Al Arnold sits on the sofa in the front room of his Mid-City shotgun, playing a wooden flute. Ethereal notes float forth, as if from primordial forest sprung to life.
Joan Arnold, Al’s wife of 46 years, stands nearby, listening intently as her husband coaxes a melody out of the woodwind he made by hand. With Al’s collection of woodwinds on one wall and Joan’s handpainted pottery on display nearby, the room expresses the exuberant personalities of the couple and sets the standard for the rest of the house.
Al and Joan moved to Mid-City in December 2005 after the levee failures in the wake of Hurricane Katrina caused their family home in New Orleans East to be inundated with almost 9 feet of water.
“We decided we wanted to be in the middle of everything,” said Joan, “so we drew a circle around the part of Mid-City we were interested in and only looked at houses in that circle. Would you believe this house ended up being right in the middle?”
They opted for a richly detailed Neoclassical Revival single with a full complement of architectural features, from stained glass windows and transoms to round porch columns to a distinctive dormer. It wasn’t the first house their daughter-in-law, a real estate agent, showed them, but it was the first that inspired them to make an offer on the spot.
“I looked in the front window and said, ‘Man, there’s nothing wrong with this house,” Al said. “There had been only about 4 or 5 inches of water inside and because the sheetrock didn’t run all the way to the floor behind the baseboards, there was no mold.”
Joan was drawn by something else entirely.
“I looked in and saw pocket doors,” she said. Before the “For Sale” sign was firmly in the ground, the couple made an offer, and it was accepted.
The house is just 12 feet wide, but at 101 feet deep, it accommodates a living room, dining room, bath, kitchen, bedroom and, most important to the Arnolds, an art studio.
“Al and I are both artists,” Joan explained. “I make pottery and Al does the fine art. We spend a lot of time in that back room together, working on our individual projects.”
They have plenty to show for their efforts. A skilled painter, Al also carves woodwind instruments and birds, both of which relate to his Cherokee and Choctaw heritage. Additionally, he crafts models (“I’m working on one now of a motorcycle because Joan won’t let me buy a real one,” he said). Joan’s painted pottery pieces enliven every room, whether in the form of the sassy owl on the dining room mantel or the fish and striped lighthouse in the kitchen.
“I always forget to show off the bathroom, but there’s art in there, too,” Joan said. The open door reveals a collaborative project: A mural of a tree painted by Al with colorfully painted pottery birds crafted by Joan perched on its limbs.
“The only problem with that mural is that Joan wouldn’t let me paint Woody Woodpecker on top,” Al teased.
The couple’s good-natured banter has history that began when they met in third grade at St. Dominic School in Lakeview.
“But it wasn’t until Al became an altar boy in fifth grade that I had my eyes on him,” Joan said. “He was good looking. I thought he was a catch.”
They lost touch until both decided to return to school at the University of New Orleans when they were in their early twenties.
“I would run into Joan heading to class as I was leaving,” Al said. “I’d say ‘Let’s go sit in the car and visit a little.’”
Joan laughed, “We’d fog up the windows while the UNO band practiced in the parking lot.”
The Arnolds married within a year of rediscovering one another and built their home in New Orleans East three years later. That’s where they raised their sons Erik (owner of Erik Arnold Landscaping) and James (senior curator at the Aquarium of the Americas). Now in their 40s, their sons have families of their own and live nearby.
“We’re right in the middle of them,” said Al. “Erik lives in Carrollton and James lives near the race track. We have five grandsons and they’re all pistols.”
Over the decades, Al and Joan have traveled together often, cruising the Caribbean and Europe. They have amassed collections of favorite items from their trips, including the grouping of hats on the living room wall and the display of masks in the dining room. Their affection for all things tropical led them to paint the exterior of their house turquoise, mango, and dark salmon a few years ago and now the prospect of traveling to Cuba has Al at the ready for a new adventure.
“Man, I can’t wait to go,” Al said, “I want to hear the music, I want to see the art, I want to talk to the people.”
If talking to people were considered a sport, Al would be a gold medalist. From his seat on the front porch next to Joan in the afternoons, Al calls out greetings to passers-by.
“Those books treatin’ you alright?” he might ask a neighbor who works in a library. “How you makin’ it today?” he might ask another. A self-confessed “porch person,” Joan enjoys the afternoon ritual as much as her spouse.
“I always tell people, ‘We bought more than a house. We bought a neighborhood,’” she said. “We’re part of everything here. And we love our house. It’s ‘us.’”