Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Charles Johnson House, New Orleans, LA

Charles Johnson House, New Orleans, LA. 1876

I have been absent for some time; I've had plenty to work on in my career. My resolution for this new year, though is to post more regularly, so I am starting out with one of New Orleans' grand streets, Esplanade Avenue. When dealing with the Italianate architecture of New Orleans, which is well known, a few characteristics come to mind:

1. In southern architecture, a lot more ironwork survives, particularly in porches and sometimes in brackets themselves. This ironwork once was ubiquitous in the US and much more common in different regions, but the scrap metal drives for WWI and WWII, weather decay, and changing tastes encouraged its removal in more northern cities, even from cemeteries. In New Orleans, where it never really went out of fashion given its presence in French and Spanish design, it was even more common than elsewhere and was preserved, giving us a nice image of the range and decorative possibilities of this architectural form.

2. In the south, one often finds a much stronger blending of styles, especially Greek Revival. You often see a double height columned Greek porch with brackets superimposed onto the entablature. Traditional Greek elements like eared window surrounds, anthemia and palmettes derived from the design books of Minard Lafever, and battered moldings (where the sides flare outward) are common in New Orleans Italianates. Additionally, many urban houses of the south display more refined Anglo-Italianate designs, to which residents may have been predisposed by the strong European influences, both continental and British, throughout the south.

3. One of the most popular facade treatments in the south is plaster, another strong European influence, since most French and Spanish colonial architecture was faced in plaster that was perfect for battling the moist weather. Since humidity and wetness cause mortar to decay more quickly, plaster provided a useful protective coat over brickwork that help preserve the structure and was maintained in the south while many plastered buildings in the north have lost that coating. Frequently, we will see the plaster scoured (etched) to look like blocks of stone.

4. Plan-wise, most houses in New Orleans were built on narrow lots, leading to the adoption of side-hall and rowhouse plans that had a narrow front facade and a very wide side facade (the "shotgun" house). This left much less space for decorative towers and unique plans, although there are some of examples of these in the more spacious, suburban Garden District. Wealthier New Orleans houses frequently feature a courtyard behind the house with connected outbuildings that housed horses, slaves, kitchens, and domestic spaces.

The Charles Johnson house, built in 1876 at 571 Esplanade, is an excellent and refined example of the side-hall/rowhouse plan. Esplanade Avenue itself was a major 19th century prestige street in New Orleans. In a city strong divided between anglophone and creole society, Esplanade served as the society street for wealthy Creoles, at the edge of the French Quarter, while wealthy anglophones settled St. Charles Avenue as a prestige street. The house has a plastered facade painted an appropriate grey to simulate stone, although like many houses, the sides are left unplastered, a cost saving measure. All the windows and entrances are segmental arched and are graced by curving hood moldings enlivened by rococo anthemia. The brackets are simple c-scroll and alternate between longer brackets connecting runs of shorter brackets. The facade itself displays Anglo-Italianate raised panel quoins at the corners. What especially caught my eye on this house, however, was how the iron porch (very lacy and delicate) was articulated; rather than merely capping it with a tent roof, this house adds a strong wooden cornice to the porch with intersecting arched pediments. The tympana (the hollow space created by a pediment) are graced with delicate sets of triple leaves in a crown like pattern. This makes this house a particularly bold example of a New Orleans Italianate, since the porch comes off as such a strong element. Additionally, the house is brought together by its heaviness, the thickness of the moldings and the depth of the eave. In a city like New Orleans with lots of houses vying for the passer-by's attention, competition must have been fierce to make a distinctive contribution.

The house, as the story goes, was left by Johnson to his secret lover Marie Lanaux, the daughter of his business partner. It is from this woman that the current bed and breakfast that owns the house derives its name. Take a look at their website for more information and interior views of the house, which is furnished with some fantastic Renaissance Revival pieces appropriate to the house's age. The decorators have definitely created a bric-a-brac filled authentic interior that matches the house very well.