Toni: Reconstruction Thursdays – Thinking Outside The Box

We’re slowly making progress at the building, but it’s at that stage where it’s difficult to see and fully appreciate. There are weeks where I despair of it ever being finished, and then suddenly, whoosh, an entire part of the project seems to take a leap forward. A small leap, but hell, I’ll take it.

When we first bought the building, we were a little worried about how to get more natural light inside. It was a two-story building in a historic district where they do not normally allow you to add a floor, or windows, or anything, and I mean anything, that changes the original façade. I can respect that. I can support it. Fully embrace it, even.

Except, to live in the building as a home, we needed to somehow find a way to bring light down into the back of the building, or else it would feel like living in a cave. Literally: the building is bordered on three sides by other buildings. The only windows are across the front, and the back of the building was dark and gloomy. We were crazy enough to buy it in a leap of faith that we could find a solution, even if the Vieux Carré Committee (VCC), didn’t permit an addition. (The VCC is the group in charge of all changes that affect any historic property in the French Quarter.)

I’ve mentioned before, we were exceptionally fortunate to have hired an architect who had been on their board, who knew the rules and what we could–and could not–ask for. I’m also lucky that my husband attended the meetings instead of making me go, because he has a knack with people. He’s perfectly willing to let them think that Thing A is all he’s asking for now, and then they’ll eventually come around to Thing B or C or D. He’ll just wear them down, a little at a time, and make them think it was their idea in the first place. He calls it brushstrokes, and has tried to teach me this patient method of handling people. My method–especially when dealing with groups of people who are in charge of something and think a little too highly of themselves because of that–is to basically mock them and stand up and point out just what friggin idiots they are, because CAN’T THEY SEE WHY THIS IS BRILLIANT AND JUST SAY YES, DAMMIT. Ahem. Needless to say, Carl is much much better dealing with the general public.

At any rate, after a long string of meetings and submitting architectural conceptual drawings to the committee, they signed off on us adding a third floor to the back of the building (the back half). There are myriad reasons why we were allowed this in a historic district–but the main one was the rule that if the addition cannot been seen from the street, standing in front of the building looking up, then it’s okay. I personally think this is a weird rule, because there’s an angle from the side where the addition can easily be seen, but I also know when to shut up and nod, since they felt like the drawings clearly illustrated that the addition would be fine.

It’s difficult to explain in its entirety as to what we’re doing without pointing you toward the building, but my husband just isn’t comfortable with me putting up entire floor plans (and, therefore, the obvious address, though that’s findable, I suspect). But here are a few progress photos to show you some of the things that have happened.

We started here, essentially, after the cubicles and weird plexiglass walls were demolished:

Second floor demo'd area


(Again, ignore that platform in the center of those trusses–that was there so that workers could work on the ceiling above it.)

Then, this:




To orient you, if you compare this to the top photo — start at the back wall of that top photo–that’s the (now white) back wall of this photo. That brown wooden wall was a weird façade that hid a little storage room. We tore it out (it was nasty) and that opened up that space. The brick wall to the left of that space is where our building ends. (There is an odd little jag to the back of our building where it abuts the two buildings adjoining it back there. That jag belongs to the building next door. Well, not the interior wall–that’s ours, but that’s as far as we can go.)

The second thing you’ll need to understand, to grasp what you’re seeing is that that back portion of the building now has a third floor addition on top of it. Adding that third floor allowed us to literally raise the ceiling height on this floor, which allowed us to create two rooms (one on top of the other) on that back wall. Both rooms will open out onto this great room. That lower one that you see below is going to be a cozy den area (with a nice sleeper sofa and a full bathroom through the doorway you can’t see to the right). Those stairs you see go up to the room above it, which we have dubbed the “Mardi Gras” room–mostly because it will have a balcony that looks out over the great room and will be another den/spare bedroom with its own half-bath. We’re assuming that whoever ends up visiting and sleeping here will be family and/or friends who won’t mind having to walk through the lower den space to get to the bedroom/den above.

Keep in mind, all of that space will mostly remain open to the great room where I’m standing, taking the photo.

Here’s a few showing you what’s now above:

main floor mid construction another view


Starting from the bottom, you can still see the den with the staircase. Above that, you can now see the Mardi Gras den. The balcony will come all the way out to that truss (the beam running across the photo). The wall to my immediate left (I’m leaning on it to take the photo), is the new butler’s pantry for the main kitchen area (which is behind me). Above the Mardi Gras den, that big rectangle opening? That’s the door to my office (in the new third floor). Where I’m standing, there will eventually be a glass (tread) and metal staircase that winds up to that. And some time after that, there will be a glass elevator (kind of a bird cage elevator) that goes up there, too, though that’s likely to be the last thing we do. When we first build the staircase, it won’t have the glass treads. These treads are super heavy-duty bullet-proof glass, can handle a tremendous amount of weight, each, but they’re not indestructible and I’d rather not give the construction crew something to aim at. We’ll use wooden treads until the construction work is done, and then put the glass treads in place at that point. I want the glass so that the big open space doesn’t suddenly feel closed in. This is a huge staircase, and traditional treads will block all of the light that will now come from above.

And from the new third floor, looking down:





I’m standing on the third floor here, looking down into the great room. The top left portion of this photo shows the new wall we built that now ties into part of the old monitor (the lower roof part top left). To the right of that, a little balcony that will look down, and another window/door out onto a rooftop terrace.

There are two levels of floor–you’ll need to click on the image to see the larger version. Where the ladder is leaning–that’s sitting on a mezzanine which is the floor above the butler’s pantry for the kitchen. The staircase will wind around and use that mezzanine as a landing. It’s big enough that I can put a couple of comfortable chairs there, some bookcases, and/or a piano. (An upright.) I just have to decide if I’m crazy enough to try to get a piano up there. (Probably.)

You see that old window to the right? That’s a part of the building next door, but technically belongs to us. Many years ago, due to fire code, they had to brick up the inside of that window, so no one will ever see down into our space. I’m keeping that window as a feature wall and have some interesting plans for it, but that’s a post all by itself.


Underneath that window, though, there will be a catwalk for me to go from my office to that little balcony and on outside. (In essence, making this an overgrown treehouse.)


If you expand the photo, you’ll see that to the left of the mezzanine is that great room where I was originally standing in the first photo. From that floor to this new ceiling is 29′.



And this is a few steps back into the space. To the right will be my office. Eventually, the things that currently have visqueen will be windows outside, which lets a tremendous amount of light into my office and into the great room below. I’ll have a lot of plants on that terrace one day (and there’s enough space for us to grow a lot of our own vegetables and such, which we intend to do–a real, sustainable roof garden). The rectangle where you see the fan will be a window (and to the right of that–that was going to be a door to the catwalk, but we opted to change it to a window.) The biggest opening (left side) will be that big door I took the shot of from below. That will be a big double French door onto a glass landing. That landing will run across the front of my windows to the wall on the right, where it will join with the catwalk underneath the big old window.


Sometimes, thinking outside the box brings with it a whole host of other problems to solve, but that’s part of the adventure.

Life is like that. If you let it. If you’re confronted with problems, they’re just obstacles. It’s up to you to turn them into opportunities. In our case here, the obstacle was finding the kind of language and conceptual drawing that would convince the historic committee that what we wanted to do was entirely within their parameters, even when it really wasn’t. It was dicey, the argument we made. (1) that no one could see it from the road, looking up, helped, and (2) that there was already a structure that ran across the back of the building which had windows on it. We just wanted to raise that structure up a little (ha) and bring it out a little, enough for a living space inside it. I’m still not quite sure how that worked, but it did.

I’m having to think outside the box on the book I’m polishing up to give back to my agent. She loved loved loved it. She’s not an easy sell, so that was a joy to hear. She’s held my hand through this book, which has ripped my guts out in ways I couldn’t have predicted when I started, and wouldn’t have embraced, if I’d known how hard it was going to be. That would have been a great loss, because I’ve learned so much. She had one note–one strange issue, that, as soon as she said it, I wanted to bang my head on the desk, because she was right. Dammit. So I had to look at this very convoluted book, this thing that was so organic in its creation that I wasn’t sure how things got to where they were, but I couldn’t see how I didn’t see that from the beginning… yeah, that feeling… and then take it apart and figure out how to make this subplot work a little bit better, a little more organically, so that it impacts the main story better, criss-crossing it, instead of sort of running along, parallel to the main story, like a little sibling whining, “I’m here, I’m here, look at me,” and doing nothing more to change the course of events than simply being witness.

I think I found the way to solve the issue, and in the process of finding that way, realized a much deeper impact, emotionally. Sometimes, you have to break something to make it better. You have to look at what’s broken and think of it from new angles.

I can tell you, with that building, it was not obvious to us that we could create the two rooms in the back of that giant great room. Carl and I sat in the middle of that great room for many many hours… many many days, actually, contemplating this idea, then that idea, wearing them for a while, ‘living in them’ and then tossing them when we realized why they wouldn’t work, or would create more problems than they solved. We would picture ourselves living there, and kept asking ourselves questions, thinking crazy thoughts and not censoring the crazy. From the crazy comes creativity. Sometimes, even moments of brilliance. You have to be willing to be crazy–to be perceived to be crazy–to have the freedom to be brilliant.

And we’re perfectly okay with not everyone agreeing with our plans, our insights. There are plenty of people who, having this money, would have bought something on a beach somewhere, already built, or a little cabin in the mountains. They certainly wouldn’t have bought a place in the middle of a very busy city, in the center of the busiest area, and said, “huh. Let’s live here.” That’s okay. It works for us.

Same with story. Same with life, really. You have to (meaning, *I* have to) take the creative leap when you can. Not everyone will love it. They’re not supposed to.

The main questions to ask yourself is: did I challenge myself enough? Did I push to think farther outside my box, my comfort zone, to come up with answers? Did I give myself the chance to do something unique?

And most of all: did I have fun?

Life is too short. Have fun. Think creatively. Don’t worry about failure. Every fails. That’s how we learn. Just pick it up, dust it off, look at it from another angle, and go.


22 thoughts on “Toni: Reconstruction Thursdays – Thinking Outside The Box

  1. I love watching the progress. 🙂 And you have made great strides, even if you may not see the little things day-to-day. Taken in chunks, it’s huge progress! So looking forward to seeing the finished project.

  2. Susanne says:

    An amazing labour of love! Thank you for sharing your process. It’s going to be beautiful (it is now, in so many ways).

  3. Debi Murray says:

    You guys can really think outside the box! I am hoping to be able to see some of this in May if you are comfortable with that. You know I can keep a secret. 😉

  4. Sure Thing says:

    I am in alt over this post. You *kinda* took on a heritage committee and won. Also envy – I want to BUILD SOMETHING. I have Grand Designs open in another tab and I have tantalizing visions that I am not in a position to materialize.

  5. It must be incredible to have so much creativity in the one household and yet be able to come to a consensus. Forever after you’ll be able to walk around and think, we did this we made this, and every day will fill you with wonder.

    • That’s been happening lately, as it’s finally starting to look like rooms. Stud walls, but still. Electrical’s going in, and so is the plumbing. Soon, sheerock, and actual rooms! Feels strange and wonderful.

  6. WOW.

    I am blown away. This is ALL the awesome!

    Can’t wait to see it in person. [And a glass birdcage elevator and a piano on the mezzanine? Is there any awesome you’ve overlooked? I don’t think so!]

  7. Jill says:

    I love your fabulous tree house ! Thank you for letting us see the progress. Your book sounds like it is making progress too.
    Your posts about the house sound happy.
    I forgot-is this house with the tub in the living area ? Are you living in a construction zone ?

    • Jill, thanks — we’re living in another place in the Quarter while we get this one remodeled, so we aren’t having to live in the construction zone. Thank goodness, ‘cuz I’d have killed someone by now.

  8. Kelly S says:

    I trust you are not afraid of heights. I can only image someone who is who is walking on glass 3 stories up – what panic they would experience!

    I hope you’ll continue to share as progress happens. It looks so fun!

  9. I am clearly architecturally illiterate because you lost me somewhere in this blog, but I can still appreciate the pretty and the effort and cannot wait to see the finished product. Such unexpected ideas. I am not very good at thinking out of the box so I envy anyone who is. And how awesome you found a life partner who feels the same way about where to live.

    Reading about this book makes me really want to read it. In writing is where I’ve worked hard to push myself out of the box, and I’m finally making progress. But it sure doesn’t come naturally.

  10. Micki says:

    What nice bones! I can’t really see what it’s going to be when it’s done, and I really admire that ability in others. (-: Looking forward to seeing the done pictures, and then I can work backwards to these! It sounds like it’s going to be absolutely gorgeous, though!

  11. Wow, Toni, how amazing! It’s beautiful. I got lost visually and spatially, but I got enough to tell that it’s an incredible design. And it’s wonderful how you and Carl do this so we’ll together.

  12. Catherine says:

    You know the main bits I got from your explanation of your home is you’ve thought long and hard, it’s actually coming into being, there will be light and texture function plus plants , Carl and family all in the quarter. Congratulations for embracing the crazy.

    My crazy for 2013 was somehow making two trips to New Orleans from my little Aussie country village and in total spending a quarter of the year there. Never been happier to find a place where I fit. Doing this has given me more confidence to step up more and revel.

    Also thanks for sharing each step of the home making and book birthing.

  13. Lois says:

    Love the updates. I got a bit lost but the tree house and roof garden are enough for me.
    I fly to New Orleans tomorrow – I can’t wait!!! We’ve had almost 180″ of snow this winter so far, with 5 feet of it still on the ground. So excited to be wandering thru the Quarter for a week 🙂

  14. I’m bummed I lost so many of you. However, y’all shouldn’t feel alone–I kinda freaked out the electrical and plumbing subs, too, especially since we made so many changes that aren’t even on the plans.

    Thanks for the encouragement. There are days when I do sit there and wonder if we have completely lost our minds. (Most days I am sure.)

    Carl is super creative–probably more so than I am. We’re both this weird hybrid of logic/creativity that most people didn’t “get” when we were dating. I knew, on my first date with him, that that was the guy I was going to marry. He asked me on the second date. We were married 3 months later. almost 32 years ago (March).

  15. I love the house — I love the whole dreaming/reconstructing/rehabbing thing. When I go visit a place with history the main thing I do is go to houses. I love how people live, love houses. Might be part of the Taurus in me.
    But the best part of the post?
    You have to be willing to be crazy–to be perceived to be crazy–to have the freedom to be brilliant.

  16. So now I’m dying to send you a picture of my giant garage and ask how you would incorporate a workshop/office space and a workout room – but then I would be giving up my chance to be creative with that space.

    Actually, it’s probably going to be very bare bones because it has to cost almost nothing. Luckily the garage has electricity, but I’ll have to live without running water or a bathroom out there. (The house isn’t THAT far away, but when I’m in the middle of something I hate to leave my space.) I have a huge window I’m going to stick in the south side of the garage to help with natural light. Somehow I’ll figure out how to make it look like it belongs there… that will be a challenge.

    Thanks for sharing your new building. The story and pictures are very inspiring. I’m even thinking about a staircase and a second floor. (The garage is huge. They used to repair tractors in it – you could drive two semi-trucks in it and close the doors when it isn’t filled with junk.)

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