By Danielle Del Sol
Its name is grand, but if you have ever driven past the Balthazar Saulet house on Annunciation Street, chances are you’ve never noticed it. The plain, minimalist Greek Revival façade is hugged tightly by an Italianate townhome on one side and a deteriorating mule barn on the other and is backed by concrete, monolithic ramps to the I-10 expressway that looms nearby.
Despite this, the Balthazar Saulet house, constructed in 1851, is one of fascinating significance. The land it sits on was once the vegetable garden of the founder of New Orleans and one of Louisiana’s first governors, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. Post-Bienville, the land remained desirable: It was sold to the Jesuits in the 1720s, seized by the Spanish in the 1760s, sold to plantation owner Thomas Saulet shortly thereafter and inherited years later by his son, Balthazar, who built a galleried single-family Greek Revival brick townhouse on what was then two standard lot sizes of land. After Balthazar’s death in 1851, his widow, Catherine Fortier Saulet, split the home into two, presumably to house servants nearby.
(Photo courtesy the Notarial Archives)
Since then, the house has been through a number of iterations: An addition was attached to the back, the front galleries were removed, another addition was stuck to one side of the building, throwing off the whole symmetry of the house as the roof was expanded on the left — and later was removed.
When contractor and developer Mike Bertel bought the house this past February, the front façade didn’t look too bad. The weeds were high, the iron gate rusted and the shutters sagging, but it wasn’t enough to scare the seasoned homebuilder. The back, however, was another story.
“These vines,” he said recently, pointing to the roof on the right rear half of the house, which tops partial brick walls that look as if they had been bombed, “are structural.” We all had a good laugh, but he then explained that he wasn’t joking. “The cat’s claw is holding this thing together.”
He and his crew are killing the vines in a controlled manner to keep the whole back of the hollowed out structure, which is currently held up by little more than the vines and now-ashen lime mortar, from collapsing. While the front part of the house is termite eaten, it is still largely intact. The back, however, is a mass of vines and orphan brick walls that will have to be carefully restored or removed. Delicate is the name of the game — the “structural vines,” for example, can’t be killed too quickly, or the back of the house might fall down. If the back falls, Bertel knows, it’s surely taking the front with it.
“What Mike Bertel has done, in effect, is taken a house that has already fallen off a cliff, and he’s dragging it back up over the cliff and back to life,” said Peter Waring, the project’s architect. “It’s tricky, and it’s dangerous. But it’s incredibly exciting.”
Bertel has ambitious goals for the house. The first two floors of the three-story structure will be developed for commercial use, and the top floor will be an apartment. Though the first floor could be two separate shops or offices, Bertel says that “the downstairs would lend itself really well to a restaurant. The central hall could remain open with dining rooms on either side and the kitchen in the back. Plus there’s a large front porch and back courtyard.” He plans to move his company’s headquarters into the house’s second floor.
As Waring points out, restoring this structure is about more than just choosing tenants; it’s about fixing in place the marketability of a structure for the long term to ensure its preservation. “When we’re finished with a building, I can walk away saying, ‘I can’t take care of this building — I don’t own this building. But at least it’s got another good 60-70 years.’ And then someone else will pick up the baton and carry it on.
“If I renovate a building well enough and give it an adaptive reuse, it gives it raison d’être, and the raison d’être will make it worth enough so that whoever the future purchaser or user of is, it becomes so economically valuable they can’t let it disintegrate as fast,” he said.
Bertel has surrounded himself with experts to complete the project — architects, historians, master masons and carpenters. But he himself is an expert, with years of construction and woodworking under his belt, and a true legacy to draw from. Bertel descends from a long line of New Orleans craftsmen: his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all woodworkers, and his great-grandfather built homes many homes during his career in the Upper Ninth Ward. His grandfather is still going strong as a furniture maker (he’s over 90 years old), and his father co-owns with Bertel an architectural mill work shop in Mid-City. In fact, Bertel’s father will mill all of the wood elements for the home at their shop, including custom cypress doors, cabinetry and architectural details.
He purchased the house in February and the permitting process to be allowed to start construction, which involved meetings and requirements from the State Historic Preservation Office and the local Historic District Landmarks Commission, took over four months. Meetings with the Louisiana SHPO have ensured that the project will qualify for state and federal historic tax credits, which will refund Bertel 25 and 20 percent of his rehabilitation costs, respectively; meetings with the HDLC have ensured that he has permission to make changes to the building’s exterior.
With all agreements made with these agencies and craftsmen hired and ready, renovation has finally begun. Preservation in Print will be following the process as Bertel transforms this dilapidated shell into an exciting new commercial spot for the Lower Garden District with blog posts, YouTube videos and a photo gallery on our Flikr page, which you can see here. Meet some of Bertel’s crew in the first episode of our YouTube series, Reinventing the Balthazar Saulet House, and check back often to see how the project is progressing.