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When Bret Cunningham and Leo Lalla were house hunting in 2008, the couple had searched far and wide for a house that made them feel at home, but their efforts had come up short. As they drove down Amethyst Street, they noticed a forlorn mid-century modern home that had sat vacant for decades. It was love at first sight.

The empty home was not on the market at the time, but Cunningham and Lalla wrote a letter to the building’s owner and explained that they would love to buy the mid-century home to restore the modernist gem to its original beauty.

The house was designed by architect John Rock for the family of Oscar J. Tolmas, a prominent local real estate developer and philanthropist. Plans approved by the Orleans Levee Board in 1959 list “specifications for single residence of Mr. Gerson Z. Tolmas,” Oscar’s brother. Newspaper records show that the house was built by 1961 and list Gerson at the address, with later records also listing Charles and Cecile Tolmas, Oscar and Gerson’s parents, as residents.

“The story from the neighborhood was that [Oscar] built this for his mom,” said Cunningham. “He worked with the architect and had this home built for her, and he lived here at one point.” After Gerson and Oscar moved to other homes, and their mother moved to a healthcare facility, the home remained empty for years with many of its original contents inside, and remained empty after Cecile’s death in 1992.

“From what we can surmise, it sat vacant for about 23 years,” said Cunningham. When the couple reached out to Oscar Tolmas to inquire about the house, they had no idea that its interior was a treasure trove of original furniture, fixtures and mementos. After talks with Tolmas revealed these interior treasures, they requested that the furniture remain and promised to restore as many of the original pieces as possible.

“His real qualifier was that we don’t tear it down and put up a big two-story house,” Cunningham said. Although Lakeshore is a showcase for stunning modernist architecture, there are few legal protections to prevent developers from demolishing buildings in the neighborhood, making mid-century modern buildings like the Amethyst Street home — with so many intact original features — exceptionally rare in New Orleans.

After purchasing and meticulously restoring the home, as well as many of its original furniture and contents, Cunningham and Lalla’s home serves as a livable time capsule of mid-century modern design.

The one-story home’s exterior is nearly symmetrical, with two brick-clad wings connected by a center glass wall. Inside, a slate hallway, flanked by a dining room and den, leads to a large open living space. Polished terrazzo floors reflect light from original overhead pendant lights and views from the swimming pool through sliding glass doors. The sounds of trickling water echo through the room as fish swim in an original koi pond.

Along one wall, a wood-paneled bar bends into the space and houses a working rotary phone that is original to the house. Along the opposite wall, wood-paneled built-in shelving folds down to reveal an original NuTone record player and stereo system that still works.

The couple has painstakingly worked to restore many of the home’s details themselves, including carefully disassembling, sanding, re-staining and recovering the ceiling’s built-in NuTone speakers with new cloth. Rusted pendant lights in the dining room were also taken apart and carefully refinished. The yellowed terrazzo floors were diamond buffed and refinished with grout lines repainted to match.

“This house is our baby,” said Cunningham. “We play with this house, we work on this house all the time.”

Cunningham and Lalla believe the built-ins and stereo system were designed by George Nelson, a lead designer for the Herman Miller furniture company. Nelson also designed much of the other furniture that came with the house, including tables, dressers and beds. The couple has a box of receipts and catalogs of the Herman Miller furniture that was ordered when the house was built. “We even have fabric samples and the catalogs they circled when they ordered,” said Cunningham.

The drawers of one of the Nelson-designed end tables in the living room hold a small booklet from the U.S. government titled “How to Survive an Atomic Attack,” which the couple discovered in the back of the drawer and put back in its original spot. In the bed’s fold-out storage, built-in lights turn on and off as they slide out of the headboard.

Other thoughtfully built-in features in the home include toothbrush holders that rotate out from the bathroom walls and a dispenser for paper towels and aluminum foil that folds down from a wall in the kitchen. Bathrooms still contain original tile floors and fixtures, and one contains a walk-in shower three steps down from the ground level, which doubles as a deep bathtub.

Some furniture pieces are new but were carefully curated to match the style of the house, while others were salvaged and collected to reflect the mid-century era. Knoll Barcelona chairs were added to the living room to match the chairs in an undated watercolor rendering of the space that the couple discovered in the house. In the front entryway, a globe light was salvaged from a nearby mid-century modern house in the neighborhood that was demolished. In the backyard, stone tiki heads that once adorned the Bali Hai restaurant in Pontchartrain Beach peek over the hedges and keep watch over the pool.

A few updates were made to accommodate present-day needs. Acoustic ceiling tiles throughout the house were replaced with sheetrock for a cleaner look. In the kitchen, deteriorated laminate and cabinets were replaced and new appliances were installed, but the couple made sure to retain the layout and original design intent.

“For us, it’s about trying our hardest to keep it in the era and making it livable,” said Cunningham.

Dee Allen is PRC’s Communications Associate and Staff Writer for Preservation in Print.