DIY Home

A Home That Honors Black History in New Orleans: Before & "Almost-After"

February 22, 2018

Adjacent to the statement couch (pink, velvet, and tufted) and just underneath a crystal chandelier are a pair of movie theater seats. They're a faded shade of sunshine and they fold up demurely, a grounding element in an otherwise happy-swanky room. K.V. Harper, the owner and designer of this home, was actually looking for a church pew when she found them on eBay. "I wanted a piece that would nod to the history of Louisiana, with an understanding of where we are now," she told me over the phone this week.

Salvaged from a segregated theater, the antique seats were exactly the sort of relic she wanted to reclaim in her New Orleans home, which is nestled in one of the oldest black neighborhoods in America.

Photo by Hannah Joyce

The Seventh Ward, as this diamond-shaped slice of New Orleans is known, prospered as a home to the people of color who settled here throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries—it was likely the largest free black community in the US before Emancipation. Of European and African descent, they were educated, sophisticated, and highly skilled, speaking perfect French and excelling in building trades; they called themselves Creole (one of a number of ways the term has been applied over time).

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A local business district thrived. And when, post-Emancipation, freed slaves joined the neighborhood's classically-trained ranks, a little bit of magic called jazz was born. Buddie Petit, Lizzie Miles, and Lorenzo Tio, Jr. and other greats hail from the Seventh Ward. (So is it a coincidence that K.V. just sourced a vintage piano for the entryway? Unlikely.)

Photo by Hannah Joyce

But the area has also had more than its share of devastation, too: Desegregation rocked New Orleans; the famous photo of Ruby Bridges being escorted by U.S. marshals to her classroom in 1960 was taken a few miles away from K.V.'s house, in the Lower Ninth Ward. The same year that image was captured, the city's new Interstate 1-10 was completed, driving Robert Moses-style like a stake through the heart of the Seventh Ward's prosperous business district, bifurcating the neighborhood and requiring the destruction of a wide grassy plaza dotted four rows deep with old-growth, live oak trees. Forty-five years later, Hurricane Katrina hit, flooding most of its streets.

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Top Comment:
“The art gallery wall, the use of local reclaimed wood, the fireplaces, the bathroom, etc., but most importantly, honoring the history of the home, area, and the people. I found myself going backwards and forwards throughout the article and the photos. Just love...”
— Susan M.

But through it all, the neighborhood—and its people—persisted. Reclaiming the movie theater seats was just one of the many ways that K.V. made design choices that would honor the black history of the neighborhood. "I wanted to show that despite segregation," she says, "people made a life for themselves." How many homes can say that?

K.V. has lived and worked in Brooklyn, New York since 2010, though she's originally from Seattle. She fell in love with New Orleans the way so many people do, just by driving around town during a visit with friends.

The original windows were restored, and the doors are reproductions in the (likely) style of the originals.

Her career back in Brooklyn as an advertising strategist required both creativity and a sharp business acumen—"understanding the target market, deciding what creative would work, conducting research analysis, working directly with the creative director to execute the creative"—but it wasn't until she bought and renovated a brownstone in Bed-Stuy that she realized how much those skills would couple with a career in design.

Photo by Hannah Joyce

When it was complete, the natural step was to buy a place in New Orleans and launch a design-and-build firm there—right?

She made it happen in just four months. (Which is also her back-pocket answer to my "why New Orleans?" question: Getting licensed and insured in that short an amount of time would be unheard of in New York.) She closed on this property in August and started construction with a local contractor, Erix Peres, in September. Their brand-new joint venture is Kex Design + Build, a soup-to-nuts renovation shop that does everything from design and planning to construction and detailing.

When K.V. first saw this shotgun-style, two-family house in New Orleans, she wasn't even convinced it had the "potential" that designers so often use to describe the derelicts they plan to transform into gems. It was old and ragged, a muddy grey-brown. But the neighborhood—its history of perseverance, and the way its long, low-slung houses perch in conversation—was perfect, and she crossed her fingers that lurking under the plaster walls would be some hidden goodness. (She was right.)

The home, as they first found it (this is that "before" stage). Photo by K.V. Harper, Google Street View

There are two apartments in the building, one on either side with floor plans that lead straight back, windows along the exterior walls. Pictured here is the one K.V. resides in when she's in New Orleans; the other she's renting.

Read on to see the rest of the home—post-renovation and newly bedecked with furniture (we're calling it an "almost after" because the finishing touches will keep rolling in)—and hear how she saved money and celebrated the history of the area, and the building, at every turn:

Photo by Hannah Joyce

the entryway

"A little area to sit down, talk, settle yourself," is how K.V. describes the foyer of her home. The original floors had been torn out by a previous tenant, so she sourced sustainably-cultivated, new-growth pine to lay once they got all the linoleum out. She opted for a dark, water-based stain and sealant to offset the rest of the lighter woods in the home, all of which are reclaimed.

Photo by Hannah Joyce
Hanging ferns and a parlor palm lend island vibes to the warm wood space.

And under the plaster, she uncovered not just this one, but three original fireplaces. When she asked a local contractor about restoring them, she got an "impossible" answer, followed by an egregiously large quote. So K.V. sent them pictures to a group of preservationists she knew in Brooklyn.

Unanimously, they told her that it could be done—and that even to fly someone in from New York to do it would cost her less than what she'd been quoted. Her now-partner Erix was a New Orleans-based contractor recommended by a friend; she was impressed not only by his low price but also by his willingness to rebuild two of the damaged fireplaces using the original brick.

The front fireplace, and the back two looking through the entryway to the living room. Photo by Hannah Joyce

The mantels she scored at a local salvage yard, but, are in styles that would have been typical of the home's original era, cleanly designed.

The fireplaces are now purely ornamental—K.V. says the chimneys were probably taken out in the 80s, "which kind of makes sense in New Orleans, because there’s only one month where you need them." She points out that the fact the house was built with three, however, is a testament to how much cooler the climate once was in this now perpetually toasty town.

The old fireplaces, mid-renovation. Photo by K.V. Harper

the living room

The fireplaces weren't the only feature under that tacked-on plaster wall; the whole length of the home's interior wall was a beautiful aged brick. But since it would never have been left exposed in the original construction—and under the Historic Tax Credit she'd applied for, the new structure had to truly mimic the old—K.V. had it covered up with a new wall.

Details in the living room. Photo by Hannah Joyce

As in another home we recently profiled, the plaster she opted for ended up having a pleasing tint—a mottled grey that cooled down all the mixed wood tones in the room. So she she left it bare. It was around this point in the renovation that K.V.'s aunt sent her a box of old family photographs, out of the blue. These became the anchor for a gallery wall above the theater seats.

It’s interesting to see what my family was doing during the era these seats came from, a time that wasn’t in any way fair to black people. I wanted to show that despite segregation, people made a lives for themselves.

Beside one of the pictures of her family that her aunt sent, she hung a photo of young people marching from Montgomery to Selma in the Martin Luther King Jr.-led protest of 1965. "It was such a transformational time," she says, "They were going forward." There's also a print of the "I AM A MAN" poster from the Memphis sanitation workers' strike of 1968, and another warning free black people in Boston of "slave catchers."

two bathrooms, two ways

K.V. originally fell in love with this sink when she saw it in a home tour on Remodelista, so when Rejuvenation started selling the model, she sprung for it and design the whole room around the piece. The captain's-style mirror, in a refreshing square shape, echoes the shape of the sink, and the brass, wall-mounted hardware matches a brass shower head.

The downstairs bath, which breaks up the living room from the kitchen. Photo by Hannah Joyce

They kept the plaster walls here to echo the front two rooms (and also because it saved money). But in the upstairs bathroom, she went tile wild, covering the shower half in black hexagonal tiles and half in white ones. Inspired by shower designs of South America and Mexico, which sometimes forego the door entirely, she did just that—the tile extends from the walls to the floor, with a drain to catch the water. There isn't any glass at all.

The upstairs bath. Photo by Hannah Joyce

A marble sink is propped up on a plank of reclaimed wood. ("It's all over New Orleans," she tells me of the material she loved using most in this home; a lot of planks were salvaged during Hurricane Katrina clean-up, but the prominence of reclaimed wood is also indicative of a conscious community that keeps the salvage yards open with donations.)

the kitchen and bar

To help save money on the design of the kitchen, Erix suggested using reclaimed wood for the butcher block counter, too. To do that, the outermost layer was shaved off and then the newly exposed surface was sanded, stained, oiled, and coated.

The process was "more time intensive than using a new piece of wood, but so much more interesting," K.V. tells me, and it didn't hurt that the whole thing ended up costing under $200. Try that with white marble.

Photo by Hannah Joyce

The sink was also an antique piece K.V. found long ago and spruced up, scrubbing it clean and then re-coating it with white enamel paint. "When I find things I love, I’ll just go ahead and get them," she says of her sourcing strategy, "and then just cross my fingers we can use them." Having a place to store such treasures—and the promise of future projects to use them in—certainly helps.

The ceiling height drops dramatically in this back part of the house—it's the lower level of a two-story extension on the rear of the building called a "camelback," a feature commonly added to New Orleans shotgun houses in the 40s and 60s when inhabitants were a little better off. A shallow, flush-mount lighting fixture echoes the shape of the pendant in the foyer.

Laying the new (old brick) floors. Photo by K.V. Harper

For the kitchen floor, K.V. was inspired by a trip to the Whitney Plantation, the only plantation museum in Louisiana that focuses specifically on slavery. Its kitchen floors are paved in brick—which was then a safety feature, as cooking was conducted by slaves over open fires. Following her tour, K.V. sourced a batch of old brick through a local supplier, and paved her kitchen floor with it as a nod to this history.

In her excitement, she admits to having gotten a little carried away, extending the floor well into the space she'd meant to reserve for a previously-purchased dining room table. Faced with the new flooring plan, she decided to build a bar in the table's place (the table now resides on the brick, closer to the kitchen).

I wanted to show that despite segregation, people made lives for themselves.
K.V. Harper

There are two bedrooms in this apartment, both upstairs in the camelback extension. Finishing touches included painting the exterior of the home that gloriously cheerful pink, which was actually her second choice color—but there was already a turquoise house across the block. In another nod to New Orleans tradition, the porch ceiling is painted light blue, a feature that, depending on who you ask, is said to ward off spirits and/or confuse mosquitos into not knowing which way is up. It's such a popular tradition that you can actually buy a paint named Porch Ceiling Blue from Sherman Williams.

Photo by Hannah Joyce

As a Brooklynite by way of the Pacific Northwest (and now a part-time New Orleanian), K.V. tells me she has come to appreciate the South for many reasons. Chief among them is the frank way that so many Southerners she's met will talk about the often ugly local histories. "I was looking at a house and the real estate agent said, 'and these were probably the slave quarters' and it was just a normal conversation," she recalls. "You’re a bit surprised, but then you understand—and you’re very grateful that those are conversations people are willing to have."

And her home, with its movie theater seats and brick kitchen floor, reflects—and remembers, and respects—that same reality.

K.V. and Erix are already deep into Kex Design + Build's first project in New Orleans. She'll be splitting her time between this residence and her place in Brooklyn (picking up the occasional advertising project in between the design jobs) in the years to come.

This piece originally ran in March of last year. We are running it again as part of our Black History Month storytelling series.

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Deborah R. February 20, 2019
Beautiful work. I love N.O. my aunt abd cousin used to live there. 2 family friends graduated from Xavier. One is engaged to my neice. I love the peppke, food, architecture and of course Mardi Gras!!!! 💜💜💖💖💙💙❤❤
Gloria March 26, 2017
This is beautiful .
Brittany March 26, 2017
What a wonderful article! I appreciate reading stories like these, and I am so inspired by the intentionality in the design and aesthetic of this home. Every aspect of her living space tells a story of beauty, persistence, and triumph. I love it!
Antonine March 26, 2017
I love that the home has so many historic references and salvaged materials, and yet has a clean, pure look to it. Beautifully balanced and uncluttered with "antique-y" things.
Clarice March 25, 2017
So love this.....drew me right in as well. Appreciate you sharing and being more diverse. This is my culture and your presentation was excellent. Bravo K.V......very encouraging.
Redoit F. March 24, 2017
Beautiful, beautifully done. Simply done, not over done, which really brings out the character and charm of each room. Love the blue agent wall!
sari March 24, 2017
Stunning!!! Great job and tribute.
S. L. March 24, 2017
The whole article is inspiring! Since recently finishing a horrific book about slavery, I will look for some literature about the "Creole" people -hopefully to balance out some of the sickening capabilities of man. Love the design, and the homage it pays.
marsiamarsia March 24, 2017
Khadhyja T. March 24, 2017
This is beautiful!! I love how K.V. has paid homage to history whilst creating a warm space, and using reclaimed and environmentally friendly materials to boot! BRAVO!!!!
SisterSage718 March 24, 2017
The restoration is amazing! I'm a born and bred Brooklynite, and that encourages me the more to visit NOLA!
Nicole March 24, 2017
So thankful you guys do stories like this. Congrats to K.V. on a beautiful and thoughtful design, too.
MJ00 March 24, 2017
I love the pink and the brick floors. What an extraordinary tribute to history and renovating with reclaimed goods. It's beautiful.
Kristinka March 24, 2017
So many homes in NOLA are being given the Flip or Flop look by developers these days - all character gone, bland, neutral kitchens - it's so sad and that's why this project made me so happy. Such a beautiful job, congrats to Kex!
cosmiccook March 24, 2017
As a NO native we had to replace our 90 year-old heart pine floors. As lovely as they were pine is a very SOFT wood--and ours was old and cured. New pine --especially after Katrina--looked like crap. We went with pecan --and indigenous wood with lovely color--no choice on type after Katrina--and HARD. I don't have to look a million indentations from peoples shoes nd furniture.
Brenda S. March 24, 2017
Sucked me right in, beautiful story. Just another reason why I <3 Food52...
anne R. March 24, 2017
Love this! Thanks so much for sharing.
Victoria M. March 24, 2017
Loved this tour!!
phillylass March 24, 2017
Gorgeous! Where did you get that amazing pink sofa?! I must have one in my life!!!!
Susan M. March 24, 2017
What a beautiful home! The art gallery wall, the use of local reclaimed wood, the fireplaces, the bathroom, etc., but most importantly, honoring the history of the home, area, and the people. I found myself going backwards and forwards throughout the article and the photos. Just love...