To mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, this week Curbed is looking at how the housing, architecture, and neighborhoods of New Orleans have changed since the storm. Here, the third in a series of House Calls at renovated New Orleans properties.
For artist Matteo Neivert, purchasing his Lower Garden District fixer-upper was about more than finding a fun project with which to occupy his time; it was about building a home. After Hurricane Katrina rendered Neivert homeless, he came upon the dilapidated 1840-60s, two-story hip-roof colonial at 1922 Constance Street and felt that he and the old home shared a connection: "As my grandpa would say, it may have been a "pipe dream," but I had a vision of what it could be. I knew it could be grand. It was like my last stretch of hope, but I had some fury and energy inside that was burning to fix this poor house, because it had also been through a lot just like me!"
Despite its beautiful bones—its 14-foot ceilings, spacious interiors, and the opportunities that lay in its two stand-alone servants quarters—the house was a mess.
"I feel like houses are like people. This one was in the ER. It was broken, depressed, and falling apart, like Belle Reve in A Streetcar Named Desire." Indeed, the exterior of the house was caked in dirt and mold, while the interior walls had 10 layers of paneling glued over an additional 10 layers of wallpaper. At some point, the house had been split up into several apartments, illegally. There was no heat, exposed plumbing, lights that came out of gaselier hoses on knob and tube wiring, and a termite-infested wooden pier that lay on the ground, instead of on its requisite brick piling.
Uncovering a New Orleans Shotgun House's 'Good Bones'
New Orleans Locals on a Decade of Post-Storm Change, Part 1
New Orleans Locals on a Decade of Post-Storm Change, Part 2
Spray-Painted FEMA X Still Marks the Storm in New Orleans
Revamping and Living in a 'Love Project' of a House in New Orleans
Using the Lessons of Katrina to Rebuild Smarter After Disaster
Getting the house in healthier condition required unwavering persistence. Contractors disappeared mid-project, and shoddy electrical work had to be redone for a second time. At certain points, Neivert considered quitting and selling the house as-is, but his need for a home kept him going through the toughest moments of renovation.
"For me it is important as an artist to have a home base to grow and create art. Art is something that takes time, thought, meditation, craftsmanship, skill, dedication, and drive. Without a home, I was wandering doing a residency at a museum or sleeping on someone's couch. After a while, it makes you weak because you cannot set roots and that is dangerous. Having a home is so important to me because it is a place of peace, solace, and a place where I have space to create. In a way I had so much creative juices pent up that the renovation of this home became like a giant art project and it is one that I am still working on."
"I went to school in Italy and they have open rooms and they delineate the rooms by different colors and chandeliers. In Venice, you go in the rooms, there's a lot of crumbling things, but they always mix very modern with very antique things. And a lot of pieces, if I love it, I'm just gonna get it. It's not like I'm going to get something because it has to match. I'm not into that."
"They fixed cars at one point in the back. There are car parts hidden in the garden. I've picked out all these little shards of pottery and all these bottles. There's an inkwell. Some of the pottery is from 1860. All these things I dug out of the garden."
"I'm not afraid of color, so I have a purple chandelier, an orange art studio, and a mint green kitchen."
"For me, it's not like what room it's going in, it's what goes with the pieces [themselves]. It's a work of art. It's like a wedding dress or a suit, you want to make sure it goes with the personality. That's kind of how it is with the house. It's like a big opera singer's house, but she's sensitive or something. So it has some parts that are quiet. Some parts are over the top. I did what I like but also what's appropriate to the house. I feel like if you push too much a certain way, it looks ridiculous. You kind of have to go with it."
"You start a project thinking that it needs this, this, and this and it was like opening a can of worms. It was never ending, the amount of cans. It was a cannery of worms."
"At the time I was doing a show in Shreveport, a beautiful debutante ball, and their theme was Faberge, and I just saw that, and I was like, I gotta get it! It was a really good deal."
The back of the house, before and after.
"Much of it was like an archeological dig. Bottles and pieces of china kept coming up in the yard, some of it quite old or decorative from Empire, Victorian, and older periods. In this way I became entrenched because the entire house was made with hand tools and had so much craftsmanship and art history to it."