By FRANCES PARKINSON KEYES; from The Magazine ANTIQUES, August 1980.
I had not the slightest idea when I started, rather desperately, to look for a small apartment in New Orleans where I could spend a few days every month for a year or two, that I would end up with a main house containing twelve rooms; slave quarters containing six rooms; an old-time kitchen transformed into a memorial library; a shed transformed into a bedroom; a side garden which, for years, had been the site of a chemical warehouse; and a patio where it was necessary to dig up layers of concrete before it could be made ready for trees, flower beds, and a fountain.
If I had visualized the effort, both financial and physical, that this would represent, I never would have had the courage to undertake it; so perhaps it is just as well that I did not. It was soon evident that my work would keep me in Louisiana much longer than I had originally expected and that much of it, instead of only a small part, would have to be done in New Orleans, and not on the remote stretches of the River Road, which was were I was ensconced when the need for a town apartment first became apparent. And it did not take me long to realize that Beauregard House – so called in memory of its most distinguished tenant – though it had fallen from its original high estate, had never lost its architectural and historical importance and that it represented both an opportunity and a challenge to a write who needed winter quarters in the South. It had, indeed, only been saved from destruction by the action of a small group of public-spirited women who had organized Beauregard House, Inc., from which I obtained a lease.
I was very pleased when I found that the whole main floor could be put at my disposal and thrown together again, in conformity with its original harmonious design. The house is of the raise-cottage type with a high basement, which, at the time, was used as headquarters for a philanthropic organization; and the half story above the main floor had been sealed off by terminating the rear staircase at ceiling level, an inexplicable measure which had given rise to a curious ghost story, quickly disproved when we freed the staircase and found two good-size rooms and further space for large closets and a bathroom under the eaves. A long central hall, on the main floor, divides three square rooms on one side from one large square room and a room which is a double square on the other. At the end of the hall, crosswise, runs the dining room, which was originally the rear gallery. (The present rear gallery and the adjoining kitchen were added shortly after the Civil War.) With their high ceilings, elaborate plasterwork, marble mantels, and white paneled doors, these rooms are so spacious and elegant in themselves that it would actually take very bad taste to destroy their charm. True, this was obscured by the shabby and scanty draperies, the worn and dingy rugs, which were part of their equipment as furnished apartments when I took them over; but the white walls had, fortunately, not been painted all sorts of horrible colors and there were a few really good pieces among the more ordinary sets to which I longed to give house room.
Gradually, this was done. My lease from Beauregard House, Inc., was extended on condition that I would continue and expand the work of restoration which this small but valiant group of women had begun; and when their organization decided to disband, the Keyes Foundation seemed its logical successor. My own belongings fitted, as if by magic, into alien surroundings. If I needed anything to strengthen my conviction that the problem of decoration is half solved once you have achieved a suitable setting, Beauregard House would have done it for me. I bought some old, miscellaneous pieces locally and was fortunate enough to acquire, through both gifts and purchase, some items which had belonged to General Beauregard. But, by and large, the house was equipped with my heirlooms and with the objects d’art and furniture I had assembled in the course of my travels all over the world. The spool bed from New England, the Gothic revival bed from Virginia, the shaving stand of black walnut from New York, all seemed to fit exactly where I put them; the same is true of ancestral portraits and ancestral silver. And it is no less true of the bread safe from Provence, the extension table from Anjou, and the tall clock from Amsterdam, whose facial decorations have fascinated beholders and whose chimes have delighted hearers for many generations.
The erstwhile carriage house, which adjoins my study in the slave quarters, has become the “treasure room.” The arches, now bricked up, through which victories and broughams used to pass, make an ideal background for my collection of veilleuses, interspersed with apothecary jars and with some of the fans – among them one made for the Empress Eugenie – for which there was not room in the Peruvian, Mexican, and American Gothic cabinets in the drawing room. Between the arches rises a wrought-iron staircase, transplanted from a nearby house which was being demolished. (The original staircase to the upper story of the slave quarters, hardly more than a ladder, was on the outside and was definitely not one of the property’s features we wished to preserve.) At right angles to these arches stands the fine old breakfront abandoned by the Keyes family when they sold their house in Newbury, Vermont, because it did not seem to them worth the bother of moving, but rescued by me before the new owners had time to destroy it!
The fountain in the patio also has a rather interesting story: after the aforementioned layers of concrete had been duh up and flagstones moved from the outbuildings to pave the patio, I insisted that provision must be made, not only for flower beds, but for a central fountain.; my architect, who was also acting as landscape gardener, declare there was not one of the right period in good condition to be had; the only one he had seen in a long while, which was without a basin, cost a thousand dollars. But the next time I went back to Vermont, I saw the fountain of my dreams – in the yard of a tourist home! It was obviously not working and, I gathered, not highly prized. I boldly rang the doorbell and asked the owner of the house if she would care to sell the fountain. She replied that she would not consider it and several later attempts at persuasion were also in vain; but after I had left Vermont for the winter, she changed her mind. By that time, the ground was frozen solid and I was afraid the precious would be broken if we attempted to dislodge it; but I was also afraid that the lady in question might change her mind again if we did not try to move the fountain until spring. I called the president of our local bank by long distance and asked if he and the cashier and one or two others would not go to the tourist home armed with teakettles, the contents of which could be used to thaw the ground in which the basin was imbedded. I heard him gasp over the telephone and realized that this was the most unreasonable of the many unreasonable demands I had made upon him. But the brigade from the bank got into swift and efficient action, the basin was dislodged, and the entire fountain arrived in New Orleans without mishap. With his first swift glance at it, my architect announced that this is where it must have come from in the first place!