It took more than a decade of public activism to convince the city to auction off the property known as “the Doll House” (formally, the “La Rionda-Correjolles House”) abutting Cabrini Park in the French Quarter. But Jon Kemp and her husband, John Reed, were ready when the time finally came.
“We’d had our eyes on it for years — everyone in the Quarter did,” said Reed. “The place was in shambles, and there were squatters living in the slave quarters. It was awful, especially considering the history of the place and the fact that it is one of the oldest houses in the Quarter.”
Tomorrow afternoon, the Spring Fiesta Association makes it possible to see firsthand what Kemp and Reed have accomplished in the eight years they’ve spent restoring 1220 Burgundy St. It joins four additional homes in the back of the Quarter featured by the association on its French Quarter Home Tour.
The La Rionda-Correjolles House was built in 1810 for Jose Antonio La Rionda and was later owned by Francois Correjolles, who built the Beauregard-Keyes House in 1826. In 1887, Medard H. Nelson, a free person of color, purchased it and operated a “negro day and night school” on-site until his death in 1933. In 1939, Nelson’s heirs sold the property to the city of New Orleans for use by the New Orleans Recreation Department. It earned its lasting nickname, thanks to a doll museum NORD housed on site. The property was restored that year by the Work Projects Administration, at the same time that the WPA demolished half a square of historic buildings adjacent to it to create Cabrini Park.
After the oil crash of the 1980s, cash-strapped NORD lacked funds to operate a program at the property and it fell into disrepair, inspiring neighborhood residents to lobby for its sale and restoration. Kemp and Reed were the only bidders when, at last, it was auctioned in 2006 with a starting bid of $500,000.
The property consists of a masonry Creole cottage facing Burgundy, a front courtyard, a two-story kitchen building (likely slave quarters, according to Kemp), and a second courtyard behind the service building. In all, the lot stretches 190 feet deep, almost two-thirds of the way from Burgundy to Dauphine streets, and is surrounded by masonry walls. When Kemp and Reed finally took title in 2007, a significant portion of the wall between Cabrini Playground and the property had collapsed, “the Doll House” cottage was boarded, and the balcony and railing had detached from the two story outbuilding.
“We were renting an apartment at the Spanish Stables on Gov. Nicholls, so we had a place to live,” Kemp said. “We focused on cleaning out the place and then on getting the cottage ready. We rewired, re-plumbed, and added HVAC, but left the layout alone. We threw a Thanksgiving dinner in 2008 for about 40 people and spent the night for the first time. We never went back to our apartment except to gather things to bring over to the house.”
The home exhibits a classic Creole cottage floor plan: Four equal size rooms on the ground level, plus two “cabinets” (small rooms at the rear) and a loggia (or covered outdoor space) in between. Rooms on the left side of the cottage are connected by pocket doors and serve as a double parlor. On the right, a bedroom occupies the room that once served as the doll museum, followed by the kitchen. The cabinet on the left now houses stairs to the attic storage space; the cabinet on the right is a bath with pedestal tub. The loggia is furnished with a table and chairs for having a coffee overlooking the front courtyard, with its lush tropical plantings and old roses tumbling over the masonry walls, or for reading and writing, common pursuits in this household shared by a journalist (Kemp) and a lawyer (Reed).
When Kemp and Reed were hauling out an untold number of trash bags from the courtyard, they discovered brickwork for a partérre garden that neither knew existed. They installed a fountain at the center of the circle from which the planting beds radiate, and have added annuals, perennials and herbs to the beds.
After the couple completed repairs to the outbuilding, they moved the stairs inside and added a bath next to the upstairs room where their bedroom is located. French doors across the front wall afford access to the balcony.
Downstairs, Reed keeps his home office, and, in the one-story addition at the rear, Kemp has her office and art studio, where the sink’s faucets bear vestiges of red paint from the time that NORD offered children’s arts and crafts classes here. Behind the two-story building is the private courtyard complete with a lap pool and vegetable garden.
Reasonable weather about half the year makes it possible for Reed and Kemp to keep their French doors and casement windows open. Brick floors in the cottage and outbuilding flow seamlessly into the brick paving of the courtyards, blurring the distinction between inside and outside.
“We call our decorating style ‘early attic’ because everything in it came either from my family or John’s, or else he or I found it on the street or we carted it back from trips to Mexico,” Kemp said.
Every room of the cottage and slave quarters has dozens of intriguing items, each of which has a story. The rug in the kitchen? Thrown out on the curb and rescued by Kemp. The tall cupboards? Discovered at an architectural salvage place and installed in lieu of traditional kitchen cabinets. The pink marble floor in the cottage bath came from a demolished St. Charles Avenue mansion, an Eastlake bed and armoire in the cottage bedroom belonged to Kemp when she was a young girl. Lanterns leftover from the restoration hang on the wall of the loggia, each having a different provenance. The connection with nature, even in the heart of the city, is profound.
“We’ll just sit at the table in the loggia or on the balcony off our bedroom and listen to the birds and look at the roses coming over the walls,” Kemp said. “We have everything we want, right here.”
Well, almost everything. Reed and Kemp have researched Medard Nelson and are pushing to have “Nelson” added to the home’s official identifier in recognition of his landmark contributions to the history of education in New Orleans.
“Nelson operated what his ads called a negro school, but the students also included white children, making it the first mixed school,” Reed said. “The curriculum included all of the classics. Danny Barker even went to school here and today a charter school on St. Bernard Avenue is named in Nelson’s honor. His name should be on this house, too.
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about homes and gardens. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.