Downtown dwellers

People who live downtown like telling the stories of their buildings.

Homeowners, preservationists and developers will have the chance to tell the story of downtown Baton Rouge during Friday’s “Classic Homes and Cocktails,” a moveable soiree benefiting the Foundation for Historical Louisiana (FHL).

“FHL has come full circle,” said executive director Carolyn Bennett. “In the early 1960s when the preservation movement was starting, we went all over south Louisiana opening homes on the weekends and inviting people to tour them.”

Those early tours highlighted history and architecture, Bennett said. Today, there’s the added emphasis of preservation’s role in economic development and downtown revitalization, she said.

Friday’s tour offers a sidewalk look at some of the houses in Spanish Town that have come to be known as “The Mud Huts.”

Three years ago, residents of Spanish Town came together in a way reminiscent of the neighborhood’s war on fire ants.

This time, the offending hill was a proposed apartment building which would have required the removal of some undistinguished, neglected houses.

Town planner Andres Duany, who’s been paid to advise Baton Rouge leaders on downtown’s future, didn’t think much of the proposed apartment building but asked preservationists if they really wanted to save “mud huts” just because they were old structures.

Five houses built between 1918 and 1936, spared when the apartment building didn’t happen, are being refurbished with the use of historic preservation tax credits, Bennett said.

About $80,000 is being spent on each house, she said. The houses will be leased for $1,500 a month for two bedrooms and $1,850 a month for three bedrooms by early next year, Bennett said.

The houses are at 927, 937 and 939 N. 7th St. and 640 and 642 State Capitol Drive, she said. Because of work in progress, the houses won’t be open for touring, but Bennett encouraged people taking the tour to go by to take a look from the sidewalk.

Saving the “mud huts” was worth the effort, Bennett said. “They are in the scale of the neighborhood. They’re going to be sought after residences in Spanish Town.”

The tour starts at the Kress Building where Francis Grayson Jr., general manager of Hotel Indigo on Lafayette Street and a partner in Nuvieux Hospitality Management, has an apartment.

One of the stories associated with the Kress Building began just before noon March 28, 1960, when seven Southern University students took seats at the S.H. Kress, whites-only lunch counter.

“Living in the Kress Building means something to me because it was part of the old business district and because of its part in the Civil Rights Movement,” Grayson said.

The tour ends at the home of Jack Warner, 130 Main St., built as the Florence Coffee House in 1848.

Evelyn Thom, FHL president from 1965 to 1967, and her physician husband, James, restored the old coffee house, which was in ruins, and turned it into their residence a half block from the Mississippi River.

Thom was known as an early advocate of bringing downtown back as a place to live. Her husband was known as one of the last Baton Rouge doctors to deliver babies at home.

Jack Warner, co-owner of four Walk-Ons Bistreauxs and Bars, Walk-Ons Catering, two Roux Houses, three Happy’s Irish Pubs and two Schlittz and Giggles, lives in the old Thom place.

“I wanted it to look 1850 on the outside and 2050 inside, that New York, L.A. vibe,” said Warner, 34.

“He must have had five pages, single spaced, maybe eight pages, a specific vision of what he wanted,” said designer Carol LaCour, who with architect Dwayne Carruth at Monochrome Furniture and Design, turned the Thom’s place into a contemporary dwelling.

“We all tried to carefully walk the line between being respectful of the historical integrity of the house by leaving the exterior, courtyard walls, and almost all of the original windows and doors while moving above and beyond the conventional on the interior,” LaCour said. “Jack had a very specific vision, a sleek luxurious contemporary interior customized to his needs. I think we carried out his vision.”

An elderly architect who’d worked with the Thoms on their renovation stopped by one day.

“He was very supportive,” LaCour said. “I think he liked it that Jack wanted to live there and enjoy the place.”

As a nod to the old coffee house, there’s a coffee bar on each of three floors, LaCour said. “Of course, they’re bar bars.”

The architect told designer and homeowner the story of the Nov. 25, 1849, riverfront fire that burned the coffee house and 39 other businesses, many of them to the ground, in the early morning hours.

A story in an extra of the Baton Rouge Democratic Advocate said the fire heavily damaged the coffee house despite the “noble exertions” of firemen and their engine from the U.S. garrison at the Pentagon Barracks up the street and the local bucket brigade.

Along with charred floor supports, Warner made another discovery when he applied for a passport.

“I had to get a copy of my birth certificate,” he said. “I was reading it and saw Dr. Thom’s name as the doctor who delivered me at home on West Garfield Street in 1978. I’m sitting in his house. It gave me goose bumps.”

Warner attributes the home delivery to his free-spirited mother, Stella. “It was the ‘70s,” he said, “peace, love, happiness.”

The arts and crafts, mission-style house at 657 Spanish Town Road was in such poor shape when photographer Marie Constantin looked at it 13 years ago friends tried to talk her out of buying it.

“A Saint Joseph Sister toured the house with me when I went to look at it for the first time,” said Constantin, whose clients include the Catholic Diocese.

“After I closed, two of the sisters asked me to meet them at the convent for tea and cookies where they proceeded to tell me, ‘Now, Marie, legally you have 48 hours to get out of this contract.’ Then, for the next 20 minutes they made their case while I sat there.”

When Constantin bought the house she had the stereotypical woman’s tool box consisting of a screwdriver and a hammer for hanging pictures.

“Now, I’m on my sixth or seventh sander, and I have a full complement of tools. I look at my house as a piece of art and don’t want anyone else working on it unless it’s something I can’t do.”

“It had been a rent house when I got it,” Constantin said. “The renters were turning the kitchen faucet on with a wrench.

“There were gas leaks. The roof leaked, and there was water in the basement. Both heaters had been condemned, and there were active termites.”

The house’s 120 windows were painted shut.

“Every set of six windows took 38 hours to strip to the wood,” she said. “By the time I got to the living room, I was a professional.”

The apartment of John Schneider and Lorraine Slade is in the Knox Building which is part of the “L” at Third and Main streets that includes the Kress and Welsh and Levy buildings

“The Knox Building was a 19th-century service station,” Schneider said. “It was where people took harnesses and wagons to be repaired. The doorway into the main lobby is big enough to accommodate a wagon.”

The homes of Derrell Cohoon and Cheryl McCormick, 714 N. 5th St., and Darryl Gissel, 666 N. 6th St., round out the tour.

The Cohoon-McCormick residence was built between 1896 and 1912, the couple said.

Gissel said his two-story house is a converted arts and crafts duplex built around 1919.

People taking the tour may wear their tackiest Christmas sweaters for a chance to win a free night at the Hotel Indigo.