Photos by Sara Essex Bradley
Visit this historic home and seven other examples of New Orleans’ vernacular architecture at PRC’s Spring Home Tour presented by Entablature Design + Build and Entablature Realty on April 22 and 23.
As the owners of Inhab Group, a design, construction and millworks company, Caroline and Mike Bertel have worked on hundreds of renovations across New Orleans. But the current renovation of 3232 Grand Route St. John is special, not only because it will be the Bertels’ personal home, but also because of the history they uncovered during the project.
From the exterior, the house appeared to be a 1920s raised Craftsman Double, with rafter tails projecting from the front gable, a diamond-shaped attic vent, raised decorative millwork on the box columns and intricate stair railings.
Set up as a multi-family property, it did not evoke love at first sight for the couple, who were on the hunt for a historic house to make their own. “We had many reservations from the original photos viewed online,” the couple said in an email. But its Faubourg St. John location prompted them to schedule a showing.
Their affection for the house changed when they walked through the door in the center of the upstairs, which, at the time, entered into the upper right-hand apartment. The door opened to reveal a seven-and-a-half-foot-wide center hallway that extends to the back of the house.
“We realized it was once a center hall, and there was more history to this house than meets the eye,” the couple said in the email. Last June, as the Bertels and their Inhab team began demolition of the modern layers, they soon realized that the house was constructed sometime between 1813 and 1830. They uncovered exposed ceiling boards and joists — originally painted teal green — that had been preserved beneath layers of plaster. “Typically, you wouldn’t have exposed elements in the early 1900s,” Caroline said.
The ceiling boards and joists’ location in the upstairs front four rooms revealed that the house was built as a dogtrot, a construction type in which two structures are connected by an open breezeway down the center. As a covered outdoor space with good ventilation, the breezeway typically was used for working, dining or sleeping. “This makes sense as to why the center hall is so wide. A typical center hall would be around five feet wide,” Caroline said.
Next came the discovery of the front exterior wall’s brick-between-post construction and the barge board framing throughout the first half of the house, along with the Federalist-style front windows. Cypress floors were found under the heart pine flooring.
The house “just kept getting better and better the further we got into it with all the surprises we found, and it became everything we were looking for,” Mike said.
The couple turned to Michelle Duhon of Southkick Historic Preservation to learn as much as possible about the house’s history. She spent hours in the city archives, and her research included a lucky find: the original blueprints from a 1913 renovation. They showed how the house had been raised eight feet off the ground and set back from the street. The Bertels believe the exterior was adorned with its Craftsman details during the 1913 project.
Their sensitive renovation will create a three-bedroom, three-bathroom home for the couple and their two children, two-year-old Decker and six-month-old Banks, on the upper level. Showcased during PRC’s November 2022 Beams & Brews event, the project also will create three income-producing apartments on the ground level.
The Bertels were able to utilize historic rehabilitation tax credits for the renovation and retained the original architectural features and layouts that were uncovered. “The house is 60 percent restored to the 1913 layout, 20 percent original layout, and 20 percent of our own new interpretation,” the couple said in the email.
Based on the details they uncovered, the couple was able to “piece back together” the original layout, Mike said. Their restoration, he added, “almost feels like a museum of that period. As you move to the back of the house, it moves into the renovation that occurred in 1913.”
Photo by Davis Allen
By “having those 1913 plans, we’ve been able to try to restore as much of that layout as possible,” Caroline said. The blueprints call out “a lot of the elements that were added that we’re getting to keep,” she added. “It’s very distinguishable between this was the original and this happened in 1913.”
“You’re walking through the timeline as you walk through the house,” Mike said.
The uncovered original elements also “changed the end aesthetic,” Caroline said. “When we realized the house dated back to a dog trot design, that allowed us to incorporate more primitive finishes into the end product.”
The exterior’s Craftsman details, the exposed painted ceilings, and the cypress floors in the front four rooms were kept. The couple purchased cypress lumber from a deconstructed barn in Lafayette for flooring through the rest of the upstairs.
The original color of the painted ceiling boards became the foundation of the design throughout the home. They plan to fill the interiors with a mix of antique and modern furnishings along with custom wood furniture made by Mike’s father, Jim Bertel. He crafted both the dining table and the kitchen cabinets.
“The research kind of dictated the design process, and the history dictated the design process,” Mike said. “The final product tells the story of each chapter that this house has been through.”
PRC’s Spring Home Tour, presented by Entablature Design + Build and Entablature Realty, will open the doors to eight stunning private homes with smart, innovative renovations that showcase the livability and versatility of the city’s historic architecture.
Saturday & Sunday, April 22 & 23,
10 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. each day
Parkview and Bayou St. John neighborhoods
Learn more & buy your tickets today!