The 1912 house on Walnut Street is the rarest of the rare.
Not only is it architecturally striking, but it occupies a huge lot on Audubon Park, so that the backyard and the park merge seamlessly into one another.
The home, which belongs to Joe Guarisco and Cristina Guthrie, is one of six distinctive residences to be featured Friday (March 22) when the Sacred Heart Alumnae Association stages its fourth “Sacre Coeur Tour de Maisons,” from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Greenville neighborhood, immediately upriver from Audubon Park.
The Guarisco-Guthrie house has a long history, treasured by its current residents.
“I got to know the home’s previous owners, Jan and Millicent Hamer, before Hurricane Katrina,” said Guarisco, an emergency room physician at Ochsner Medical Center. “Even though they were nearly 80, they stayed in the house during the storm, so I would check on them and make sure that they were OK.”
Jan Hamer taught organic chemistry at Tulane for 32 years and Millicent was an artist. When Guarisco and Guthrie would visit them, rooms were filled with books, research papers and sketches.
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The couple let the Hamers know that they would be honored to buy the house when they were ready to sell it. When the Hamers moved to Baton Rouge to live near one of their daughters, Jan Hamer instructed her to deliver a message: “Tell Joe the house is his.”
Fifty years previously, in 1965, the Hamers bought the house for $68,500 from the succession of Edna Danziger Falk.
At that time, an ad described the home as “a handsome single two-story on Audubon Park” and boasted that it was “centrally air-conditioned," having four bedrooms, two baths and “a beautiful living and den.”
Falk was a well-known and highly regarded gardener, whose wildflowers were the subject of newspaper stories.
Her husband, Harry L. Falk, was a prominent businessman who acquired the property in 1924 for $23,500 from the estate of Mabel Granbery Roberts, widow of banker and garden enthusiast Eugene H. Roberts.
Guarisco and Guthrie enjoy working together to maintain the tradition of gardening on the site.
“There is no fence separating the backyard from the park,” Guthrie said. “Instead, we planted aspidistra and cherry laurels that make a green border. We like feeling connected to the park and the people walking and running by.”
The house has more in common architecturally with New England than New Orleans. The exterior, painted a deep mushroom color, is covered in shingles and roofed with green tiles. There are stout, well-proportioned columns one story tall in the front.
Windows are composed of Honduran mahogany; unpainted but varnished, they make a striking color accent against the home’s dark brown shingles.
It's easy to see why the house appealed to the couple.
The entry foyer features intricately leaded glass windows, fixed in place, that afford views of surrounding rooms and transmit light throughout.
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A handsome staircase with distinctive spindles leads upstairs to bedrooms and sitting rooms.
To the left of the entrance hall can be found the kitchen and the dining room, the latter surrounded on two sides by the home’s signature leaded glass panes.
To the right of the entry hall, down a few steps, is the formal living room with an immense wood-burning fireplace adorned with an embossed metal frieze that depicts a mythological harvest scene.
A wide-cased opening separates the living room from the glassed-in sunroom (formerly an outdoor space), where the couple likes to sit, read and observe the passing parade in the park.
The couple updated all of the home’s systems, painted the exterior according to a scheme they devised with the assistance of Louis Aubert, installed a jewel-like powder room under the stair, and renovated and expanded the kitchen with the help of architect Daniel Samuels.
Marble countertops and floors, a bank of glass-fronted cabinets and an expansive island equip Guthrie with what she needs for cooking and entertaining, a favorite past-time.
“I love to have friends over,” said Guthrie. “There’s a group we jokingly call the ‘Women of Walnut’ — I love being with them — and when my family visits from Honduras, we have a great time cooking and laughing together.”
Guarisco said he and Guthrie made a conscious decision not to buy much in the way of new furniture when they moved in.
“We didn't want a lot of furniture cluttering things up,” he said. “We want to be able to enjoy the space and views and not have too many things get in the way.”
Perhaps not, but their art collection would distract many a visitor. One “thing” in the house that the couple is very happy to have is a large painting by Ashley Longshore that hangs in the stairwell.
“We bought the piece when her gallery was in a tiny little place on Magazine Street,” said Guthrie. “She was virtually unknown then.”
Other striking works include watercolors by the late Robert Guthrie, Cristina Guthrie's former husband, and pastels by Martha Guthrie, her former mother-in-law with whom she maintains a warm relationship.
Then there is the series of small paintings in the sun room, installed above the opening to the living room.
“We bought those from Darrell Scott,” Guarisco said. “He was our plumber!”
Sacred Heart Home Tour
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 22