When Steve, a stock broker and gallery owner, and Melanie, a stock broker and event planner, purchased the then-derelict building in 1994, rows of tiny rooms with sinks indicated that it had been, among other things, a bordello. Unbeknownst to the couple, it also came with ghosts. So far, the couple has seen a blond woman in 19th century dress and a French sailor. These days, however, the house's color comes mostly from art. For the past decade, as they renovated the property, the Martins amassed a collection of antique and contemporary works, many by Steve and other artists represented by his gallery. The Martins are avid collectors of other things as well. His passions include Asian artifacts; hers include china and crystal.
Originally, the house is believed to have been two French side-hall buildings with a common wall. In 1835, the current facade was added, joining the buildings together on the ground floor, the elevation of which was about 5 feet lower and probably was used for carriages. By the 1990s, years of adaptive use and neglect had left the house with dirt floors, rotten, termite-eaten walls and unsightly latter-day additions such as cheap paneling on the second floor. The Martins gutted the interior of the structure, removing 14 truckloads of debris, and stripped the perimeter walls down to their original peeling plaster and brick. Steve, whose father was a contractor, then redesigned the second floor as the couple's living quarters, doing much of the work himself with the help of Melanie and members of her family, and hiring subcontractors for the electrical, air-conditioning and plumbing.
"I grew up in Old Metairie and thought renovation was changing the wallpaper in the bathroom," says Melanie, who quickly learned otherwise. "The great thing about family is that they work for beer and food."
The rear of the building, probably service quarters originally, was renovated to include four mini apartments, which may one day be used as bed-and-breakfast rooms. Last year, the Martins converted the ground floor, which today lives like an urban loft, combining kitchen, living and dining areas in one large room. Steve and Melanie floored the space with Mexican tiles (some of which have animal footprints on them) topped with Kilim rugs. They use cafe curtains for privacy since the house sits directly next to the street. Bead board removed from the house during the renovation and molding from a local salvage yard was used to create a focal wall behind the 1930s high-back sink, which also was purchased at a local salvage business for a mere $30. Steve used the same bead board, paired with chrome legs from Ikea and countertops made of Alabama Carrera marble, to construct retro-style cabinets along the length of one wall and on either side of the stove. He painted both the wall and the cabinets a vibrant, apple shade of green, Melanie's favorite color. Commercial, stainless-steel appliances were installed to accommodate the couple's love of entertaining, and an antique butcher's table was topped with marble for use as an island and casual dining area.
Amazingly, Steve acquired and stored the green, industrial light fixtures over the island three decades earlier when they were being discarded by a business in his hometown of Tioga.
Next to the kitchen, a group of three leather sofas surrounding an elephant saddle that serves as a coffee table provide plenty of seating in the living area. On one side of the room, hung in front of a wall of windows overlooking the carriageway (now a driveway), are four vibrantly colored abstract paintings by Australian artist Derek Hambly. Steve initially brought one home, then three more after finding that the couple's 9-month-old son, Aidan, was enthralled with the paintings' colors. On the opposite side of the room are a group of rainbow-striped "spirit poles" by Louisiana artist John Geldesmar and a pine armoire topped with a vintage poster and figural works by Steve and Polish artist Timo Solin. To the left of the armoire is an antique wine rack from a French bistro. At the front of the room is a dining area comprised of a 19th century Irish table surrounded by 10 slip-covered chairs and a bar that Steve made by topping a restaurant tray stand with an old trough used for feeding horses.
The second floor, reached via a rear staircase that was once outside, consists of the baby's room and bath, a library, and the master suite, and has a more traditional, Old World feel. Much of the antique furniture and art came from auctions, a pastime that, to the Martins, is second only to ferreting through junk shops and flea markets.
"Our taste is pretty eclectic," says Steve. "We don't usually buy with any particular look in mind, we just buy what we like. But upstairs, because of the age of the house, we decided to buy American Empire, the kind of pieces used in plantations. I wanted the living room to look like a well-traveled gentleman's club."
"It's cozy and pretty," adds Melanie, "but I insisted everything be functional and family friendly too."
In the library, shades of ochre and turquoise were found beneath layers of wall paneling and left as is. (The Martins liked the look so much they replicated it with faux finishing in the baby's room.) A tufted sofa with rolled arms and roomy, Edwardian proportions, a round pedestal table, and two antique arm chairs anchor the room, which has its original cypress fireplace surround, heart pine floors, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the downtown skyscape. The leather George V wing chair on the right was one of the first recliners ever made; a leather-covered footrest extends from its base. The Martins bought it for $400, but had to spend thousands more to have it restored. Bookcases built by Steve, an antique Persian rug, quilted red curtains trimmed with faux fur, old master paintings, animal skins, antlers, a collection of portraits depicting Native American chiefs, and butcher shop meat hooks used as curtain rods, add to the rich, masculinity of the room.
The same feeling of history and tradition is carried into the master bedroom, where Steve built paneled closets inspired by Audrey Hepburn's French apartment in the 1960s film, Charade, and by the flagship Ralph Lauren store in New York. The bed is from a Baker furniture collection inspired by the plantations of Natchez, Miss. Most of the other pieces -- a mahogany armoire, a mahogany chest, a barrel-back chair and a chaise lounge updated with a bright green awning stripe -- are period pieces. To one side of the bed is a large mirror from Villa Vici; above the bed hangs an oil painting by Steve.
Next door, the master bath provides a refuge where Melanie likes to unwind at the end of the day. Steve used carved consoles found on Magazine Street to create a pair of vanities, and mirrors hung on piano hinges front the medicine cabinets above them. The candle-lit chandelier, purchased at an auction ("I told Steve I wasn't leaving without it," says Melanie), moves up and down via a rope and pulley to make lighting the candles easier. Among the new fixtures are a Porcher tub with a Jado faucet and sconces from Restoration Hardware.
Contemporary art in the room includes a colorful 3-D nude by Timo Solin, spotlighted above the mantle, three of Steve's oil nudes, and drawings by local artist Zella Funk and WPA artist Edward Hagadorn. A separate area features Asian art and a unique shower made of corrugated tin with a floor lined with rocks. After investigating what it would cost to install a marble shower, Steve came up with the inexpensive alternative (the materials only cost about $50) while at Home Depot and installed it himself.
"Upstairs is really our sanctuary," says Melanie. But it's clear that the Martins, their families, and their neighbors enjoy the entire house. "When we first bought the house, the neighborhood wasn't really conducive to living here," says Melanie. "But it's become more gentrified and now we know everyone around here, and they know that if our front shutters are open, we're serving wine and they're welcome to come over. One of our favorite things about the house is that it's big enough to house the entire family."