Comforting cottages

Five cottages on the north side of Baton Rouge’s Spanish Town catch the eye, but not because of their size or grandeur.

Once doomed to demolition, the newly landscaped and restored houses sit side by side on Seventh Street and on the corner of State Capitol Drive, sloping down a small hill toward Arsenal Park and the Capitol Lakes.

“We love the historic neighborhood,” said Ben Babin, one of the cottages’ co-owners, while standing on Seventh Street and viewing the houses. “We like restoring the past, and Spanish Town is a great place to live.”

Built in 1918 and 1936 on a plot of land once owned by the Brousseau family, the five cottages appeared slightly ramshackle in March 2012, Babin said, when he and his business partner, Lance Bennett, bought them. The homes had been slated for demolition a couple of years before when developers planned to build a 74-unit apartment complex on the property with views of the State Capitol. Residents of Spanish Town protested and, eventually, support for the project withered.

Settled in 1805, Spanish Town is the oldest surviving neighborhood in Baton Rouge. The tract of land on which the five cottages were built was called Aubert Town, named for an early developer who sold lots in 1820, according to a report written by John Sykes, a resident of Spanish Town and a member of the Spanish Town Historic Preservation Commission.

“It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were looking at a six- or seven-story building on that footprint, an apartment building overlooking that. Probably all those would have gone. ... And what a drastic change that would have been,” said Sykes. “This has just been a very quiet, subtle, wonderful thing to happen.”

When Babin first showed the cottages to Ty Larkins, the interior designer hired to plan the renovation, the houses were ragged. Andrés Duany, a noted architect and urban planner, had called them “mud huts” when he saw them while speaking at a conference in Baton Rouge.

Two of the houses, built by the Brousseau family as rental properties in 1918, were called the “twins” by Babin and Bennett because of their similarities in design. The three other houses, which were built in 1936, were named the “triplets.”

Before work began, they sat a little crooked, had gaps in their wooden siding and almost all were missing proper porch rails. Their landscaping had gone a bit wild. Inside, they had not been updated for decades.

“They were good, quality little cottages that appeared to be really adorable, but in need of a lot of TLC,” Larkins said.

When the owners handed the restoration plan over to him, Larkins said he wasn’t worried about the job.

“I didn’t have any doubts about what we could do with them if we made the right decisions, and if we put the adequate amount of resources to bring these back to life,” Larkins said.

Contractors restored the houses from the foundation up. They were leveled and the piers upon which they rested were rebuilt. Beneath the houses fresh lumber connects to old floor joists, and new cinder block piers take the place of the dilapidated foundations.

Because the neighborhood belongs on the National Register of Historic Places, Larkins and Babin said they restored the homes with materials that suited their original character.

Brick piers along the front of the house were repaired, and wooden railings and posts replaced the out-of-context metal railings that had been added to the porch of one house.

All five cottages received new plumbing, wiring, heating and air conditioning.

“What you’re looking at when you see them, they’re like new old houses,” Babin said.

Most of the changes came inside.

Larkins wanted the spaces to fit the classic cottage look while also feeling modern.

“These are working class structures,” he said. “They were never meant to be opulent.”

He wanted to update the houses without harming their character.

In three of the houses, he stained the floors a darker hue, then painted the walls white. Previously the walls had darker paint, a popular trend in the 1920s and ’30s, when paint was seen as an affordable home improvement, Larkins said.

But the dark paint caused the small homes to feel smaller, he said.

Some of the most modern changes occurred in the kitchens and bathrooms.

In the kitchens he added white subway tiles to the back splash and walls and white Shaker-style cabinets, popular styles at the time the houses were built, but he added granite countertops, more modern light fixtures and updated drawer pulls and cabinet handles.

For the bathrooms, they kept the cast iron tubs original to the homes, but refinished them. Larkins chose marble tiles for the floors, a material that he said would not have been in such a working class home 80 years ago, but makes sense today. The wooden vanities were replaced with marble-topped washstands with bright stainless steel legs, a popular look in the 1920s and ’30s that complemented the home’s modern updates.

While such updates would likely not have occurred when the home was built, Larkins said, it makes sense today.

This “evolved, updated look” makes sense because “we don’t live in the 1900s,” he said. “We live in 2013.”

Tax credits for historic preservation made the restorations possible, Babin said. Without them, such a project would not be cost-effective, he said.

The cottages rent for $1,300 to $1,500 a month, but most of them were leased before the restorations were complete. Babin said he plans to rent the houses for a few years but eventually wants to sell them.

The restorations, while time-consuming, were enjoyable.

“This has been so rewarding and exciting,” he said.