The Irish Channel and Lower Garden District were well known to Susan and Ronnie Mizell long before the couple bought the house on Race Street and moved there from Old Metairie.
Over the past few decades, they had owned and renovated dozens of buildings in the area — especially in the 2000 block of Magazine Street. And the Channel is where Ronnie Mizell’s Irish and German ancestors lived when they first came to New Orleans at the end of the 19th century.
“I had always felt a special connection to the Channel and Lower Garden District,” said Ronnie Mizell, a talented contractor and craftsman. “I think living here was one of those ‘one day’ dreams in the back of my mind.”
As Realtor with Gertrude Gardner, Susan Mizell’s dream, on the other hand, was to have a nice house in Old Metairie where she could raise her children.
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“But after our children had gone and the nest was empty, I started thinking about the future,” she said. “It seemed as though it was Ronnie’s turn to have his dream come true.”
The first visit Ronnie Mizell made to the 1850s double-gallery house was auspicious — not in spite of the crumbling plaster, holes in the heart-pine floors, or sky views from a few rooms, but because of them.
“I just could not wait to get my hands on the place, to get started,” he said. “I called Susan and she said, ‘Buy it,’ but I told her she had to see it first.”
The house had been divided into apartments and ill-cared for. There were porch enclosures and unsympathetic additions, bathrooms and kitchens placed willy-nilly, and an overgrown bougainvillea that shrouded the facade from view. For most buyers, these factors would have been a turn-off, but for the Mizells, they were an aphrodisiac.
“We sold our house in Old Metairie in just two weeks and moved into an apartment on Royal Street in the Quarter for a year while work was in progress,” said Susan Mizell. “We were both all in.”
Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 8 and 9, the Mizells’ masterpiece will be on view along with seven more handsome homes during the Preservation Resource Center’s Holiday Home Tour.
From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days, guests will have the opportunity to tour the house that the Mizells put back together and returned to its near-original state, with a couple of contemporary flourishes.
“Our goal was to keep the entry hall and double parlors more or less intact,” said Susan Mizell. “We took liberties in the service wing, however, because having a great kitchen was really important to me.”
True to the plan, the parlors, entry hall and stair to the second floor are impeccably restored. Heart-pine floors, random-width in this part of the house, gleam. Chandeliers sparkle. And elaborate ceiling medallions — repaired and restored by Tommy Lachin, along with the multi-part crown moulding — add an element of grandeur.
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There are period-appropriate marble mantels, some of them repurposed from other Lower Garden District projects or relocated from elsewhere in the house. Ceilings soar 13 feet high, and enormous cypress pocket doors divide the living and dining room.
All together, they help earn the house its mid-19th-century bona fides.
An old building contract, found at the notarial archives, called for cypress floor joists and other elements that the Mizells’ home possesses today.
“We can't say for sure that it was for this house, but the contract read that it was for building a residence in the 900 block of Race between Annunciation and Constance,” Ronnie said.
The Mizells chose to make subtle changes in the home’s traditional side hall layout, guided by the expert hand of Leslie Raymond of Albert Architecture, a New Orleans firm.
“Instead of leaving the entry hall open at the far end so that it continued into the kitchen and the service wing, we ended it with a wall,” Ronnie Mizell said. “Then we reconfigured what had been a full-length window in the dining room into an interior cased opening that leads to the kitchen.”
The change makes the transition from the traditional front parlors and entry hall into the contemporary kitchen seamless — and invisible from the front door.
“I got the sleek Italian kitchen I wanted,” said Susan Mizell. The big kitchen is a must, especially over holidays when all three of the couple’s grown children, their children’s spouses, and their six grandchildren come for visits.
At about 3,500 square feet, the house is big enough to accommodate everyone in three large bedrooms (one of which is a bunk room for the kids) and 4 1/2 baths.
A cozy sitting room follows the kitchen and separates it from an equally sleek and European style bath, also accessible from the outside courtyard.
“The courtyard is at grade when you walk out of the house because we raised it a good 14 to 16 inches,” Ronnie Mizell explained. “We laid down slate and put in a small pool at the back of the house. You should have seen our grandchildren pedaling around in the courtyard over the Thanksgiving holiday.”
An immense outdoor kitchen underscores the couple’s passion for cooking and sharing good food. One door on the building’s exterior opens to a storage area and the original service stair.
“We don't have a use for it, but we would never have removed it — it's part of the fabric of the house,” Susan Mizell said.
While excavating the site in preparation for the landscaping and courtyard project, undertaken with the assistance of Alvarez + Basik Design Group, Ronnie Mizell found something that thrilled him. It wasn't a cache of golden coins or priceless gems, but something far more valuable to this old house geek.
“We found the original French drains that had been put in when the house was built, to direct water away from the structure,” he said, pleased as punch. “I reused them in both side alleys and today they are doing exactly what they were meant to do when they were put in 170 years ago.”
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about homes and gardens. Contact her at email@example.com.