Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Week 3 & 4

We started week 3 by gutting the kitchen of its cabinets. The wall between the kitchen and the hall was torn down. This wall was made of brick and then covered with plaster. The wall was added probably ten years after the house was built. This room was used as a holding cell for pirates caught on Bayou St. John. Eventually the room was used as a utility room and then a kitchen. The room was 9' x 10' and the way it was configured would not accommodate a modern kitchen. We decided to incorporate the kitchen with the hall. Part of the wall between the kitchen and dining room was removed at some time and a cabinet was place here. A false ceiling had been added. This was removed and the original ceiling and beams were exposed and were in good condition.

We notice an additional layer of bricks were added to the dining room and later the mortar was repointed incorrectly. We will have to dig the modern portland mortar out of the joints. If this is not done it could damage the old brick and cause moisture problems in the house. We, also, believe the back doors were moved when the room was remodeled. The front doors were moved to balance the look of the addition of the outside stairs. We are not sure but suspect that the smaller doors on the Grand Route St. John side were added and possibly a single window was in the room like the office. Steel plates were placed above the doors. All the doors were cut and sills were placed under them. This type of construction is modern and is not original. It is possible that we will move the doors to there original position and decide if the side doors should be replace with a single window. Inside the room is a fireplace and originally there was a sets of double doors on each side of the fireplace. One set was removed and a cabinet was place inside the door way. I will decide whether to bring back the set of doors or keep the cabinet. We, also, have determined that the interior stairs are not original. We are contemplating moving the stairs to the music room which will give us more room for the kitchen and add an additional room upstairs in the hall. First, we must have the architects design and locate a place for the new stairs before we can make a final decision on the move.

We gutted the bathroom upstairs and found that the bricks used during the enclosure of the porch needs to be removed for safety reasons. The beams are put together in an unusual condition. There are two sets of  beams between the first and second floor and second floor and attic. There is a beam that is staked onto the beam inside the wall with a one inch gap between the beams all the way around. Upon further review, this process was used on the whole back porch of the house. The architects and contractor have never seen this type of construction in any other historic home they have worked on. One of the original porch post was in the is room as is the the original rail. Unfortunately the plumbers from previous renovations have cut in to the rail to allow for pipes.

Next we needed to pull up the floors of the first story so that we can run the new electrical and plumbing in the house. The floors in the original two rooms are 2" to 4" thick sandstone. It has a golden color but has been sealed with a colored material. We will strip the floors and bring them back to the stones original color. Under the stone was one inch of sand then an inch of cinders and then hard mud. We will install a slab and reuse these sandstones.

The kitchen and utility room had a tile floor and the hall had a mixture of broken marble, granite and slat. We saved the hall materials and will reuse it in the new bathroom downstairs. Under these floor was sand and cinders but then we found fill. The fill was granite stones and broken pieces of marble. The marble pieces were broken ornate hand carved moldings and columns. We assume these came from the French Quarter or possible was from Europe which was used as ballast in ships. At one time there must have been a step down to the outside porch and under this fill was the original brick floors in a herringbone pattern. When we tried to pull them up many had been worn down or was originally only one inch thick. These brick just crumbled when we tried to pull them up. We were able to pull some bricks that were of normal size. I have decided that I will use bricks in a herringbone pattern in my new kitchen. I want people who visits to see that this was originally a porch and how it would have looked.

Upstairs the small room above the kitchen had indications of termite damage. Under the window was a piece of wood that was eaten and the floors were weak. The floors were cypress and had termite damage. When we pulled up the floors we noticed that the original cypress floors were under them and were in fair condition. There was a little termite damage on one corner but not bad. Since this area was originally a porch it had a pitch for drainage. When it was enclosed pine sleeper of different heights were added to level the floors and then the new cypress floor was added. It is amazing but the termites have eaten only new wood additions but the original wood in the house is still in great condition. That is a testament to the materials and workmanship of that era.

The ceiling over the upstairs hall was replaced with plywood. After inspecting the attic all the original wood is everywhere else and in great condition. We did find two small leaks. One in the front left corner and the other in the middle rear by an attic vent.

Finally, we gutted the half bath outside under the side porch. Once we pulled out the first layer of wall we found some rough Italian plaster tiles. We had found a few pieces inside the music room in the corner. We are not sure when this was added to the house. At some point it was taken out of the music room and the bricks were busted during this process. We have learned a lot about the house and it will take some time to redefine our plans. Update - We decided to pull all of the stucco off of the building because it was replace with modern cement stucco. (Cement will weaken and damage the original bricks.) We noticed once we pulled the stucco off the front of the building that the Italian plaster tiles was actually not tile but decorative stucco. It was underneath another layer of smooth stucco added at the turn of the 20 century. We believe the original stucco was failing some time in the mid to late 1800's and it was replaced with this decorative stucco made with modern cement. Removing the stucco did some damage to the bricks but overall we felt it was necessary to restore and protect the bricks in the long run.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Week 1 & 2

It was decided that we should start our demolition with the 1927 addition to the house(The Music Room). We choose to work on this area first since this is where the live termites had been discovered. We, also, felt the interior plaster was not in good condition and needed to be replaced. Removal of the plaster will allow us to: find out how much damage is inside the walls, the condition of the windows, replace the electrical and plumbing, and allow us to insulate the music room. Upon pulling off the plaster we were shocked to find that the termites had did extensive damage. In some places the 2" x 12" x 20'studs are completely gone or in a paper like condition; more than 80% of the studs are gone or seriously damaged. The large antique wrought iron doors are actually being supported by nothing. The 6" x 6" post were completely gone on one side and the other was half gone with live termites in the wood. The windows were actually in great condition. They were made of cypress and were untouched by the termites. The roof was redone approximately 10 years ago but it was decided that it would need to be redone with a better system. Some termite damage was detected in the deck and will have to be replace. The walls were not insulated and we found a problem with water leakage and moisture. The walls need to be sealed and a system to allow moisture to leave the structure like weep holes needs to be added.

We did find some interesting things inside the walls. Once the plaster was removed we found two of the original porch post inside the wall and a portion of the original porch railing. In addition we discovered the wall between the historic part and the addition was made of brick. At one time an indoor fountain existed because a drain was found inside the wall and it was mentioned in the 1930's Historical Survey. It was a Benvenuto Cellini in craved brass and would be priceless today. It was a duplicate of one given to the Pope in Rome. Mrs. Schertz, also, had an original Thomas Sully portrait. When the plaster was removed from the decorative arches at the iron doors it was discovered to have a craved wooden fleur de lis on each side. Unfortunately, the termites had eaten them to a point that they could not be saved. A sad note is when the bath room was added the plumbers of the time cut into the original railing to allow for pipes. Also, when the porch was enclosed the bricks were just stacked between the posts and railings. This was not built in the proper manner as the original structure and we believe it is not structurally safe. I have hired a structural engineer to provide us with the proper information to correct critical areas in the house. The termite damage was so extensive we had a decision to make whether to save the Music Room or tear it down and rebuild it. It all depended on the condition of the ceiling beams.

The ceiling is redwood and the beams were wrapped with the redwood. We unwrapped the beams and found they were made of long leaf pine. They were an unusual size of 2" x 13" X 18'. Each beam consisted of two of those beams sandwiched with a spacer between them and supported with an iron rod. The beams were in good condition with minor termite damage. It was decided to save the Music Room since the beams, windows and stucco were in good condition. The first two weeks have proven to be interesting! Sorry to say that we have not found any buried treasure yet!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Planning and Permits

David Waggonner and Charles Sterkx of Waggonner and Ball Architects have been hired. In addition, I have hired John Voss as the contractor. It has taken several months to make preliminary plans. We first met with one of the Historic District Landmark Committee(HDLC) members at the house. We are allowed to make any changes on the inside of the house but the outside must remain original. We submitted a request to make several changes to additions which were made in the early 1900's. The North side of the house was changed to a rough stucco and a half bath was added. We proposed to replace the rough stucco back to the original smooth stucco. The bathroom is to be torn out and enlarged to use the complete space under the Northern porch. It will be enclosed with shutters which will be inline with architecture of the time. On the Southern side we plan to tear out the wall where the original rear gallery was enclosed and replace it with shutters. This will give the appearance of what the original house looked like when it was a gallery.

Also, we plan to remove the two skinny round columns next to the iron doors on the 1927 addition and replace them with larger square columns. We plan to remove the front stairs going to the upstairs front gallery. These stairs were added in the early 1900's. The stairs are in poor condition and they are not engineered correctly. The top step of the stairs ends at the wall without a landing which is a major hazard. Also, elimination of the stairs will provide greater security at night. One problem we have is to electrify a house that has solid brick walls; to accomplish this the second story siding will be removed and furred out to allow wiring. If the siding is in poor condition we plan to replace them with wider boards that would have been used on the original structure. For the most part we are keeping the house as it is or trying to bring it back as it would have looked originally. Upon hearing our plans the committee member agreed that our renovations would be acceptable. Our next step was to meet with the whole committee which didn't convene for an additional 3 weeks. The members are mostly architects. It was interesting because some were modernist, others classical and a few had backgrounds with historical properties. At times they had different opinions but in the end they all agreed with our plans. Finally, we had a formal hearing with the HDLC Board at a public meeting which was another 3 weeks of waiting. Notices were sent out to all neighbors of the impending meeting. The board, upon recommendation of the committee, agreed to give us our permits to renovate and allowed the committee to approve any other changes we make to our plans. Now that we have their permission we must complete our plans to get our city permits for construction. In the mean time, we got permits to do demolition. Demolition is a process of tearing out damaged materials and to remove materials for the purpose to explore what is need to be fixed. Some examples are: the foundation, walls, ceilings and the roof.

While waiting to get our permits it was found that live termites were swarming in the Music Room. The Music Room is the large addition that was added by Mrs. Helen Schertz in 1927. I found live termites in a door frame and I had it treated. The house had been tented for termite in the mid 90's but it was a surprise to find live termites in the house. This lead to a lot of anxiety and speculation of major damage to the house. All in all, we are finally ready to start work.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


This blog is dedicated to the restoration and reconstruction of the Spanish Custom House. It is with love and devotion that I pledge my time, money and patience to study, plan, and bring this historic home back to its former glory. I will post the progress of the house including photos. I hope this will be an interesting and educational blog of one of New Orleans' oldest structures.

I would like to start with some history on the house. The land was granted in 1708 to French Settlers but did not prove to be productive agriculturally by the first three owners. The first crops of Louisiana were Indigo. It was noxious to process and attracted many insects. Slaves processing Indigo only lived five years on average. Sugarcane was difficult to ship until the process of cooking the cane into sugar crystals was discovered. It did not become a major crop of the area until after the plantation was sold to Santiago Llorens in 1771. 

Llorens used the property for a cattle ranch and to grow food. He is believed to be the man who built the Spanish Custom House. The house is said to be built in 1784 according to some marks left on the chimney in the attic and a description of the house was in his succession. This was the year Llorens died but it is very possible that the house was built as early as the mid 1700's. Unfortunately, records on the Spanish Custom House were not kept or were burnt in the French Quarter fires of 1788 and 1794. We know Llorens was an important man of the times since he was buried inside St. Louis Cathedral. The practice of burying notable members of the community in the cathedral was halted when it was deemed a health risk in the early 1800's. He, also, owned a home in the French Quarter as would a person of wealth would have during this period. In addition, he bought the land which became City Park in the 1770's. When he died in 1784 he willed the land to his son-in-law and daughter. The land became Allard Plantation. In 1807 the Spanish Custom House was sold to Captain Elie Beauregard by Allard on behalf of the son of Llorens. Captain Elie Beauregard was the father of the famous General P.G.T. Beauregard. In 1809 Louis Blanc and Louis Fortin purchased the property to develope the Faubourg Pontchartrain neighborhood including Fortin St., Mystery St. and Ponce de Leon. They, also, sold smaller tracks of land where Holy Rosary is today and Luling Mansion. It is believed that Louis Blanc lived in the Spanish Custom House in 1809. Blanc was the land surveyor who planned and laid out the French Quarter. Also, the Spanish government placed him in charge of collecting fees for using Bayou St. John. It is believed that is how the house got it's name even though it was never officially a customs house. In 1813 Blanc ceded his rights to the house to Louis Fortin. This is when Fortin moved into the home. The next major owner of the house was Pierre Roux in 1816. He was a grocer and a creole. Roux was the finest furniture maker of the 1700's. He became friends with Louis Fortin when Fortin hired him to make an armoire for a wedding gift to his wife. Roux moved to New Orleans to go into business with Fortin. He stopped making furniture once he moved to New Orleans. The first auction of the house was to Roux's children after his death. Roux's son married Fortin's daughter and they were the next owners of the house. The house remained in the Roux family until 1901.

Helen Pitkin Schertz purchased the home in 1909. She was an author, musician, feminist, preservationist and socialite. Mrs. Schertz was very active in the woman suffrage movement. It was in the Spanish Custom House where the New Orleans Spring Fiesta was founded. She is credited with a major renovation of the home including the rear addition of the music room in 1927. After her death she left the house to her African American housekeeper. Out of respect to Mrs. Schertz she would not sell the home. Unfortunately, the house remained unoccupied for several years and was in bad condition. Upon her death the house was auctioned for the second time and purchased by Dr. and Mrs. Ignatius M. DeMatteo in 1945.

Dr. DeMatteo was the next in line to restore and renovate the house. In addition, he added the reproduction of the kitchen house and brick oven. The house was auction in 2009 by his children after his death in 2001. The house was for sale for several years but between the economy and Hurricane Katrina the children were unable to find a buyer. It was at the auction in February 2009 that I purchased the house and started this exciting journey. The DeMatteo Children still remain in touch with me and are very interested in the renovation of the home. It is a part of their heritage and I am pleased to share this adventure with them and everyone who chooses to follow this blog.

I think it is now appropriate to share some folklore about the house. No one knows how the house got its name, "Spanish Custom House". There are no records that the house served a customs house but Louis Blanc collected fees for the Spanish Government when he lived in the house. The house boarders Grand Route St. John and Moss Street. 

Grand Route St. John is the oldest street in the city and is believed to be an old Native American trail from Bayou St. John to the French Quarter. It is said that the Native Americans showed Bienville and Iberville the path from the Mississippi River to Bayou St. John. The Natives explained that it was too hard to navigate the Mississippi River. The mouth was always changing and in conjuction with the currents, changing sand bars, it would take over a month to sail a ship up the river. Instead the Native Americans showed Bienville and Iberville a way to sail ships into Lake Pontchartrain to the mouth of Bayou St. John. This is how it was decided where New Orleans would be settled. Once the ships docked at the mouth of Bayou St. John goods would be transferred to smaller boats which would sail up the bayou to the trail next to the house. The goods were then off loaded to be delivered to the French Quarter. If you click on the map you can see the route to Bayou St. John from Rue du Maine. It makes sense that the house would serve as an office to collect fees for using the bayou for commerce. It is, also, thought that the house jailed pirates and smugglers that used the bayou for illegal gain. The back galleries were altered very early adding two rooms (Cabinettes) on each floor. It is believed one room on the bottom floor was used as a holding cell until prisoners were transferred to the jail in the French Quarter. The other room downstairs was used to store the confiscated goods.

It is documented that General Andrew Jackson stayed at the house and met the Privateer Jean Lafitte and Governor Claiborn. The house was chosen because it was outside the French Quarter and considered to be in the country. They did not want General Jackson to be seen with a known criminal. After their meeting General Jackson accepted Jean Lafitte's help and pardoned him.

To think of the history of the house is mind boggling. The land was deeded by the French government nearly seventy years before our country was formed and ten years before New Orleans was founded. It changed hands to the Spanish, back to the French and then sold to the USA in New Orleans. It survived the Civil War, Slavery, changes in government, plagues, fires, insects and many hurricanes. It is very likely that many famous dignitaries would have visited the house. What a wonderful heritage for our city and hopefully it will survive many centuries to come.