“Wouldn’t you just love to have a party here and make everyone dress like Laura Petrie and Dick Van Dyke?” Lee Ledbetter, architect
In a city replete with 19th-century houses and a population that worships them, from the tiniest shotgun to the grandest Italianate mansion, those who get their thrills from modern architecture constitute a small, almost heretical bunch. But they showed up in force this past week when the late architect Nathaniel C. “Buster” Curtis Jr.’s former home — a mid-20th-century gem on a little-known cul-de-sac — hit the market for $1.096 million.
During an afternoon open house, with no mini-muffaletta trays needed as bait, a crackle of excitement charged the air. After all, stellar modernist houses don’t often come up for sale in Uptown New Orleans. Architect Lee Ledbetter stood in the living room, admiring the delicate steel arches, floor-to-ceiling glass walls and gleaming white terrazzo floors.
“Wouldn’t you just love to have a party here and make everyone dress like Laura Petrie and Dick Van Dyke?” he asked jovially.
Local urologist Ronald Schwartz, an avid collector of 20th-century furniture, showed up to admire everything from the courtyards that seamlessly flanked almost every room to the mod lighting throughout the seven-bedroom, 4,103-square-foot house.
“How could I not come see it?” Schwartz asked. “It’s like an architectural museum.”
A group of Tulane University architecture students swept through, snapping photos. Meanwhile, Realtor Seph Dupuy, who was a close friend of Curtis’ son Cort while growing up, hung out in the kitchen and tended to his duties as listing agent.
Curtis, the co-founder of Curtis and Davis Architects in 1947, designed the Superdome and the now-demolished Rivergate convention center, among other 20th-century New Orleans landmarks. Together with the late Arthur Q. Davis, he designed almost 400 buildings on four continents and received more than 100 design awards.
Despite being based in a city known for neo-classical columns and Old World charm, Curtis and Davis were devoted to a minimal yet lively modernist aesthetic based on the International Style architecture pioneered by Mies van der Rohe and others beginning in the 1920s and ’30s.
“In the 1950s and ’60s, Curtis and Davis became one of the half-dozen most important architecture firms in the country,” said John Klingman, an architect, author and professor at Tulane since 1983. “For New Orleans, this was stunning. But people here maybe didn’t recognize the importance of the work as much as people elsewhere in the country.”
Reputedly a genteel and pleasant family man, Curtis designed the house at 6161 Marquette Place, near Loyola University, for himself, his wife, Frances, and their seven children. He lived there until his death in 1997.
Hidden behind an 8-foot brick wall, the house was finished in 1963 and a few years later was featured in a Life magazine photo spread. The article praised the roof that “seems to float over the two front pavilions like an arbor” and the “continuous ribbon of window that runs along the top of the solid exterior walls.”
Though the master bedroom in the back of the house flooded during Hurricane Katrina and was gutted to the studs, the public spaces are in perfect condition. The house remains a potent time capsule of its era and an inspiration to many who care about modernist design.
“The house doesn’t fit into that neighborhood and it was never meant to,” said Steven Bingler, a local architect who’s never been inside the house but copied Curtis’ band of clerestory windows when he designed his own home equipped with mind-boggling green technology on Neron Place. “It was meant to be audacious. Ironically, it’s now an antique in its own right.”
When architect Dennis Brady ambled through on Wednesday, he took time to savor all the experimental details that fix the house to its particular moment.
“The brick walls around the house have untroweled joints,” Brady said. “Usually masons put the concrete on, squeeze it out, scrape it off into a bucket and reuse it. But here, they did not scrape it off. They let it squeeze out, and it forms this very interesting texture on the outside.”
Brady also admires the long, narrow stainless steel HVAC vents inset into the terrazzo floors.
“They’re beautiful,” he said. “It was radical to do that, and it took a great deal of coordination and attention to detail.”
The house is also a poignant reminder of a time in the not-so-distant past when new American houses — even grand ones — were more intimate and less flashy. Despite the house’s size and ambition, its bedrooms are small and clustered close to one another. Bathrooms are modest modules in contrast to the marble-clad extravaganzas so fashionable today.
“We need to get back to that for sustainability,” Ledbetter said. “Did you notice how beautiful the bathrooom walls are? Why do we need these slabs of marble and onyx when you can do something so beautiful and inexpensive with ceramic tile?”
Realtor Ricky Lemann, a confirmed modern architecture nut, stopped by the open house with two of his clients who are interested in buying it. Asked if he wants it, too, he looked a little pained.
“I’m in a committed relationship,” said Lemann, whose passion for great houses causes him to relocate more frequently than most.
“It’s highly unusual to find a mid-century modern house with such an amazing pedigree in this kind of prestigious location,” he went on. “It’s hidden, private and so sexy. It should definitely be battled over.”