“Find a house for Vivian, find a house for Vivian."
That’s what realtor Dan Baird was chanting when he and Vivian Bart Cahn were driving the streets of Faubourg St. John on a house hunting expedition nearly 40 years ago.
“He was gripping the wheel and squinting his eyes and when he opened them, here we were, in front of our house on DeSoto Street. There was a dingy "for sale" sign, and weeds grew everywhere. Instead of a railing on the porch, there were chains and there'd been a fire in the back. Oh, and it was orange and black,” Cahn recalled. “It was just perfect.”
A hidden, centuries-old well. A self-playing organ. A virtual-reality elevator ride. An interactive map of the French Quarter.
“Just perfect” at the time meant suitably challenging for a 20-something couple, madly in love, who had just returned from 12 months backpacking through South America. For the first years that Cahn and her husband, Richard (of Dixie Mill Supply) lived on DeSoto street, they more or less camped out in one room with their dog, Zap.
The Eastlake centerhall house is in perfect condition today (“Well, there are few charred timbers in the attic,” Cahn allowed), yet reflects the fierce independence of its owners and their deeply ingrained artistic spirit. Cahn, a home designer, crafts peaceful and calm interiors for her clients and spends hours every week at work in the extensive gardens surrounding her Fair Grounds area home. Her late father-in-law, Jules Cahn, was a renowned photographer who chronicled New Orleans’ jazz culture.
On Friday, the DeSoto Street home will come alive with more than 100 festgoers whose first stop of the day will be at the Cahns’ house for its traditional pre-fest bloody mary party, now a decades-old affair.
“We look forward every year to the fest and the Friday morning parties. People come here first, then go to the Fair Grounds … or to work,” said Cahn. “And I go every day of the festival. It's literally right around the corner.”
If designer Tanga Winstead has a singular talent, it’s problem-solving.
What began as a porch party now fills front and rear porches, the home’s interior and the rear yard, where plantings are as important as the furnishings and art inside.
The lot measures 125 feet wide and, in some places, as much as 200 feet deep. The Cahns have planted citrus, plums, figs and other fruit trees along one side of the lot and sprinkled throughout, and established an herb and cutting garden in the rear. The large oak that shades the space was planted by the Cahns almost 40 years ago. Crape myrtles — some originals, others their “babies” that Cahn has transplanted over the years — are plentiful.
“We set out to make a country house in the city,” said Cahn. “It’s a refuge.”
The fanciful exterior, with its turn-of-the-20th century millwork, hints at the intriguing interior that guests encounter after stepping through the front door. The house has a center hall plan: bedrooms and Vivian Cahn’s office are on the left, double parlors and Richard Cahn’s office on the right. The central hallway, complete with its original fretwork arch, leads to a dining area and kitchen on the right, and an octagonal sunroom on the left. Filled with dozens of blooming orchids, the glassed-in sunroom helps connect the home’s interior with the lush greenery of its grounds.
The couple and their family have traveled the world and collected as they went. There are Santos from South America on the counter of a cypress hutch in the kitchen, pre-Colombian artifacts and ancient objects from Oceania in the sunroom. There are dozens of artworks by Louisiana artists.
On DeSoto Street, color is as significant as furniture placement in attracting and retaining energy, a key principle of feng shui, the discipline that Cahn applies to her design projects. Cahn used lavender on the walls of her husband’s office, a warm tangerine in the sunroom, and an indescribable color that approximates watermelon in the dining area and kitchen. The walls of the double parlors in the front of the house are a calm, buttery shade.
What does St. Joseph, Louisiana, have that New Orleans doesn’t?
“It isn't paint,” said Cahn. “The walls are waxed — many layers — so that light penetrates and reflects and flows through. I like it because it brings the walls' depth.”
In the front parlor, antiques mingle with contemporary furniture and classics, such as a demi-lune table by Mario Villa. Perched atop it, a sculpture of a young boy’s head commands attention.
“It’s by Enrique Alferez of Richie when he was a little boy, about 6 years old," Cahn said. "There's a photo in Richie’s office that Jules (Cahn) took while Enrique was working on it.”
The Cahns were close enough friends with Alferez that his last sculpture stands in their garden. The shimmering alabaster maiden rises from a field of dark green aspidistra at the foot of the Cahns’ oak tree.
“Enrique had intended her to stand by the pool, but I had planned to plant a fruit tree there. When I told him, he said, ‘Of course, Vivian. A tree is so much more important.’ And he meant it.”