March 23, 2011

Creole Cool- the little easy

…of all the secret cities, New Orleans, so it seems to me, is the most secretive, the most unlike, in reality, what an outsider is permitted to observe. The prevalence of steep walls, of obscuring foliage, of tall thick locked iron gates, of shuttered windows, of dark tunnels leading to overgrown gardens where mimosa and camellias contrast colors, and lazing lizards, flicking their forked tongues, race along palm fronds-all this is not accidental décor, but architecture deliberately to camouflage, to mask, as at a Mardi Gras Ball, the lives of those born to live among these protective edifices.
                              -Truman Capote, Hidden Gardens, 1975

The first residents of the city, in urban-European style, built houses right at the sidewalk, or banquette, and walled the spaces between. The French Quarter’s blocks, still closed from the outside, form an outer wall giving protection from intruders and hurricanes, and hiding the secret majesty within. The beauty of a Vieux Carre house is focused at the rear, in contrast to the grand front entrances and lawns of St. Charles Avenue. Old New Orleans, for all its lavish lifestyle, wore a very humble disguise until American influence crept in during the nineteenth century.

The Little Easy

Marcel Proust, meet Blanche DuBois. Both would feel right at home in this small Bijou of a place. It is a mélange of French antiques and bits of whimsy.

Although the walls of this shadowy living room are cracked and scarred, with strips of plaster dangling down like rags, Xavier, the client, finds them only mildly distracting. "Rising dampness," he comments blithely. Then, as if motivated by the faintest twinge of propriety, he adds lackadaisically, "It's time we redid the walls."

The truth is, the natives are casual about old things, which they love intimately rather than reverently. Xavier’s family has owned this richly atmospheric Creole cottage in the French Quarter since it was built. He likes to call his dwelling an 1820s tract house. "If you go through the French Quarter and look around at the architecture, you will see a great many Creole cottages," he says. "A lot have disappeared, but there were so many built! Pretty average, simple, with a perfectly flat façade”.

Creole cottages, which probably originated in the West Indies and were introduced to New Orleans by refugees from Haiti, were popular in the city from about 1790 to 1850. These plainspoken structures were typically square or rectangular, with four equal-size rooms and two additional small cabinets in the rear corners, with a loggia between them. They were the most common houses in New Orleans during the early 1800s, and can still be found today, primarily in the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny, an adjacent neighborhood.
Those that survive seem like relics of a sweeter age. With their unpretentious, artisanal look and comely proportions, Creole cottages were never considered grand, like the three-story French Quarter townhouses with iron-lace balconies whose images now crowd picture-postcard racks. But Xavier, who has old-school manners and an absent-minded grace, prefers their modest charms. "I was raised in a formal house," he says, "and I moved to another formal house after that. This is more my style."

Regarding his relaxed approach to decorating, Xavier is characteristically straightforward. "Try to use what we have and fit it in the right place," he says. "And if we don’t have something that will fit, maybe we’d have to get something from home. Maybe we might have to go to the store. But I've really don’t like to”.

I think we have more than enough.

Voilà, le projet fini.  Merci Xavier.

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