Sunlight came streaming through the windows of the 1805 Creole cottage on Toulouse Street, as Joe and Stephanie Bruno described the experience of renovating and furnishing their French Quarter retreat. One of three historic buildings on the same lot, the cottage has been lovingly dubbed “The Jewel Box” by the Brunos, a nod to its exquisite furnishings and abundant natural light. Come this weekend, it will be the family’s base of operations for Carnival festivities.
“When we bought the property in 2010, it was with the idea that it would be fun for our family to have a French Quarter getaway to use when we wanted to,” said Joe, a well-known lawyer and grandson of the eminent cabinetmaker by the same name.
“We decided to stay in town for Mardi Gras this year and so we’ll move in for one night this weekend and probably two next weekend,” said Stephanie, also a lawyer (and of no relation to this article’s author). “French Quarter Festival is another time of year that we traditionally spend down here with family and friends.”
The couple’s primary residence is the much-photographed Gothic Revival house at Freret Street and South Carrollton Avenue, where they live with their twin sons Blake and Chase, age 13. Although it takes planning and effort to pack everything up and decamp from Carrollton to the Vieux Carré for a few days, the experience makes it worth it.
“The last time we spent the weekend, we took the boys out to dinner and had their palms read,” Stephanie said. “The next morning, there was a magician on the street that totally engrossed them. It’s a great experience for the boys and their friends.”
In addition to the Creole cottage, an 1815-era shotgun next to it offers a second spot for unwinding from festivities and partaking in party fare. A handsomely landscaped courtyard designed by René Fransen affords ample space for guests to visit and mingle. And with the ground floor of the rear service building — or “back house” — open to guests, no one will want for comfort.
The Brunos worked with architect Peter Trapolin on the project, which garnered a certificate of honor from the Vieux Carré Commission in 2012. Although the Creole cottage was sound, the shotgun required extensive structural work because of a termite infestation. Still, once Joe saw the mortise and tenon construction of its roof, he was determined to save it and put it on display.
“I have always loved renovating historic buildings,” he said. “I think the fact that my grandfather was a cabinetmaker gave me an appreciation of finely crafted, handmade things. My father took me all over Europe with him when I was a child and showed me every church. I think when you have that kind of experience, you absorb it.”
Form and function
Many pieces of furniture in the cottage and other buildings were made by Joe’s dad, including a Chippendale mirror in the back house and a stately bureau in the bedroom of the cottage.
“Most of the furniture in the cottage belonged to the previous owner and we bought it from them when we bought the property,’ said Stephanie. “I worked with Lynne Uhalt to choose fabrics to re-cover the furniture so that it wasn’t so dark and to pick fabric for window treatments that would brighten the space.”
The result is a stunning double room along Toulouse that strikes an ideal balance between the gleaming wood of the antique furniture and pale hues of the wall color and fabrics. Stephanie and Lynne banished the room’s original dark red draperies and replaced the embroidered linen panels that filter — but don’t block — the sunlight. The walls of the room now glow a creamy color, offset by blue-green trim that extends to the exposed ceiling joists. Blue piping on a pair of Ikat-patterned arm chairs subtly repeats the scheme. Fabrics covering pillows on the antique day bed and sofa can mix and match with other upholstery, curtains, and pillows throughout the cottage.
The updates enhance the appeal of the cottage’s fine antiques, including the early Louisiana armoire in the parlors, the tester bed in the bedroom (where fabric is gathered into a tight rosette in the tester), and the gilt clock on the hand-carved mantel in the dining room.
“I think my favorite items might be the pair of mirrors (between the windows in the parlors),” said Joe. “They are very delicate and I like the way they reflect the light.”
Beauty was not the couple’s only concern when they were renovating and furnishing the place: Comfort and function were at least as important.
“We had to buy a few upholstered chairs for the living rooms so that there would be somewhere comfortable to sit,” laughed Stephanie. “I think the boys may have taken a nap on the day bed once or twice, but no one else can really get comfortable on it.”
Joe values comfort and beauty, too, but also prizes function.
“The kitchen has high-quality ovens, a special narrow dishwasher and refrigerator and freezer drawers, all designed into a space hardly bigger than a closet,” he said. “Another thing we did was work with Raul Mena to install geothermal heating and cooling. It eliminates the need for the outside compressors that cause so many design issues in the French Quarter. It keeps everything the right temperature and it’s energy efficient.”
Whether or not the Brunos’ guests will appreciate the source of the conditioned air that helps them warm up or cool down, they won’t be able to help falling under the spell of the singular environment born of Joe’s passion for historic buildings and Stephanie’s eye for style and comfort.
“Joe and I don’t always agree. He likes old, peeling walls, and I don’t,” said Stephanie. “But we find a middle ground and somehow it all works.”
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about homes and gardens. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.