California style stands out on N.O. streets Modern, spacious bungalows contrasted with traditional ornate, elaborate cottages

Julie Landry Contributing writer
The year was 1909, and three New Orleans residents had a plan that would change the landscape of the city.

In a town where shotgun cottages and homes of Italianate and Queen Anne style were the norm, Michael Baccich, Edward Lafaye and R.E. Edgar de Montluzin brought one of the first modern interpretations of a 20th century suburb to the area. They called it Gentilly Terrace.

The idea, California-style bungalows on expansive lots surrounded by gardens and palm trees, was the beginning of a new era in New Orleans, said Lori Durio, principal architectural historian for the Historic District Landmarks Commission, which regulates the city’s local historic districts and landmarks.

“It had much bigger lots, and the houses were set back from the street,” she said. “It was really a different feeling than the rest of New Orleans.”

Not to mention the architecture.

“It was very cutting edge, to do this California style,” she said. “It sounds funny now, but at the time it was very unusual.”

Entered into the National Register of Historic Places on Nov. 18, 1999, the Gentilly Terrace Historic District, which encompasses 665 buildings, is bordered by Gentilly Boulevard and Spain, Mirabeau and Eastern streets. Almost half of the homes are of the Craftsman or California bungalow style, the largest neighborhood of that type in the state.

About three miles from downtown and accessible by streetcar and by those few who possessed automobiles in the early 1900s, Gentilly Terrace was transformed from dairy farm land into spacious homesites. The developers were among the first in New Orleans to buy a geographic area with the intent to develop it in a specific architectural style, Durio said.

To market their development, the principals of Gentilly Terrace Co., who all made their homes in Gentilly Terrace and had streets named for them, put out a lengthy promotional brochure titled “Gentilly Terrace: Here’s Your Opportunity.” In it, they made much of the fact that the terraced lots were built an average of 27 feet above sea level. In fact, the company’s advertising slogan was “Where Houses are Built on Hills.”

The May 1912 issue of “Architectural Art and its Allies” praised the virtues of suburban living by comparing the “high, cool, terraced suburbs” to the “crowded rows, and rows upon rows of cheap double cottages in the city.” A forward, titled “The Old Order of Things is Disappearing” by Mayor Martin Behrman, also applauded “beautiful suburban communities like Gentilly Terrace.”

A different look

Recognizable by their low-slung roofs with deep eaves, low-pent dormers and deep porches, the California bungalows had a markedly different look than the Queen Anne and Italianate houses with their high-pitched roofs, turrets and fancy gables, Durio said.

Influenced by Japanese architecture, the California bungalow roofs featured exposed rafters with carved ends and porches with flared piers topped with wooden columns, often pergola-style, Durio said. Small-paned decorative windows and wood-shingled panels also are nice elements of the Craftsman style, she said.

“It’s really great stuff. It reminds me of Hansel and Gretel,” she said. “It sometimes looks like a German fairy tale.”

Another unique feature of the bungalow was the use of inlaid cobblestone and pebbles in porch piers, front steps or port-cocheres.

“That was very unusual here, but that goes back to the Craftsman philosophy, to use natural materials and handmade products,” Durio said.

The Gentilly Terrace Company House at 4615 St. Roch Ave., known as the state’s finest California-style bungalow, was built in 1912 by the design department of the Gentilly Terrace Co.

Individually landmarked by the HDLC, the home’s distinctive roofline features a porch gable pediment of vertical slats. Triple posts rise from brick piers with a pronounced flare, a reminder of the Oriental influence. The flare also is repeated on door frames and on the structure’s exterior walls. Inside, handcrafted, built-in china cabinets, lockers and a window seat are a hallmark of the Craftsman style.

“The style was a rather curious import to the city, because the aesthetic was so different,” said Eean McNaughton, an architect with E. Eean McNaughton Architects in Algiers. “The California bungalow represented progress because California represented progress. That’s one of the things that attracted people to it.”

The roofline at the Bayhi House at 4437 Painters St., designed by H. Jordan Mackenzie in 1910, also merits note. The 2 ½ story house, described as designed along the lines of a 19th century Norwegian homestead, has its half story courtesy of two intersecting bow roofs. It also has been individually landmarked by the HDLC.

A fine example of stone- and pebble-inlaid workmanship can be found at 4460 Music St., where tall stone and concrete piers extend to the roofline and smaller matching piers designed to hold planters or other decorative items are placed on each side of the front steps.

Preservation Resource Center staff member Ann Heslin, who researched Gentilly Terrace while working on her master’s degree in historic preservation at Tulane University, said the handcrafted elements of the Craftsman style — such as window seats, inlaid stones and intricately carved bracketing for columns — are what make them unique.

“There was no mass production of anything in those houses,” she said. “They were simply designed, but they were really artistic with all of the handcrafted elements.”

The Craftsman house was so unusual, in fact, that the developers brought in foremen from California to oversee the building process.

“There wasn’t a communication system like there is now, and California was a long way away,” Durio said. “People built here in the traditional way. They learned from their fathers and grandfathers. They didn’t know any other way. The developers brought in people who knew how to do this kind of work and how to build it.”

Craftsman movement

Craftsman-style houses were born of the Arts and Crafts movement that developed in the 1890s as a response to industrialization, Durio said. The craftsmen of the period revolted against the mass-produced and assembly-line thinking and went back to handmade, individually crafted pieces that emphasized good design.

The architectural expression of that movement was the Craftsman style, pioneered by brothers Charles and Henry Greene in California in 1903.

“Then that style began to move across the country,” Durio said. “But New Orleans had never seen anything like it.”

Wayne Gillette, treasurer for the Gentilly Terrace Gardens and Improvement Association, founded in 1924, said the group was instrumental in seeking the neighborhood’s national historic designation. The 350-member group also has been working intermittently since the late 1990s to secure a local historic designation from the HDLC, which would carry some restrictions for owners wanting to improve their property.

Gillette said it’s all in the name of preserving the integrity of the area. “Real estate agents told us it would enhance the value of the property overall,” he said.

A lifelong Gentilly Terrace resident, Gillette, 56, said he grew up on Mandeville Street. When he married about 25 years ago, he and his wife bought a home on St. Roch Avenue.

“I liked St. Roch because of the big oak trees,” he said. “It’s a park-like setting. It’s what Audubon Boulevard should be.”

Gillette said residents have worked diligently to keep up the area’s appearance, even meeting with the city’s streets department and sewerage and water board to make sure renovations to the area wouldn’t ultimately mar its facade.

Besides its eclectic mix of architecture, Gillette said there’s another important reason residents usually plan to stay put.

“The houses are built on terraces. Nowhere else in New Orleans has that,” he said. “That’s why we don’t have flooding problems.”

Durio said in Gentilly Terrace, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

“What’s significant is that the whole neighborhood has a style you don’t have anywhere else,” she said. “When you look at it, it’s so different from what they had at the time.”

© The Times-Picayune. Used with permission.