During Carnival, I stumble across a wonderful block in the Irish Channel, the 2800 block of St. Thomas Street. Although none of the nine houses on the block are painted purple, green and gold, they are so exuberantly colored they put me in the mood for a parade.
Color, I discover, is just one of the elements that ties the block together. Take a look, for example, at the wide brick sidewalk, laid in a herringbone pattern. It stretches from the fence line to the curb, no planting strip to interrupt its carpet-like beauty. Each of the houses is set back a bit from the sidewalk, allowing for a front porch, plus the double and single shotguns all have hipped roofs and brackets, two additional uniting elements.
I begin my walk at the intersection of St. Thomas and Sixth Street and walk east toward Washington Avenue. I pass up the only side-gabled house on the block, a small cottage, and find myself standing in front of a dusky lavender double shotgun with oversized brackets, a hipped roof and a wild “garden” in front of the fence. I call it a garden (despite the fact that there’s no discernible layout) because of the pink plastic flamingo and blooming pink rose near it. The house exudes an air of mystery, retired as it is from the sidewalk and halfway hidden by overgrowth — I can’t help but wonder who lives there.
A few steps farther on is the anomaly on the block, a sparkling white house with a stucco facade, a half-roof accented with red terracotta barrel tiles shading the porch, and delicate wrought iron railings for the porch and steps. The white stucco glows in the afternoon sun, accented by grass green tiles applied to the stucco.
As I consider the facade, trying to decide if its Mediterranean appearance is original or an alteration, a friendly man exits the house and comes to the fence to talk to me. I learned he has lived here for 45 years, so he has had a front-row seat to watch progress on the block. In the mid-1990s, there were quite a few unoccupied and deteriorating houses on the block — but no more.
Most neighbors own their homes, he tells me, as does he. He also reports that this somewhat isolated one-block long section of St. Thomas Street, bookended by Sixth and Washington, doesn’t see a lot of strangers walking past, which likely accounts for why I attract his attention.
The next two shotgun houses can be taken as a pair, as they share so much architectural DNA. There’s a single and a double, both hipped roof and both bracketed, and both have arched top windows and doors in the Italianate style. The millwork pattern on the brackets is the same on both houses, as is the “keystone” at the peak of the arched tops of the windows and doors.
They’re a first for me: I have never seen a keystone on an Italianate arch on a wooden house in New Orleans before. Nor have I seen extra columns of quoins like those here: I have only seen them on the edge boards of facades. Here I see columns of quoins between the doors and tall windows as well as between the two windows on the double. These extra columns intrigue me. No surprise they appear in a dark blue house with pink front doors. Nothing here is strictly by the book, and that’s what I adore about it.
A few paces beyond the house with the pink doors is a single shotgun, all dressed up for Carnival. It makes up for its diminutive size with Carnival beads draped on the iron porch and stair rails, plus a charmingly haphazard array of tiny lights in Mardi Gras colors.
There is no missing the next house. Its dark blue body with bright yellow trim and red window sash and door call out for attention — the exact opposite of the first house I described, the dusky lavender one that seems to hide behind its fence and foliage. The house has a hipped roof but the tops of the doors and windows are flat, not arched as we have seen on the house with bright pink doors and its mate. There’s no room for an in-ground garden here; the front porch comes right up to the sidewalk. Fenced in with protective wrought iron, the porch is filled with potted plants. A good solution for a committed gardener in this case.
I arrive at last the last hipped roof, double shotgun on the block (there’s a camelback to its right but its facade is so altered I choose not to include it). The house is painted a “robin’s egg blue” complemented by a pale burnt orange, applied to trim accents, the porch deck and the foundation. The combination succeeds surprisingly well, especially in showing off the home’s most extraordinary feature: its oversized, cut out brackets.
When I refer to the cut outs, it’s in contrast with most brackets that are milled out of a single solid piece of wood. Imagine using a jigsaw to cut out all of the recessed portions of the millwork pattern ….et voila! As I stand there admiring them, I recall a friend who renovated an Irish Channel house with oversized cut-out brackets many years ago. I wonder, could this have been the house?
As I double check the block to make sure I haven’t missed anything before I leave, I feel as though I am being watched. Sure enough, I spot an inquisitive tabby cat atop a chair at the house with pink doors. I seem to have awakened him, so I suggest he continue his nap while I head home to do the same.
New Orleans native R. Stephanie Bruno is a writer, architectural historian and real estate consultant. She is the author of “New Orleans Streets: A Walker’s Guide to Neighborhood Architecture” and serves on the city’s Historic District Landmark Commission. Her StreetWalker column appeared in The Times-Picayune’s InsideOut section. She can be reached at email@example.com.