Award-winning renovation breathed new life into historic Felicity Church

Visit this and 7 other stunning homes in New Orleans’ historic Garden District and Lower Garden District at the Holiday Home Tour on Dec. 14 and 15.

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1220 Felicity Street
Felicity Church

As neighborhood residents, Chris Jones and Jessica Walker often passed the vacant church at the corner of Felicity and Chestnut streets. When a “New Price” appeared on its for-sale sign, they called out of curiosity.

They first toured the church in 2009 and made an offer based on their valuation of the adjacent parsonage house “because we knew the church needed an exceptional amount of work,” Jones said. Although that first offer was rejected by the United Methodist Church, they continued to pursue the property. “We thought the building was beautiful,” Walker said.

But “we went through a lot of game planning. A lot of it was, ‘We need to fix it, so it doesn’t fall down,’ ” Jones added.

The couple finally bought the property in 2011, moved into the 1911 parsonage house, and started repairs to the church’s extensive damage, wrought by Hurricane Katrina and years of deferred maintenance. But it wasn’t until the couple held their wedding in the church in 2013 that they fully grasped how the property could be a unique space.

Felicity Church held its first official event as a renovated space in December 2015, marking the latest chapter for the two-story Gothic Revival-style masonry building with an articulated stucco base mimicking ashlar stone. The corner plot on which it was constructed was deeded to the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1849, according to historic tax credit documents. The first church at this location, known as the Steele Chapel, was designed by architect Thomas K. Wharton and dedicated on Christmas Day in 1850.

Later named the Felicity Street Methodist Church, it burned down in 1887. Architects William C. Williams and Samuel Patton were hired to design the current building, which included electric lighting and heat. “This church was described at its dedication in 1888 as ‘one of the finest edifices in the city’ in the Daily Picayune,” according to the tax credit document.

Photos by Liz Jurey

The sanctuary is on the second floor, which is “uncommon for the South,” Jones said. The open fellowship hall, kitchen, bathrooms, offices and bride’s room occupy the first floor.

The refined style comes from the varied Gothic Revival elements. A gabled stucco portico with a gothic arch and central gothic window above it command the front facade. A side entrance features granite stairs leading to wooden pocket doors in the shape of a gothic arch, which is framed with a stucco gable pediment incised with “Felicity Methodist Church.” Both towers contain gothic arch windows, decorative brickwork and buttresses. Decorative woodwork, including quatrefoils, can be found in the main stairway’s balustrade and newel posts, as well as in the choir and altar rails.

The Great Hurricane of 1915 felled a massive steeple on the Chestnut Street side and damaged the roof. Architect Sam Stone Jr., who also designed the Maison Blanche building, added iron tie-rods to the roof’s truss system and altered the tower to a hip roof. (The opposite one was modified in the 1950s.)

While the church’s congregation had been one of the oldest and most influential in the city, it consisted of just a few members by the time Hurricane Katrina hit. The storm ripped away the apse roof, and the church was decommissioned in 2007. Between 2011 and 2015, the couple’s repair work included installing a new roof, repointing exterior and interior brick, gutting the interior and shoring the structure.

Using federal and state historic preservation tax credits, renovations began in 2015 to make it a flexible space. The design aimed to “expose and highlight the structure of the building and its distinctive spaces and features, and to utilize new construction” to conceal new building systems, an elevator and a kitchen, said Walker, an architect at Coleman Partners Architects at the time of the project. She since has co-founded a new firm, workshop WDXL.

Photos by Liz Jurey

The work exposed the roof’s wooden trusses and removed damaged drywall to reveal the sanctuary’s brick walls. The apse’s original stained glass windows were redone. The stairways’ worn layers of paint were left to show how people traversed them over time. Walls were removed on the first floor to expose the cast iron columns.

The couple marked changes by altering the altar flooring’s direction and installing reveal baseboards along the first floor’s new walls. And they tried to reuse wood salvaged from the renovation as much as possible. That included the vanities in the first floor bathrooms, the table in the bride’s room and the entrance ledge. A stained glass window was reused in the ladies’ bathroom when it had to be removed from its original spot for the fire pump room.

The couple found a creative way to use the sanctuary’s wooden pews. By sistering them and attaching wheels, the pews can be moved around the sanctuary, which is used for both ceremonies and receptions. “We ‘flip’ the room in between, while guests have a cocktail hour downstairs,” Jones said. “We add tables, chairs and décor, but still use the pews against the walls for dining.”

Hiding the building systems proved to be one of the renovation’s biggest challenges. “There are no exposed ducts for the HVAC, and the sprinklers run parallel with the ceiling so they blend in better,” Jones said.

The sanctuary’s entry changed from two sets of double doors to a single central opening, which allowed for the addition of an elevator in one corner and storage space in the other. The air conditioning system is hidden in one tower. Vents were hidden by raising the once lower altar to the level of the choir area, where an organ once stood.

The renovation has received multiple accolades, including the Louisiana Landmarks Society’s 2017 Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation; the AIA New Orleans 2017 Award of Merit for Interior Architecture; the Preserve Louisiana 2017 Preservation Award; and the AIA Baton Rouge 2017 USGBC Louisiana Excellence in Sustainability Award.

 

Image Gallery

Photos by Liz Jurey

 

Holiday Home Tour presented by McEnery Residential

Saturday & Sunday, Dec. 14 & 15 in the Garden District and Lower Garden District
Advance sale tickets: $30 for PRC members, $45 for non-members. $50 on day of tour.
Buy your tickets today!

 

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