Little had changed inside the side-hall, Queen Ann cottage when it went on the market in 2003 for the first time in many years. Built in 1895 and located on a tony Uptown corner, the never-renovated house offered a glimpse into the past with its huge attic cistern and its original 1930s toilet. Enter contractor Willem Sypesteyn, an inveterate renovator with an artistic sensibility, a strong sense of place and a hands-on, one-house-at-a-time approach to his business.
"What I loved about the house was its architectural detail, but I did think the arrangement was awkward," says Sypesteyn, who began his renovation career in the late 1970s and then became a successful restaurateur before returning to his passion for renewing houses.
Outside, the cottage featured a wrought iron-surrounded porch with a small Moorish arch over the entrance bay and a wider, exaggerated arch above the bay to its right. Inside, the rooms were laid out in shotgun fashion, one behind the other.
With a deliberate eye toward preserving the architectural detail of the house, Sypesteyn dismantled the millwork for reuse in a different pattern that also would incorporate newly milled matching pieces, then stripped the structure down to its few salvageable remains -- about a dozen studs from one side of the house and some of the flooring. Inside one of the interior walls, he found an 1895 newspaper clipping of a poem that proved apropos not only to his role in rejuvenating the house but also to the future owner's love of art. "[The poem] talks about the creative process, how wonderful art is and what a really important part of art the heart behind it is," says Sypesteyn.
In order to retain the 19th century feel of the original house, Sypesteyn designed the new space to follow roughly the same L-shape footprint. But he doubled the square footage by adding a second story, and improved the flow of the house by moving the entrance to the side, now accessed by a roomy porch with shaded, off-street privacy, and by opening up the traditional double parlor into one large living area. The first floor includes the living area, a powder room, dining room, kitchen and master bedroom suite. The second floor has two bedrooms, two baths, an office, laundry facilities and a sitting room at the top of the stairs.
Sypesteyn updated the interior with rich, ebony-stained floors (flooring from the rear of the house was saved and used to patch areas in the living and dining areas), lean track lighting, state-of-the-art plumbing fixtures and appliances, and unusual architectural treatments such as his signature hanging wall (suspended on hooks, it serves as a partial divider between foyer and living room), and a glass stair rail, both of which allow visibility and add to the feeling of openness.
In the kitchen he combined streamlined maple cabinets with stainless-steel hardware, marble countertops veined with tones of tan, gray, and almond, and cool travertine floors. In the master bath, he used another of his trademark touches, transforming a freestanding antique into a piece of built-in cabinetry for the sink, a treatment the homeowner and her interior designer repeated in the powder room.
Toward the end of 2004, as the house was nearing completion, a transplanted native who had moved to the Pensacola, Fla., area in the mid-1980s, decided to buy a house in New Orleans and presented her real estate agent, Britt Galloway, with a strict set of criteria. She wanted a house in a prime Uptown neighborhood near Audubon Park that had three bedrooms and three baths (to accommodate her three grown children and guests), was move-in ready and required little garden maintenance. After viewing 17 houses in a single day, she and Galloway went to see the house Sypesteyn was renovating -- although another buyer already had first right of refusal -- and she knew instantly that she'd found what she was looking for. The next day, she took her sister to see the house, where she unexpectedly ran into Sypesteyn, and quickly had her agent put in an offer. On the last day of the deadline, she received a call that the house was hers, and a successful collaboration between the homeowner, interior designer Nancy Greenfield and Sypesteyn was born.
"Willem was as interested in the decorating end of it and in the finished product as Nancy was," the owner says of Sypesteyn. "The three of us worked together wonderfully." In fact, both the New Orleans house and the house that the owner renovated in Pensacola are included in Spectacular Homes of Florida, a book scheduled for release this summer.
"Having Nancy do the house in New Orleans was the best decision I made," adds Greenfield's energetic client, who splits her time between her two homes, and who, together with Greenfield, shopped for antiques in Atlanta and New Orleans. "It made doing two houses at the same time easy. [Nancy] knew the Florida house upside down and we were able to see where each piece would work. The colors are very different, and what worked in one absolutely did not work in the other."
"I've worked for [this client] for a long time," adds Greenfield. "I know what she likes, and because we were working on both houses simultaneously, we were able to do it really quickly." Even before becoming involved with the New Orleans house, Greenfield's experience had proved invaluable to the homeowner, with whom she'd already worked on several houses. When hurricane Ivan washed the contents of the first floor of the Florida house into its swimming pool and nearby wetlands, Greenfield introduced her client to a top-flight restorer, who was able to save most of the antiques.
Like Sypesteyn, Greenfield often uses antiques as architectural accents, a style that melded well with her client's taste for French antiques. The vanity in the master bath is made from a commode Sypesteyn found in New Orleans, while the sink in the powder room is made from a French lavabo Greenfield and the homeowner found through one of their favorite dealers in Atlanta. Underneath the stairs, at the far end of the foyer, an antique iron gate serves as a door to a small area used for wine storage. And like her client, Greenfield prefers to mix old and new. Eighteenth and 19th century pieces, walls with the aged patina of Venetian plaster and antique Oushaks contrast with contemporary furnishings, lighting and art. Abstract paintings feature prominently in the Uptown cottage, and one of the owner's favorite artists is Willem's sister, Adele Sypesteyn.
"I feel extremely lucky with the house because when you do what I do, you never know who's going to buy the house and what their taste is going to be," says Willem Sypesteyn. "[This homeowner] has a great appreciation for art and aesthetics and a great design sense. The things she's acquired and put in the house are a wonderful compliment to it."
The book Spectacular Homes of Florida, featuring photographs by Pensacola photographer J.D. Hayward of J.D. Hayward Photography, is scheduled for publication later this year.