Beautiful houses, like beautiful faces, often begin with good bones. Whether imbued with a noble strength or marked by a quiet serenity, a house's architectural framework has the power not only to capture our attention in an instant, but also to hold it for a lifetime, or, as in the case of Sean and Fifi Laughlin's 138-year-old home, for many lifetimes. Over the course of more than a century, the Italianate gem had been carved into apartments and fallen into serious disrepair. But beneath its layers of crumbling paint; sagging, awkward additions; and rows of rotten balustrade was the timeless appeal of lovely bones and the inherent promise of renewal.
Developers for the past eight years, Stephanie Bruno, director of the Preservation Resource Center's Operation Comeback, and her husband, environmental engineer Gerry Vetter, were the first to adopt the challenge of saving the historic house. Together, they purchased the property in 2000 as an investment and in 2003 began the labor-intensive job of resurrecting it from its state of decay.
"It was in sad, sad shape," says Vetter. "But we noticed that the house had great bones. You had to be around buildings a bit to appreciate how it was put together; the basic scale, such an attractive facade, the entryway with the octagonal bay, the arches, the layout of the main rooms and the flow of the building."
To bring the house into the new millennium while preserving its proud 19th century character, Bruno and Vetter hired architect Robbie Cangelosi, a restoration expert with Koch And Wilson Architects. Using insurance maps dating from the mid-19th century and studying the house itself, the team determined the original footprint of the house and tried to honor it as much as possible when designing the renovation.
BUILT IN 1868, THE TWO-STORY HOUSE initially consisted of its central portion, which bears three bays across the front, and was purchased in 1869 by George Ellis, a prosperous book and stationery merchant, who added on to the house in subsequent years as his family and his crew of Irish immigrant servants grew.
The side entry bay and the dining room, which flank the midsection, are believed to have been added within the first 10 years after the house's construction. Some 800 square feet of what Vetter refers to as "unsympathetic additions," added in the mid-20th century, were removed during the renovation, and some of the rooms were reapportioned to better accommodate modern family life.
Downstairs are an entrance foyer, living room, dining room, kitchen, powder room and family room. Upstairs are the boys' bedrooms and baths, a playroom, master bedroom and bath, laundry room and Fifi's office.
Throughout both the interior and exterior, architectural details, such as massive 10-foot doors ornamented with leafy rosettes, grand side-hall arches featuring handsome leonine carvings, and hundreds of balusters framing the upper and lower galleries, were carefully restored. Because of the considerable expense involved in replacing things like plaster work, Bruno and Vetter were spurred to find creative solutions. Instead of using plaster to restore the original crown moldings, they opted instead to have a San Diego, Calif.-based company produce matching moldings using Styrofoam coated with an epoxy finish.
"We made a design decision early on that the downstairs would be grander than the upstairs," says Vetter, explaining that the same was true of the house at the time it was built.
HALFWAY THOUGH THE RENOVATION, Bruno and Vetter began fielding inquiries from prospective buyers — among them Sean and Fifi Laughlin, who were raising their two young sons, Seanie, 12, and Peter, 3, and lovable black lab, Lulu, just a few blocks away.
"I drove by and saw the contractor's sign and called right away," says Fifi, who'd been looking for a larger Garden District house for three years. "They put us on a list, but after meeting Stephanie, I think she knew I'd love the house the way she loved it."
"Fifi came home and said 'I found our house,'" adds Sean. "So I went over there and she showed it to me. I didn't have the vision, but she did, and it certainly turned out for the best. Between [Gerry, Stephanie and Fifi], it came out great."
Because the renovation was incomplete when the Laughlins stepped in, they gained the advantage of being able to add their mark to the project. Fifi upgraded the basic plans for the kitchen, designing double-hung cabinets and an island with square pilasters and a footrest. She selected the honed granite used for the countertops, the large gas stove, and the Benjamin Moore "Navajo White" wall color, a favorite she's used time and again. On the second floor, she picked out white, marble tile used for the floor and walls in the master bath and designed a wall of built-in shelves for the office, where she works. As one of the former owners of The Mario Villa Gallery in Chicago and a designer of her own line of handmade, glass lighting fixtures, she also gave the house an airy, contemporary sensibility that still manages to appreciate and even highlight its age.
"I just wanted the house to be happy, " says Fifi, who embraces the treads that countless hands have worn into the banister and the gentle slope that countless years have worn into the floors. "I'm not a foofy girl. I just work with what I've been lucky enough to have. I keep it simple because I do change the paintings and the lamps. I get a whole new look every time I bring in new art."
The frequent rotation of paintings and lamps are key to the designer's look. Among the artists that she regularly shows are her father, Tony Benjamin, George Marks and Meredith Pardue, all of Louisiana. But equally important to her aesthetic is the mix of soft, neutral background colors, sea grass rugs, slipcovers, clean-lined antiques, many handed down by her family, and classically inspired furnishings by her friend Mario Villa that she uses in the house. In each of the rooms, chairs, tables, lamps and other furnishings share a delicacy of proportion that counterbalances the grand scale of the house, keeping it livable and in line with the needs of a busy, growing family.
"I don't like it when things look too studied," says Fifi. "I love well-made things like beautiful curtains and I like detail, but I prefer things to be casual." The approach, favorably reviewed by family and friends, also has met with the approval of the renovators, who first treated the Laughlin's home to a dose of much needed TLC.
"Fifi has taken the house where it needed to go after the renovation," says Bruno. "It was just a house when we finished it. She personalized it and took it to the next step."