It was 1986, and the house on Tern Street still showcased the sleek furnishings of the previous owners, dating from the 1950s. That was only fair, since the Lake Vista home was a shining example of that period's International Style.
But midcentury modern style was not the "thing" it is today.
“It wasn’t what we thought was ‘cool’ in 1986, so I had to get used to the aesthetic," said owner Merit Shalett. "It didn’t take long, though, for me to fall in love with its open spaces, the natural light and the wonderful furniture.”
If it took time for Merit to warm up to the style of the hose, Monte Shalett felt right at home there — for good reason.
“My parents built the house when I was a kid,” he said. “My father hired the architect George Saunders to design the house. It seems as though my father was always interested in modern architecture.”
George Saunders was a Philadelphia native who earned a master’s in architecture from MIT before joining the faculty of the Tulane University School of Architecture from 1951-1955. Saunders’ practice was solo after that, except for stints with former Tulane architecture Dean John Lawrence. Other buildings Saunders designed include the Elysian Fields Methodist Church, the Gretna Methodist Church and the International Hotel.
On Thursday, the Shaletts’ home and three others nearby will be open from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. as the centerpiece of the Preservation Resource Center’s Mid Mod NOLA modernist block tour in Lake Vista. Summer cocktails will be offered at a tiki bar, and period attire is encouraged.
The PRC is partnering with New Orleans Architecture Foundation to present the tour and other events that highlight the resurgence of midcentury style.
Behind the wall
From the street, it is impossible to get a sense of the Shaletts' home because of the low red brick wall that extends on both sides of the entry gates.
There’s an entry pavilion (graced with a magnificent filigreed teak gate) and a cantilevered projection that shelters people from the rain or sun when they come calling. The house is shaped like an upside-down L, with the short end closest to the lakefront levee.
There's a cube-like second floor atop the short leg of the L, a garage on the left and a pool house built at an angle. The buildings surround open space and the pool, creating a feeling of tranquility.
A “porch” (beneath a roof projection supported by steel beams) runs along the long leg of the L and leads to the front door and, once inside, to the foyer. The formal living room is straight ahead upon entering, and a staircase to the right leads to five bedrooms upstairs.
The living room’s glass walls look out at the levee. “We had a view of the lake before Katrina when the levee was just 3 feet high,” Monte said.
Paneling to love
At one end of the living room there's a handsome turquoise wall. At the opposite end of the room, the ceiling soars 19 feet and reveals the upstairs hallway and doors to the bedrooms. Throughout the house, rich slabs of walnut serve as paneling.
“It took a while to be able to appreciate the paneling in the house because of the association with the cheap 1960s type,” said Merit. “Now I can’t imagine the house without it.”
The den, dining room, butler’s pantry and kitchen fill the long leg of the L. All flow into one another, and each space has an exterior glass wall that offers a view of the pool, Japanese garden stones, “Poodle tree” (yew topiary) and pool house (now Merit’s glitter room for the Muses parade).
A Japanese screen — wooden grid with translucent rice paper — pulls out in three sections from the interior wall to the exterior wall to separate the dining room from the den.
The kitchen is the only room that the Shaletts have changed in their 32 years in the Tern Street house together.
“After my mother died and we moved in, I asked Merit to live here for a while and get the feel of the place before we made any changes,” said Monte. “I felt that it was important to make sure we didn’t mess up the architecture or the furnishings.”
But Merit loves to cook, and neither of them adored the maple cabinet doors of the kitchen. The couple worked with the late Albert Ledner on a kitchen revamp and replaced the maple doors with laminate, fashionable at the time.
“We didn’t really make a mistake replacing them, but if I could rewind, I would choose to keep them,” Monte said.
Original to the house
The home’s contents — its art and furniture — are in lock-step with the aesthetic of the architecture. Although Merit has added art she collected while working at the Contemporary Arts Center for almost 20 years, there are works (including the two abstracts by Ilse Getz in the dining room) that Monte’s parents bought decades ago.
“I get tired of looking at the same artwork in the same place over a period of time, so about every two years or so David Joyner comes over and we pick out new locations for the art,” Merit said, referring to the New Orleans artist.
The furniture, unlike the art, is all original. The chairs, tables and sofas don't merely look like furniture that belongs in a midcentury — they were purchased by Monte’s parents to complete the modern tableau.
The Shaletts have re-covered some pieces over time, attempting always to match upholstery fabric as closely as possible, but otherwise the furniture — low sofas, the Danish modern dining suite and the polygonal nesting tables — has held up physically and aesthetically.
Monte discovered only recently that Haygood Lasseter of Haygood Lasseter Interiors, Miami, was the interior decorator for the project. Lasseter was well known in the late 1950s and designed the interior of President Truman’s “Little White House” in Key West. The designer chose furnishings made by Dunbar, Baker and McGuire.
“Dunbar’s main designer was Edward Wormley, whose pieces appeared in ‘Good Design’ exhibitions at MOMA between 1950 and 1955,” Monte said.
In addition to Wormley’s designs for Dunbar, there are Baker’s silver service chest and rolling cart and McGuire’s period rattan and bamboo furniture.
Preparing for the tour has ignited a beehive of activity.
“I just crawled out from under the built-in shelf and silk sofa attached to the turquoise wall in the living room to try to figure out their origin,” Merit said. “Down the rabbit hole we go!”