From outside, the double-gallery house at 1122 Jackson Avenue resembles many such town houses in New Orleans’ Garden District.
But the bright and colorful interior of the residence — known as the Goldsmith-Godchaux house on the National Register of Historic Places — will elicit awe when Al and Joan Sheen open their doors for the Uptown Spring Fiesta tour Saturday, March 30 (1 p.m. to 4 p.m., springfiestanola.org).
“It’s all original. Every color you see on the walls is the original color, and the color placement is all original,” said Joan Sheen. “If Paul Godchaux (an early resident) were to walk in here today, he would feel right at home.”
That’s because Al Sheen, well before he and Joan married, hired a team of paint conservators to undertake the painstaking work of determining the original colors in the house by peeling back paint layers, one at a time, to uncover the original.
In the entry hallway, where a stair with a Cuban mahogany newel post leads upward, they uncovered faux marbre (marble-look) wainscoting in dark green, with pale green walls and pink stripes. In the formal dining rooms, their work revealed spring green walls set off by vertical strips and cypress wainscoting painted in a faux bois, or wood grain, pattern.
Shading on the stripes creates the illusion of being three-dimensional, as if there were moulding applied to the walls.
The piece de resistance is the ballroom, an immense double parlor to the left of the entry, where the doors, walls and ceilings, along with plaster crown moulding and ceiling medallions, are all painted in vivid hues and intricate patterns.
“I suspect, but have not been able to prove, that the small paintings inset in the ceiling frescoes were painted by Dominique Canova,” Joan Sheen said, referring to the Milan-born artist known for his decorative work at St. Alphonsus Church on Constance Street in the Lower Garden District.
“Given what we learned about the house when we researched its history in the city archives, it seems entirely likely.”
As the sign in front of the house observes, the home has "more fresco wall decoration and stenciling than probably any other mid-nineteenth century residence in the South."
The house was designed by renowned architect Henry Howard, who designed Madewood in Napoleonville, the Carrollton Courthouse, and the “cornstalk fence house” in the Garden District, among others.
Another revelation in the history of the Sheen’s home came with a knock on the door one weekend afternoon back in the 1990s.
“We opened the door and there was a lady standing there — very proper with gloves and a hat. ‘I used to live here,’ she told us. ‘I came to see the gardens,’” Joan Sheen said. “We looked at each other, and Al said, ‘What gardens?’ All there was outside was mud and weeds.”
But the query initiated another round of research and consultation, this time with the School of Landscape Architecture at LSU.
The Sheens learned that David Fischer, who owned the house at the turn of the 20th century, had designed and installed the gardens. An excavation revealed a long, narrow Alhambra-style fountain and a two-tiered pond, per the original drawings.
“The plans called for Louisiana native plants surrounding the pond, so that's what we put in,” Joan Sheen said.
Over 30-plus years, the Sheens have collected antique furniture for every room, including the ballroom. Venetian glass chandeliers light the space, and marble mantels and soaring 15 1/2-foot ceilings add to the drama.
A gilded music stand and Erhard piano, made in England in 1810, are testament to yet another era of the home’s past when an owner was a ‘music impresario,” as described by Joan Sheen.
“He would host cultural events here — musical performances and the like,” Sheen said. “Caruso has sung in this room and (Vaslav) Nijinsky has danced.”
As desirable as the property is today, the 12,000-square-foot mansion was far less so when Al Sheen acquired it in 1975.
“He was looking for a double in the 1970s, when he was an intern at Tulane med school,” said Joan Sheen. “But when he found this place, he made the owner a ridiculous offer ... that he accepted.”
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