St. John Fencing Club that Morel founded in 1882. Both Morel’s club and the Orleans Fencing Club (founded by Gilbert Rosiere prior to 1872) catered to the elite of Creole society.
Other uses followed, including a rowing club, a dance school, and in the early decades of the 20th century, a film studio.
A longtime resident was Dr. Elizabeth Wisner, daughter of philanthropist Edward Wisner and the woman for whom Tulane University’s School of Social Work is named. Wisner lived in the house from 1935 until her death in 1976.
In the intervening years, she revolutionized the field of social work in the south and continued her activism after her retirement with the League of Women Voters and as a force in the early years of the historic preservation movement.
Remarkably, none of the many uses required unsympathetic changes to the building.
“That’s one of the factors that made it so appealing to us,” McRae said. “Although the front porch and columns were in bad condition when we bought it and had to be rebuilt, the major elements of the house were intact.”
Those include heart-pine floors, tall baseboards, original doors and transoms, the partial glass front door assembly with sidelights and transoms, the high ceilings, original windows and myriad additional features.
“We worked with a great contractor, Doug Matthews of Concordia LLC, who took out all of the wood windows and refurbished them,” McRae said. The couple also added built-ins — made by Ian Dryer of Nano LLC, whose wife Terri helped with interior design — and a wine bar to the family room.
McRae takes pride in the fact that any lumber that was removed while making repairs and installing new baths has made its way back into the house, either as bookcases or pieces of furniture.
The McRaes also redesigned the surrounding landscape with the help of Vista Landscaping’s Nick Sintz.
“We took down the wrought iron fence that surrounded the place and installed the white pickets in its place — they’re more compatible with the house and the era,” said McRae, who noted that the pickets are hewn from a log of sinker cypress. Traditional plant choices in the garden include hollies, Little Gem magnolias, azaleas and a couple of varieties of Camellia sasanqua, with room for annuals. A raised bed in the rear serves as a kitchen garden where the couple grows herbs and the occasional pepper or tomato.
Work on the house took nearly two years, but McRae says it was well worth it.
“The color of the culture in New Orleans is irresistible,” he said. “We lived in Houston for 16 years, and the culture was largely beige. Here, it’s the food, the music, the architecture, the lifestyle and the people that give the culture its color. You can chat up anyone here.”
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about homes and gardens. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.