In the early evening of Feb. 24, 2015, Will Trufant and his brother-in-law Brett Sutton grabbed a bottle of wine and a couple of plastic Mardi Gras cups and met on the front porch of the home where Trufant’s family has lived for five generations.
The porch was wet, the night was chilly, and the unmistakable smell of smoke clung to the air.
About noon that day, Trufant had rushed to the Garden District house just in time to watch it burn in a four-alarm fire. He quickly ensured that his grandmother Ann Trufant, who was 87 at the time, was safe. She had been in the shower when the blaze broke out on the third floor of the house.
Ann Trufant escaped without injury thanks to the quick response of neighbors, who noticed the smoke, and an alarm system that sent a signal directly to the New Orleans Fire Department, getting help quickly to the scene.
Will’s parents, Bill and Bobbi Trufant, live in the house, but were out of town when the fire erupted. They kept in touch by phone as firefighters battled the blaze.
After it was extinguished, Will Trufant and Brett Sutton met on the porch to keep any salvageable belongings safe until a security guard could arrive. They also wanted to work through some of the emotions of the day. Will had seen his childhood bedroom go up in flames.
“It was dark and cold, and we were wet and exhausted from adrenaline withdrawal,” Will recalled recently. “But we try to be silver-lining people. Hey, no one got hurt. Yes, it’s terrible, but now we had the opportunity to fix things that we haven’t been able to fix in generations.”
The Queen Anne-style house in the 1200 block of Philip Street has remained in the Trufant family since it was built between 1891 and 1892. It had been commissioned by Samuel Adams “S.A.” Trufant at a cost of $7,575 and designed by the architecture firm Sully and Toledano with all the grandeur of its time, including coved ceilings and a decorative plaster arch separating two formal parlors.
“That house is a very good example of its period,” said architect and architectural historian Robert J. Cangelosi, Jr., who the Trufant family hired to restore the property after the fire. “The detailing in that house is exceptional.”
S.A. Trufant was a commodities broker, “so he endured the market crashes” of the early 20th century, Bobbi Trufant said. In the late 1920s, the family divided the house, turning the second and third floors into apartments — a typical move during the Great Depression. The family remained living in the home as well.
Generations later, Bill Trufant — S.A. Trufant’s great grandson — grew up there, and in 1985, Bill and his wife Bobbi moved their family into the first and second floors. Bill’s parents, Von and Ann Trufant, also lived in a second-floor apartment.
Over the years, the family started consolidating the spaces, slowly bringing the house back to a single-family home.
The fire broke out on the third floor, starting in an HVAC junction, Bobbi said. It had spread to the second floor as the firefighters managed to contain it. Roofing material and other smoldering pieces came crashing down in the stairwell.
What wasn’t damaged by flames was ruined by water and smoke.
“The firefighters did an exceptional job,” Will said. “They covered furniture and other things with tarps to try to protect them from damage.”
The night of the fire, Bobbi and Bill arrived back in New Orleans. The next day, they were met by an insurance claims adjuster, who flew in from California. The house was insured by Fireman’s Fund insurance.
Years before the disaster, Ann had worked with Robert A. LeBreton of Gillis, Ellis & Baker on her homeowner’s insurance coverage. When the fire broke out, LeBreton rushed to meet her at the scene.
Fortuitously, Ann, Bill and Bobbi had done an inventory of the property years before the blaze. That inventory made a huge difference, Bobbi said, making it easier to show the insurance company what was in the house before it was damaged.
Bobbi and Bill Trufant, pictured above, and Bill’s Mother, Ann Trufant, moved out of the house for two years during the renovation. Photos by Liz Jurey.
A RETURN TO GRANDEUR
In the bewildering days after the fire, the Trufants turned to Cangelosi and general contractor Roof Technologies Inc. as they began making plans to rebuild. From the start, the goal was to remove the remaining vestiges of the apartments and restore the property to its original grandeur but also make it a livable space for a 21st-century family.
“It was a renovation with sensitivity toward the historic fabric, but it wasn’t an attempt to restore it to just a late 19th-century home. The family wanted a contemporary kitchen, a great room and modern bathrooms,” said Cangelosi, who worked closely with Roof Technologies Inc. during the two-year renovation.
To accommodate all the repairs, it was necessary to gut the house completely and rebuild it.
“I kept thinking, when it was gutted, no one has seen the house opened up like this since S.A. Trufant,” Bobbi said.
In addition to fire, water and smoke damage, the building had a structural problem, necessitating the installation of an internal steel “skeleton,” Cangelosi said. “The house had racked, and we had to pull it back. We had to fatten the walls a little bit to facilitate this steel truss, but you wouldn’t notice it in the house today.”
All of the interior plaster also had to be removed and replaced. Recreating the decorative ceiling pieces and the ornamental arch in the formal parlors was a multi-step process that required the skill of master plasterer Jeff Poree.
“First, we documented everything ahead of time and made a full-sized template of (the arch) in Masonite to get the correct shape,” Cangelosi said. “Then Jeff Poree dismantled it and salvaged what he could to make molds so he could put it back as authentically as possible.”
Though the rest of the house has some modern elements, standing in the front formal parlors today, it’s easy to imagine that those spaces look the way architects Thomas Sully and Albert Toledano designed them 127 years ago.
As the rebuilt home started to rise from the ashes, the Trufants wanted a cohesive design that blended the new and old elements. Before the fire, the house retained its original — and functional — gasoliers. Bobbi had them repaired, cleaned and restored with modern wiring, and now they’re hanging once again.
For the design and installation of the kitchen, bathrooms, bar and upstairs kitchenette, the Trufants worked with Gerald Johnson of Cameron Kitchen and Bath Designs. Bobbi also turned to interior designer Marion DeMeyers to come up with a soothing, neutral color palette — Benjamin Moore’s Fog Mist, Wind’s Breath and Palladian Blue — that unites all the rooms.
“After you’ve been through something like this, you want cosseting,” Bobbi said. “You want to be enveloped by a sense that all is right.”
Photos by Liz Jurey.
CONTINUING THE LEGACY
The house on Philip Street is more than just a treasure to the Trufants. It’s almost like another family member. Walk through the rooms with Bobbi and Bill, and the stories come out.
The couple first met through Bobbi’s sister, who lived across the street from the house. When they decided to get married, Bill and Bobbi held the rehearsal dinner party at the home. “It’s been a central part of our lives,” she said.
After the fire, Bill, Bobbi and Bill’s mother, Ann, moved out of the house for two years as it was being restored. In March 2017, they moved back.
Now, the portrait of S.A. Trufant — which was rescued from the fire by a family friend, Ruthie Winston, who also saved other artwork — hangs once again in the formal living room.
“Our daughter asked us, ‘Now that it’s done and restored, if you had to go through it all again, would you?’ ” Bill said. “The answer is yes. The end result was definitely worth it. It was a major project that consumed our lives for two years, but we love it.”
The restored Trufant house will be one of seven gorgeous homes featured on the Preservation Resource Center’s Holiday Home Tour Dec. 8-9. Get your tickets today!