Today, the view from the highway has changed dramatically. Rising from the grassy promontory where cows once fed is now a three-story Georgian house painted in a petit four shade of pink and surrounded by manicured gardens. There also are a lake stocked with Canadian geese, a roomy barn that serves as a workshop and garden storage area, and a garden/guest house/studio so surprisingly whimsical that it's tempting to call it a garden folly, yet so cleverly functional that it's anything but.
Seventeen years in the making and still a work in progress, the estate now known as North House is a testament to the incredible patience and do-it-yourself lifestyle of its owner, who somehow also manages to indulge his passion for sharing the house and grounds with friends and family.
Originally, Bourgeois built a barn, a conservatory and a small country cottage called Hilltop. Next, he added to the barn and conservatory, then in 1996 built the 650-square-foot garden house, which he used as a cozy pied a terre during the two years it took to replace Hilltop with a new, larger house marked by classic Georgian architectural features such as axial entrances, a hipped roof, double-hung windows, a two-story portico and broken pediments.
"The game plan was to lay out the gardens and ancillary buildings and build a little house and see if I like living here," says Bourgeois. "If I did, all the gardens and ancillary buildings would be in place, and I'd build a larger, formal home."
As with the original residence, integration of the gardens was key to the design of the new house, which follows the same footprint (volume was added largely by building upward rather than outward) and overlooks the same views. The owner's affinity for symmetry ("it quiets the mind," says Bourgeois), English antiques and collecting salvaged architectural elements and hardware from period houses in New Orleans, North America and Europe also drove the design. Initial plans were drawn up to specifically accommodate the dimensions of reclaimed items like doors and mantles. New Orleans architect Pat Melancon then finalized the drawings, and master carpenter James Martin added to the custom quality of the house by skillfully crafting elegant cabinetry and millwork inside and out. A mix of timeworn antiques, warm Oriental rugs and sumptuous fabrics keep the interior in sync with its traditional, historic framework. Yet the owner's penchant for using outdoor garden ornaments like urns, finials, statuary and obelisks inside the house and his trained artist's eye for lively color give the house a fresh twist that is never staid. "There's something cool about using outside stuff inside," says Bourgeois.
Aesthetics were not the only things carefully considered during the planning stages, however. Creating a home that would function well and could be adapted to technological advancements also was an important part of the process. Nearly 3 miles of wiring including fiber optic were used in the house so that every room will be equipped to handle the future arrival of holographic telephone communication.
Likewise, the gardens, most of which preceded the current house, were laid out only after thorough research and investigation. That meant consulting garden experts and taking trips to such renowned gardens as Longue Vue House & Gardens in New Orleans, Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania and the stunning Butchart Gardens in Victoria, Canada, in order to study not only what had been done perfectly in each of those places but also what might have been overlooked. Named Chart House, Bourgeois' garden house is a two-story structure reminiscent of a garconniere. It's located at the end of an azalea- and crepe myrtle-lined corridor known as the "main garden" (there are seven "garden rooms" in all) and was inspired by a trip to Williamsburg, Va., home to some of the nation's most noteworthy examples of Georgian architecture.
An avid gardener as well as a student of painting at The New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts for the last decade, Bourgeois regularly uses his days at North House to practice both talents. Both his realist still lifes and impressionistic landscapes depicting the evolution of the gardens are displayed inside the house, while his trompe l'oeil murals adorn the walls of the garden house, which he also uses as an art studio.
Between the endless parade of projects that go hand in hand with a 4,000-square-foot house surrounded by a series of meticulously tended gardens, Bourgeois entertains about 1,000 people a year at North House. Among the events attended by friends and family are a Christmas open house and an Easter Egg party that entails four months of preparation, a full day of activities, 3,000 tissue-wrapped eggs and 500 guests. "When I first built the property, I thought it would be a weekend place where I'd putter around, but it's gotten much bigger than that," says Bourgeois, who not only thrives on the full roster of tasks at North House, but also finds them the perfect way to escape the hectic pace of city life. "I like to get here and not have to leave," he says. "It's like being on vacation every weekend.
"Being here is the most cathartic thing in my entire life. When you come here, it's like pulling your finger out of a dike all of the pressure is released. It's the most peaceful, relaxing place you can come to."