Transforming Soule Business College into a home and studio in the Garden District

This story is from the archives of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door monthly? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!

By Mary Fitzpatrick

“Like sculpting space,” Louise and Gene Rogas would say when describing their renovation of more than 9,000 square feet of open classrooms into a home and studio.

From the circa 1923 Soule College annex on Philip Street the couple created Soho in the Garden District, with gallery-like walls for their art collection and vast pine floors for their rugs and antiques. In the midst of live oaks, double-galleried mansions and neat shotguns, they designed a home in the treetops above a studio full of natural light for artist Gene.

Today, the grand space is on the market for more than $2 million as both Louise and Gene have passed away, but 25 years ago the bid was out for its demolition. “Tear it down? That would be a sin!” Louise wrote in a reflection on their renovation for Preservation in Print.

They had spent two years searching for the right home/studio space before a friend suggested visiting the old school annex as a potential site to build a new house. “Gene and I were overwhelmed with the beautiful expanse of space, 14-foot ceilings and fabulous triple cypress windows,” she said.

1: 1413 Philip St., constructed in 1923 as Commerce Building extension of Soule College.

2: Interior living space after Louise and Gene Rogas adapted the building for their home and studio in the late 1980s.

Photos by Lauren McCulloch, courtesy of Eleanor Farnsworth.

To buy just the classroom building, however, was not an apparent option because it was actually a wing attached to another wing of a neighboring home. Quite a home, in fact.

“The spectacular Buckner-Eustis mansion at the corner of Jackson and Coliseum is…the apogee of Antebellum domestic splendour in an urban setting,” architectural historian John Ferguson wrote in the May 1988 issue of Preservation in Print. Designed in 1856 by “it” architect Lewis E. Reynolds to be cotton factor Henry Sullivan Buckner’s power house, the Greek Revival fantasy features wraparound two-story galleries, Corinthian-over-Ionic columns, Westchester marble window sills, a 64-foot center hall, two-tier gas chandeliers, on and on. In 1922, Daughter Laura Buckner Eustis sold the one-acre estate to the owners of Soule Business College (sons of the founder Colonel George Soule), who relocated their school from its Lafayette Square location. The following year, the college added the brick “Commerce Building” to the mansion’s three-story service ell, creating a 39,000 square-foot campus, Ferguson reported. In 1983, Soule, which was the oldest business college in the South, closed down and offered the property for sale.

3: The Buckner-Eustis house at the corner of Jackson and Coliseum, built in 1856, became the Soule Business College in 1922. The Commerce Building was connected to the house’s service ell and had to be severed for the adaptive reuse. Photo by Antonio Pacheco.

Unlike an art collection, of course, you can’t hang a building on a wall and a use had to be found for the landmark. During the course of marketing the estate, the buildings were advertised as “suitable for professional offices, retirement home, school, museum, condos, ideal for antiques, weddings, etc.” Buried in there was a long shot: family dwelling. The zoning didn’t actually allow most of the commercial uses, and, in any case, they would be contested by the neighborhood, “where it’s not uncommon for residents to keep copies of the zoning code in their sideboards,” I wrote in my first article for Preservation in Print.

After three years with no takers, the majority of contiguous neighbors accepted a multi-family housing proposal from a developer who had met regularly with Garden District representatives. That was in 1986, the year Congress voted to eliminate most tax credits for real estate (and lower historic rehab credits), so the project collapsed.

When the Rogases offered to buy just the Commerce Building addition in the late ‘80s, the Soule heirs hesitated to divide the property. Negotiations took several months, but ultimately an agreement was reached that required the buyers to demolish 15 feet of their building in order to sever it from the Buckner-Eustis mansion. In the end, the estate became three single-family homes: the mansion was purchased by a couple from England, a corner piece of land became a new George Hopkins-designed house, and the Rogases got their combined home and studio. Neighbors were elated.

Louise and Gene built a model on the dining room table to play with the space during the months it took to get through the city permitting process. “Important to us were aesthetics, flow and being true to the building rather than imposing ourselves on it,” Louise said. “We decided to live on the second floor because the windows are more graceful and look out on four large oak trees. No curtains, no screens — just like a tree house. We decided on large arch openings, the same size and shape as the windows, to define the space. We say we have the largest one-and-a-half bedroom house in town.”

Gene’s studio was on the ground floor, set apart with a glass wall that had been the front of a faux bank, “College National Bank, Merchant’s Exchange,” where the Soule business students could practice being business professionals. The couple partitioned space for a sitting area, geology office, and Louise’s private “attic” — the added walls provided more space to hang Gene’s paintings. “The effect is like a spacious gallery,” she said. Old slate found onsite was fashioned into walkways, and many of the fixtures, gates and railings came from salvage stores.

4: Artist Gene Rogas had a light-filled studio on the ground floor. Photo by Lauren McCulloch, courtesy of Eleanor Farnsworth.

“We have our dream house — a loft in the trees and in the middle of the Garden District, which I have loved since I first moved there in 1960,” wrote Louise. “Our favorite compliment came from an architect who proclaimed that this was ‘the spiffiest thing to happen in the Garden District since the Civil War.’”