Nancy Clark calls it “the big ask.”
It's when Clark, a founding member of the Old Mandeville Historic Association, approaches an owner about including their home in the group’s annual tour.
Not only is she asking someone to put their home on display to strangers, but she’s asking them to do so on Mother’s Day, when family plans could well take precedence.
Knocking on doors unannounced can produce surprising results.
“I don’t think I’ve had any doors slammed in my face,” Clark said. “But I think I’ve heard everything else in the book from ‘No, thanks,’ to ‘Give me two years to get ready,’ to ‘What do I have to do to be included?’
“It comes down to reading people — how far to push and when to pull back. I’ve gotten kind of good at this.”
The historic association’s 10th annual tour, taking place Sunday, features seven homes in the chenier, or ridge of high ground, near Lake Pontchartrain.
Proceeds primarily go toward upkeep of the Jean Baptiste Lang House, the 19th-century Creole cottage that the association saved from demolition after Hurricane Katrina.
“The owners were overwhelmed with the project of rebuilding it,” Clark said. “So we took it over and began the tours a couple of years later as our fundraiser.
“It’s been a wonderfully gratifying success to focus attention on this historic house and to preserve, protect and improve on it.”
The Lang House, 605 Carroll St., is also the starting point of the tour.
Patrons won't know exactly which homes are on the tour until they pick up their programs Sunday with one exception: The New Orleans Advocate recently got a sneak peek inside one, the home of Leonard and Becky Rohrbough. (Go to theadvocate.com and search Rohrbough and home tour.) That's done for privacy reasons and for getting people to agree to open their homes.
“We’re careful and respectful. It’s become part of our reputation that we cover the bases," Clark said.
Another example: While the tours are listed as self-guided, representatives from the historic association are on hand to help hosts during the tours.
That happened to Clark a few years back when her home was on the tour during her term as association president. She left her husband and daughter to do the host duties while she checked on how the rest of the tour was going.
“It was sort of my trial by fire, but we had a lot of fun,” she said. "My daughter said she felt like a bride all day because she was getting nothing but compliments.
“We have a rule now that you can’t ask (other homeowners to be on the tour) until you’ve actually done it yourself.”
Working closely with the homeowners has also enabled the association to get a few repeat tour sites.
Such is the case this year, although the 1970s-era Craftsman has new owners.
That’s another feature of the tours.
The homes don’t have to be luxurious mansions, although
Clark said three of this year’s homes would probably qualify. Two are medium-sized plus the Craftsman and there’s one “little jewel box of a house,” which recently underwent rehabilitation that revealed it to a classical Creole when it was originally built.
The only requirement is that the homes be clustered together, although they have to be in the area defined as Old Mandeville.
That’s a change from the past when the homes were grouped by type, which sometimes made seeing them all in a three-hour time period (especially the couple of times when there were 10 homes) problematic.
Now, the group starts with an anchor house and works around the immediate surroundings.
“We’ve got lot of beautiful houses and incredibly dedicated homeowners who keep these old structures going,” Clark said. “Where we’re fortunate is that despite a lot of construction in the area, the homeowners have actually made the effort to fit in and actually enhance the old atmosphere as opposed to this being a bunch of McMansions out in the suburbs.”
Another crucial decision was to hold the tour on Mother’s Day.
While obviously there are family conflicts, Clark said it has become a tradition for families to eat in nearby restaurants and then take Mom on the tour.
“It’s sort of a natural fit,” she said. “After you’ve fed her, you’ve got somewhere to go, and we keep the price ($20 for adults, $12 for students) affordable.
“It sort of gives us a natural cap on how many people can attend. It serves our needs without trying to make it bigger than it needs to be.”
Along with the home tour, various artists will be at the homes, both displaying and selling their work, and, in some cases, creating during the tours.
This year’s artists are Valree Ebere, Jan Dicks, Leslie Boudreaux, Ferris Hotard, Bridget Jarvis, Brita Higgins, Abby Sands and Debbie Weaver.
For their troubles, homeowners get their names engraved on bricks that surround the jardin potatger, the traditional raised French garden behind the Lang House.
To Clark, it’s no surprise the idea that started with four Old Mandeville Historic Association members a decade ago has been so successful. There are plenty of repeat patrons from across the lake, Mississippi and the Baton Rouge area along with locals.
“I think we all saw the possibilities of this,” she said. “It took some committed work by an army of people.
“We’ve introduced hundreds to this beautiful, historic neighborhood. It’s really paid off.”
Sometimes, you’ve just gotta ask.