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Experimenting with Energy Efficiency in New Orleans’ 9th Ward

The Times-Picayune profiles historic preservation alumna Tracy Nelson ’00 and her efforts to transform a historic ‘shotgun’ house
Photo by: Doug Parker | Times-Picayune Staff Photographer
'As in Europe, the culture of architecture in New Orleans runs as deep as our music and culinary appetites,' says Tracy Nelson. She renovated her shotgun house on Dauphine Street.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune and profiled Roger Williams University alumna Tracy Nelson ’00 (historic preservation) and her efforts to “combine historic sensibility with energy efficiency” in a shotgun home in the city’s Lower 9th Ward.


Comfort Meets Energy-Efficiency in a Restored Holy Cross Shotgun

By Mary Rickard

January 4, 2013

A COZY START: At home in the Holy Cross neighborhood in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward, Tracy Nelson has combined historic sensibility with energy efficiency in restoring the shotgun home she purchased in 2009.

Nelson describes her quaint house as a "laboratory" experiment, using recycled and energy-efficient building materials. New homes are built with conservation in mind, but retrofitting an old home requires some expertise. Nelson is committed to reducing her "carbon footprint."

Nelson's so-called home laboratory is also warm and inviting. She begins her day in a cozy "morning spot," a sitting area surrounded by walls painted a rich hue of Japanese eggplant above which hangs a large graphic print boldly declaring: "Seek Happiness."

"It reminds me that I am responsible for how I view the world and that I have a choice in how I react to life, as it happens," she said.

Tongue-and-groove wainscoting salvaged from a demolished Holy Cross house was painstakingly restored to the wood's original luster.

Clusters of crystals hanging from the east door's transom window cast a spectrum of color across the room as the morning sun emerges over the roofline of the neighboring house.

"These prisms fill my room from floor to ceiling with rainbows," she said. "It's a great start for the coming day."

THE PATINA OF AGE: Nelson makes a morning cup of tea in the open kitchen, lined with vintage cupboards repainted apple green. An old-fashioned mailbox provides cubbyholes to store herbal tea boxes and Twinings Tea tins, jars and mugs. While studying architecture in Britain, Nelson acquired a keen taste for tea.

"Hot tea for England's cool, damp climate is as perfect as iced tea is for our humid Southern state," she said.

Lacking modern storage units, the kitchen holds antiques, mostly found at Greg's Antiques on Decatur Street, to provide functional and fascinating compartments.

"I like things that have the patina of age," she said.

An enormous cabinet fronted by glass windowpanes fills an entire wall, exposing packages of baking ingredients, spices, teapots, pitchers, canisters, dried pasta, casserole dishes, platters and cookbooks.

Round, heirloom Seminole winter squash, ready to bake with apples and cinnamon, lie on the floor beneath a butcher-block table of black sycamore and lotus wood set on roughly hewn legs. A cypress cabinet designed for china is being used as a liquor closet.

New Orleans paraphernalia provides the kitchen's decor. On one wall, hand-painted street signs are reminders of the time when the official signs washed away. Nelson rescued the replacements as they were discarded after city signs were restored. Rhetorical, anonymously created street art declaring, "Think That You Might Be Wrong," was posted on Elysian Fields after Katrina. Another sign, "Keep Calm and Carry On," was put up in the dead of night.

A TWO-WAY STREET: Nelson makes her old home more energy efficient by "interacting" with it. During the hottest months, she closes the shutters over the doors while leaving the slats open to keep the sun at bay. In winter, the shutters hold heat inside. Her November energy bill was $40.

"Besides, I love the visual of the shutters behind the door," she said.

Antique Eastlake doors found at The Bank, an architectural salvage store, create a tight seal against the Louisiana climate.

Dittrich-Lips Art Glass cut red, green and purple glass for her kitchen door, which lets in sunlight and splashes of vivid color. Beautiful blue and rose glass from the 1930s or '40s in the bedroom door came from Attenhofer's Stained Glass Studio in Metairie.

Nelson also restored the home's original plaster walls.

"Plaster is energy-efficient and keeps you incredibly cool," she said. In her estimation, the destruction of plaster walls and hardwood floors after Hurricane Katrina represented real architectural tragedies.

BENEFIT OF EXPERIENCE: Nelson is no novice at restoration. She earned an advanced degree in historic preservation at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island and another in sustainable architecture at Cambridge University, a program she chose in order to work alongside "craftsmen with centuries of skills."

But she always meant to return to New Orleans because it has more historic housing than any other U.S. city.

"As in Europe, the culture of architecture in New Orleans runs as deep as our music and culinary appetites," she said.

In 2006, Nelson moved to New Orleans to volunteer with Architecture for Humanity to save and refurbish valuable housing stock, and she later headed the Louisiana's Historic Building Recovery Grant Program, which renovated 76 Holy Cross homes. For two years, she served as director of the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development.

Now Nelson is heading to New York to do recovery work after Hurricane Sandy. She believes those who went through Katrina have valuable insights into preservation to share.

Like most things that are valuable -- our youth, health or relationships -- we never truly understand what we had until it is gone, Nelson reflected.

Copyright 2013 The Times-Picayune. For full story and more photographs, click here.