Those of us who live in south Louisiana get a bit edgy at the start of hurricane season. We have all heard numerous tales about houses that have been damaged or ruined in the wake of hurricanes and summer storms. Many of us have experienced this firsthand. In the case of Dr. Emmanuel Rivas III and his wife Paulette, a triplet of weather-related disturbances threatened to discourage their staying in New Orleans to restore the charming, two-story Victorian home where they had resided for 30 years.
Although I was among the many New Orleanians whose homes were damaged or destroyed during hurricane Katrina, I have heard stories much worse than ours through the years. However, I must admit that, initially, I felt as though I was being told a “shaggy dog” story when recently speaking with Paulette Rivas after viewing her beautifully renovated residence in uptown New Orleans (located just minutes from my former house, which sustained six feet of water damage).
A self-taught artist who creates mixed media abstract works on canvas, Paulette oversaw the restoration of her uptown house and did the interior decorating herself; she has since been called upon by many friends to enlist her services. Her abstract paintings have also gained a following.
“After Katrina, we came back to New Orleans right away, within the first week, since my husband was a doctor. The entire roof had blown off of our house and the water had just poured in. When I stood in my kitchen, I could see the sky,” she recalls. Anticipating a worst-case scenario, the couple had managed to move their prized art collection to the homes of several friends before Katrina hit.
“When we came back to New Orleans after the hurricane, we collected all of our things from the house and moved it all into our fishing camp in Cocodrie. It was a huge project,” Paulette admits.
“Three weeks later, lightening struck our camp and burned it all the way down to the ground. We lost everything.”
Since her husband was needed at the hospital, Paulette had to find temporary housing as close to New Orleans as possible. “We rented a house in Kenner from friends, and started the process of demolishing our uptown home, which took almost three months, followed by the restoration. I served as the contractor and coordinated the workers. Each day, it would take me around two hours just to drive into the uptown area to oversee the project,” she recalls.
“Thankfully, we still had our art collection distributed at the homes of various friends. At least we still had that! After hurricane season ended, we felt confident that it was time to collect our art and move it all into a safe and reputable storage facility near the Carrollton area in New Orleans while our house was being renovated,” Paulette concludes.
But the unsuspecting couple was to have another brush with nature. “The day after we moved all of our remaining art collection into the new storage unit, a tornado hit the Carrollton area!”
Frantic after hearing about the tornado, Paulette finally managed to get in touch with someone who lived near all the wreckage. The tornado had devastated several homes and businesses while knocking down giant oak trees. “It missed our storage unit by one-half of a block!” she exclaims.
Not to be deterred, and despite nature’s odds, Paulette and her husband continued with the restoration of their home. “I tried to recreate various authentic elements, including the crown molding, to keep the house true to its history,” she says. “The wood floors are original to the house. I had the floors whitewashed with a rag twice, so that you can see the grain. They look white, but you can see the wood underneath the white acrylic wash.”
Paulette selected an all-white linen color theme for the entire house, which was built in the early 1900s. “I wanted something very clean, serene, and uncluttered after the hurricane,” she notes. “As I am sure you know, if you have been through hurricane Katrina, you don’t want a lot of clutter and excess. I wanted a really clean look after Katrina. The white linen color of the walls also helps our art and antiques stand out.”
The Rivases’ diverse art collection ranges from fine oil paintings from the early 1800s to mixed media contemporary works by regional artists (including several by Paulette). “I have only been painting for the past seven years, and have been selling a lot of my work recently,” she discloses.
A porch was added to the back of the home, the master suite was recreated, and a wall was knocked down in the den to make the kitchen and den into one large living space. The new “great room” now opens onto the porch and redesigned brick courtyard.
“We really enjoy entertaining. I just had 22 people over for a family dinner on the evening of the photo shoot for your magazine,” Paulette tells me. “And we had two parties before that. I am just now finding the time to get back to my painting.” For the photo shoot, interior designer Chet Pourciau was asked to help stage the Rivas home.
“When I first arrived at the house, I was simply amazed at how beautiful it was,” he notes. “The furniture was an eclectic mix of antiques and contemporary furniture and beautiful objects found during Mrs. Rivas’ travels abroad. She certainly has an eye for design, even though she has not had any formal training. Usually, when I have to stage a home, we have to eliminate a great deal of clutter and rearrange the furniture, but not in this case.”
For the kitchen, Paulette used a French pastry base and put white marble on top to create an island, which is surrounded by several cream leather contemporary chairs. “I wanted people to be able to sit in the kitchen,” she says. A faux bois chest was made into a bar. “I was looking for a piece that made a statement,” she says. “Since we have 12-foot ceilings, I wanted my kitchen cabinets to go up to the ceiling, and I wanted them to look wall-like, so the knobs are almost invisible. When I selected all the new furniture for the house, I didn’t buy anything to go into any particular spot. It all just sort of fell into place.”
In the adjoining den area, Paulette placed French slipper chairs from the 1940s and a unique coffee table she purchased at Antiques on Jackson. “I love our coffee table, which is from Italy. The top, which was made in the late 1600s, was from a castle or a villa, according to my friend, Maria, who owns the shop. Someone in the 1940s converted it into a gilded coffee table that is painted on top. It was originally a plaque on a wall, and has been painted in creams, pinks, golds, and blues.”
The dining room features painted Italian dining chairs from the 1760s. “They are the most comfortable chairs,” Paulette notes. “I had them recovered in a Robert Allen silk fabric; they were originally covered in an old torn velvet. For the dining table, I had beveled edge glass fitted on cement columns that I bought in Atlanta. Since we have large family gatherings, my table seats 12.”
In the living room, Paulette selected a rare Italian marble top coffee table, circa 1700s. “Everyone who has been in my house says that I should never get rid of this table because the marble cannot be replaced. I bought it at an auction from two doctors who left town after hurricane Katrina. I have other antiques that I bought from people who left town after Katrina as well.”
Paulette and her husband Emmanuel did not choose to leave New Orleans, in spite of consecutive run-ins with dangerous storms; instead, they persevered and have recreated their home of 30 years. Like many other determined residents, they are here to stay and help rebuild New Orleans, whatever nature may bring.