What does it take to paint a masterpiece? Talent, for one. Experience and technical ability, of course. How about being able to take a blank canvas and turn it into something extraordinary?
That pretty much describes what New Orleans artist Gretchen Weller Howard has done with the Faubourg Marigny house that she, husband Peter Howard, and daughters Sully and Piper moved into a little more than a year ago.
“We were sunk the first second we walked in and saw what Leland (Vandeventer, the developer,) had done here," Gretchen said. "It was so lovely that I told everyone I wouldn’t touch a thing. But then my bedroom called out to me, ‘I want to be green!’ and so I painted it.”
Guests of the Faubourg Marigny home tour will get to visit the Howards’ dazzling home Sunday when the neighborhood association stages its annual event. From noon to 4 p.m., visitors on this self-guided tour will be greeted at nine stops by docents knowledgeable about the interiors of the buildings on tour.
Seven of the nine properties opening their doors tomorrow are private homes, and two are lagniappe properties, the Baker’s Row complex and Sts. Peter and Paul, formerly a Catholic church.
Tour tickets are available for $25 (children younger than 12 are free) the day of the tour at Washington Square (700 Frenchmen St.). Go to faubourgmarigny.org for a complete list of stops on the tour.
Maybe it isn’t weird that Howard hears walls begging her to swathe them in color. A well-established and highly collectible artist, Howard creates works that are colorful and patterned, sometimes of birds, sometimes of other subject matter. She said her parents, Dell and Nancy Weller, exerted a strong influence on her artwork.
“Both painted, but their styles were different. My father’s work was more traditional in some ways, like the portrait in the front room or the peristyle lion in my bedroom,” Howard said. “My mother’s work was looser. For her, it was all about color.”
Dell Weller, one of the founding artists of the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts, died a year ago, making his canvases even more precious to his daughter.
“We lost several of his paintings when our home in Pass Christian was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, but I was able to save some small pieces of them and so I work them into my other paintings,” she said.
In fact, one wall of the jewel-like green bedroom is covered in a grid of small square paintings that incorporate scraps of other paintings.
Today, Vandeventer’s formerly all white and gray interior sings with color. The music room, across the hall from the dining room, is covered in a playful large patterned wallpaper (from Spruce on Magazine Street) with a black background, blue flowers and pink accents. Howard painted the woodwork in the room “off-black,” a shade that extends throughout the built-in bookcases and complements the enveloping feel of the wallpaper.
In one daughter’s bedroom, the walls are now a deep cobalt blue and stand out crisply from the white woodwork. And the barrel-vaulted ceiling in the entry foyer didn’t stay white for long — Howard couldn’t stop herself from painting it blue and sprinkling gold stars on it.
Her passion for color extends to the exterior where she transformed the Arts and Crafts era home’s appearance by painting it a rich apricot color and installing a multi-hued garden.
“I just couldn’t leave the outside all white. I had to paint apricot,” Howard said.
The floorplan is fundamentally that of a center hall, with two large rooms on either side of the hall: A bedroom and music room/library on the right; a parlor and the dining room on the left. The ceilings are exceptionally high — about 13 feet — an element that contributes to the airy feel of the house.
The central hallway terminates at an immense kitchen and family room outfitted with glass doors to a rear porch and small garden. The master suite and stair to the upstairs are located off the family room and kitchen.
The décor is classic, playful, contemporary and witty. A vintage tin sign of the Bunny Bread rabbit surveys the scene from his perch affixed to the shiplap siding covering the range hood (“My sister and I hated the Sunbeam girl when we were little and insisted on Bunny Bread.”)
Howard’s own paintings enliven every room and mix well with works by friends as well as antique portraits of Weller and Howard ancestors.
“I find it lightens the mood to use things like Kaki Foley’s papier mâché party hats above the portraits and twig nests on the walls,” Howard said. “That’s the idea behind the Dr. Nut sign in the dining room.”
Dr. Nut was a popular almond-flavored drink produced by the World Bottling Co. at Chartres and Elysian Fields in the first half of the 20th century. Dr. Frank Gomila, the city’s public safety commissioner, owned the company and lived at the St. Ferdinand house that now belongs to the Howards.
“From the sound of it, he was quite a character. The neighborhood legend is that he would treat prostitutes for venereal disease in the front room of the house,” Howard said. “From what I’ve heard, the neighbors weren’t happy about it.”
Faubourg Marigny Home Tour
WHEN: Sunday, May 20, noon to 4
WHERE: Buy tickets the day of the tour on Washington Square, 700 Frenchmen St.