The New Orleans Writers’ Residency was conceived on a front porch in Oregon almost three years ago. It was late. It was summer. Beers were to hand. Kat and I were each back from trips overseas, visiting the States. Shawn, our third partner, was in San Francisco, but we had him on the phone. We’d been talking a lot about art, about travel, about community. We’d all three been inspired by the ethos of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, with its inscription above the door from Hebrews 13:2: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
“What if,” one of us said, “we opened a bookstore?”
Kat started pulling up real estate websites, looking for interesting cities with affordable buildings. The whole Pacific northwest was much too expensive. And then we started looking at New Orleans. Kat and Shawn (vocalist and guitarist, respectively, of Gypsy Thief) had been there before when touring and had loved it. It was interesting, it was vibrant, and it was full of beautiful old houses going for not too much.
Then there was a moment where we stopped talking and just considered it. That moment when something you’d just been talking about suddenly assumes the weight of potential. The we could actually do this moment.
“Should we …?” Kat said
Less than a week later, she had a plane ticket and a date with a real estate agent. Justin, a carpenter friend of the residency, flew down from Montana to help make the decision. All of the buildings in our price range were derelicts. Most of them had termite damage, sometimes extreme. Most had been abandoned since Katrina. One, a shotgun double on Claiborne Avenue, looked as ramshackle at the rest. The woman who owned it was in her nineties, and it had been in her family since it had been built over 120 years ago. A pharmacy was going up next door and they’d offered her a decent sum of money to acquire the land. They intended to just bulldoze it to make a parking lot.
Kat told her our vision — to restore the house to how it had looked in the last few years of the nineteenth century, and to build a place for writers and artists within it. She loved the idea, and offered it to us for half of what the pharmacy was offering her. A few days later, it was ours.
A week later, Shawn flew down to New Orleans along with his parents to join them while I stayed in Oregon to try to make some extra money. Throughout the sweltering August of 2014 Kat, Shawn, Shawn’s parents, and Justin worked twelve hour days to repair the roof, which had taken the most damage from termites. They ended up completely rebuilding over a third of it, and re-shingling the whole thing.
I flew down in September. With the roof rebuilt we were at least water resistant, if not quite waterproof, and it was time to get down to the grunt work of clearing the space. A few feet of rubble had accumulated in each room over the years, and the layers of debris washed under the house by the floodwaters of Katrina had never been removed. We opened our doors to travelers who volunteered to help out, and spend the next several months cleaning out trash, tearing down crumbling plaster, and digging out the refuse from under the house.
Then, the work of rebuilding the rest of the house began. After a number of failed starts — New Orleans post-Katrina is rife with shady contractors, and we had to hire and fire a few of them before we found people we liked and trusted — we got down to brass tacks. We gutted and replaced our entire plumbing system and hired an electrician to replace the wiring. We sprayed insulation, patched the original plaster where we could and hung drywall where we couldn’t. Justin came back for a visit the following year to help us paint and clean off the brick chimneys.
The big turning point, though, was the floors. When we’d moved in, the floors that were exposed were gray with a decade of impacted dust. Kat swore up and down that she thought they’d be beautiful when sanded, but the rest of us had our doubts. Several rooms had linoleum tiles glued down from fifty years ago, which we’d had to rip out. After the first sanding pass, though, the hard old hundred-year-old pine showed through, a soft, earthy, reddish-brown. When they applied the polyurethane polish, they positively glowed.
With the structure of the house largely completed, we moved into the second phase of preparation, procuring antique furniture, doing detail work, outfitting two kitchens, and refurnishing the bathrooms, including cleaning up and resurfacing the two lovely cast iron clawfoot tubs that came with the house.
And finally, a couple of months ago, we started to plan the residency itself. Delays in construction had kept putting the date back, and so we set it for as soon as we thought we could get away with. We’re currently hosting a teacher-in-training in the residency side of the double. When she graduates in May, the final work of fully converting that side to the residency will be completed. We have six twin beds on backorder, bookcases ready to go into the gentleman’s library, meditation cushions ready for the yoga and meditation room, and writing desks for the writing room.
There’s still more work to do on the house, too. We’re currently in the process of painting the exterior, and have a contractor scheduled to build us a back porch with mosquito screens and ceiling fans for those late night summer conversations. We’ll be starting the process of redoing the yard in June, planting gardens and climbing vines, and pruning the tree. But even with these things still in process, the house is as beautiful as Kat always told us it would be, and it’s ready to host writers from around the world.
If you’d like to see the New Orleans Writers’ Residency in person, you can apply here.