This story appeared in the October issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!
When Johnice Katz and her husband Andrew Ryba moved from New Orleans to Denver in 2019, their homesickness for the Crescent City soon beckoned them to return.
“My husband loves historic architecture, and his favorite type of historic architecture is Greek Revival,” Katz said. “I told Andrew when we moved to Denver, if ever the perfect Greek Revival comes up for sale, we can move back.”
Katz is an interior designer and worked in real estate in New Orleans before moving to Colorado and deciding to focus on raising her young son and daughter. Ryba is an associate partner at McKinsey & Company. During the pandemic, when working remotely became the norm and people across the world began spending more time at home, the couple turned to a familiar pastime: browsing real estate listings online.
While scrolling through listings late one night, the couple serendipitously stumbled upon one for a Greek Revival dream home in Algiers Point. The house at 705 Pelican Ave. needed some maintenance and updates, but the family was drawn to its historic features and the surrounding neighborhood, and the asking price fit their budget.
“It’s a good neighborhood and was just an opportunity that probably wouldn’t come up again,” Katz said. “We thought we could turn it into a kid-friendly house, and it would be a sweet place to raise kids.”
After finding the listing, Katz reached out to friends back home in New Orleans, asking them to visit the open house and report back. “Our friends rode their bikes over on the ferry in March, and it was a gorgeous day, so the whole house was completely open with all the doors and windows, and she told us ‘you guys have to buy this house,’” Katz said.
The couple decided to take the plunge, purchasing the house in the spring of 2021 and beginning the renovation process from afar while still living in Colorado, making them only the fifth family to own the house in its more than 170-year history.
The circa-1850 home is one of the most elaborate examples of Greek Revival-style architecture in Algiers Point and is designated a local landmark by the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission. Photo 1 by Johnice Katz, photo 2 by Charles E Leche,
The house’s architectural significance earned it a designation as a local historic landmark by the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission in 1984. The home is “the most elaborate Greek Revival structure extant on Algiers Point,” according to the designation, and was spared from the destruction of the 1895 fire which destroyed much of the neighborhood.
Popular in New Orleans during the mid-19th century, Greek Revival-style architecture sought to emulate the simplicity and elegance of ancient Greek architecture. The Greek-inspired ornamentation at 705 Pelican Ave. includes galleries supported by Ionic columns, an entablature with a dentil course and a projecting cornice, diamond-patterned balustrades and a crossette or “Greek Key” door frame, in which the top board extends horizontally beyond the vertical sides. Many of its original details remain intact today.
The house “is one of only four or five center-hall houses in Algiers Point,” according to the HDLC designation. “This kind of plan … is usually found in one-story houses or raised villas; its employment here in a full two-story house is not common.”
To dive even further into the house’s history, Katz enlisted the help of Gates Preservation to produce a Historic Property Report, which Katz gave to Ryba as a gift for Father’s Day. The report traces the history of the property from its original land grant from the Spanish crown in 1770 to the home’s circa-1850 construction by Francois Vallette and the history of its subsequent owners.
Vallette was a businessman who owned dry docks and shipbuilding enterprises on the nearby levee. He died in the home in 1879, the report states, but his heirs retained the home until 1905 when John A. Barrett purchased it. Barrett was a city councilman and an undertaker, and he moved his funeral business into the house shortly after its purchase. Barrett used the main building as his family’s residence and his office and used outbuildings behind the structure for embalming. Barrett’s family stayed in the home after his death in 1921, and the funeral home continued to operate there for many years.
In 1979, Barrett’s daughters sold the property to the Lauritsen family, who heavily remodeled the historic building. The Carter family purchased the home in 2000, and the Katz-Ryba family followed suit in 2021.
PHOTO 1: Decorative plasterwork — including crown moldings with an exuberant grape and foliage motif, ceiling medallions and corbels beneath the archway separating the double parlor — now provide a backdrop for stylish, eclectic decor. PHOTO 2: In the first-floor center hall, newly installed black and white marble tiles in a checkerboard pattern are reminiscent of the floors inside St. Louis Cathedral. Photos by Charles E. Leche.
Historic walls, modern life
Although the home had seen a handful of renovations from previous owners in decades past, it sat vacant in more recent years and required plenty of upkeep to preserve its historic integrity while making it livable for a modern family. When Katz and Ryba purchased the home, there was no bathroom on the first floor and many spaces in the house still had no air conditioning to help beat the Louisiana heat.
Drawing upon her experience as an interior designer and real estate agent — as well as knowledge from classes with the PRC — Katz began to plan the renovation for the home while still living in Denver, putting together design drawings and searching for contractors while raising her two young children.
Katz had previously worked on historic renovation projects in New Orleans, but the challenges with Covid, supply chain interruptions and labor shortages all complicated the renovation project and slowed down the construction timelines. The timelines shifted again after Hurricane Ida blew through Louisiana and damaged buildings throughout the area.
“When we bought the house in March 2021, we did inspections, so we knew it was in pretty rough shape, but it looked decent from the outside,” Katz said. “We’ve had to do a lot more work to stabilize and protect the structure than we had anticipated, and some of that work is still ongoing.”
Fixing one long-standing issue in the house would often uncover other underlying issues. On the first floor, crumbling interior plaster walls needed to be replaced. But after initial repair work, Katz discovered that rising damp through the underlying brick walls was causing the new plaster to mold. Further investigation pointed to drainage issues beneath the house as the culprit, which were causing water to pool after rainstorms and leading to damage in the walls as well as the foundation. After landscape crews dug trenches in the yard and completed the drainage project, Katz immediately noticed an improvement in and around the house.
After years of poor drainage and termite damage, the foundation also required extensive work. Many of the rotting joists, sills and subfloors needed to be completely replaced and new footings poured. After Hurricane Ida’s winds, the roof also required repairs.
In addition to the historic house, the Katz-Ryba family now also is the steward of an adjacent centuries-old Live Oak tree. They have lovingly named the massive tree “Mr. Oakra” and work with Bayou Tree Service to regularly check and maintain the historic Live Oak.
On the interiors, historic architectural details mix and mingle with new additions. Original decorative plasterwork — including crown moldings with an exuberant grape and foliage motif, ceiling medallions and corbels beneath the archway separating the double parlor — now provide a backdrop for contemporary light fixtures, mid-century modern pieces, Persian rugs, house plants and disco balls. The stylish, eclectic decor throughout the house combines heirlooms with pieces Katz has found at thrift stores and estate sales.
“I wanted to respect the original footprint of the house and make the old work for today,” Katz said.
Decorative pressed-metal ceilings in the kitchen — historic to the home, although installed decades after the circa-1850 construction date — have been restored and painted white, pairing well with new stone countertops and verdant cabinetry.
“I did the architecture and design work myself, and we had an amazing carpenter, Jesse from 1st Hand Woodworks, who did all the cabinets,” Katz said. “There’s so much green outside the windows, I felt like they deserved a fun color.” Katherine O’Bryon, owner of Goldfish Construction, also worked on the home’s renovation.
In the first-floor center hall, black and white marble tiles in a checkerboard pattern are reminiscent of the floors inside St. Louis Cathedral. They are newly installed, replacing beige tiles from a previous renovation, but perfectly fit the historic home with a tumbled finish that provides a vintage appearance. “This tile was actually the very first thing that I bought for the house,” Katz said. “I knew that I wanted this checkerboard tile, and I ordered it a week after we closed.”
A small two-story wing was added to the back of the home in 1898 and was only accessible from the outdoor porch. Katz installed a bathroom in that space and connected it to the home by opening a narrow doorway in the masonry wall. Both of the home’s bathrooms are now located in the wing. The first-floor powder room now sports a stylish floral wallpaper, and the primary bathroom on the second floor is clad in a dark green subway tile.
The rooms on the second floor were given a “full dip” paint treatment, covering every surface — walls, trim, moldings and fireplace mantels — in a single, vibrant color. The children’s bedroom is painted a light blue. The playroom, connected by pocket doors, is painted a mustard yellow. The primary bedroom has neutral walls and natural wood trim, while the adjacent sitting room is painted a vivid coral.
“New Orleans is a vibrant city, so it’s a lot less scary to use color. People are brave here. They do what they like and have their own personal style, so I thought it would be fun to add a bunch of color,” Katz said. “Also, I think it’s good for kids to have bright colors and boost their creativity, and to boost my creativity.”
PHOTO 1: The rooms on the second floor were given a “full dip” paint treatment, covering every surface — walls, trim, moldings and fireplace mantels — in a single, vibrant color. PHOTO 2: Decorative pressed-metal ceilings in the kitchen have been restored and painted white. New cabinetry installed by Jesse Hidalgo of 1st Hand Woodworks bring the colors of the lush yard into the home’s interior. Photos by Charles E. Leche.
A PRC sneak peek
Katz and Ryba opened their doors to the PRC last June to showcase their renovation-in-progress at a “Beams & Brews” event. The series offers a chance for PRC members to tour the renovation of historic commercial and residential buildings throughout New Orleans while enjoying free drinks. Despite record-breaking summer temperatures, crowds of neighbors and preservationists excitedly lined up to get a peek inside the renovation of the Algiers Point landmark.
“We met so many neighbors; I met people who also own 1850s houses or pre-1900s houses that renovated them in New Orleans,” Katz said. “It was cool to connect with other people who are interested in the same things and meet neighbors, and also to meet people from Instagram.”
Her account, @johnice.katz, has grown a sizable following while Katz has shared renovation updates and design inspiration for her ongoing home projects. In addition to neighbors and PRC supporters, many of her Instagram followers also joined the Beams and Brews event this summer to get an in-person look at the renovation.
“When we had the Beams and Brews, I loved that there were so many kids playing. I put toys out in every room because I knew people were going to bring their kids,” Katz said. In her son’s room, a Louisiana-made antique armoire from the 19th century — an heirloom from a family friend — is now full of children’s toys.
“At one point during the tour I walked upstairs, the armoire was open, and there were 15 kids playing in there with their parents standing around drinking cocktails and talking,” Katz said. “A lot of things have happened in this house, but I wondered if this was the first time there’s ever been 15 New Orleans kids playing with their parents standing around having a calm moment with a cocktail.”
Katz will continue to tackle the ongoing home maintenance projects one-by-one — her next order of business will be installing gutters and repairing the back porch railings that have been weathered by time and water — but the family is already settling in and feeling at home inside the historic building while the projects continue to unfold.
“It felt like we should turn it into a kids’ house, make it a happy place, and make it a place where neighbors feel welcome and happy when they walk by,” Katz said, “and I feel like we’ve been successful with that.”
Davis Allen is PRC’s Communications Associate and a staff writer for Preservation in Print.