“They call it the bottle wall house,” says Michelle Vallot, a Lafayette attorney, owner of Zydeco Foods, LLC, and an avid arts patron who regularly appears in the society pages for her charitable arts events. Vallot and sculptor Russell Whiting’s intriguing home in Breaux Bridge is set on five acres of gardens filled with blooming jasmine and contemporary sculpture.
Hidden away in a secluded area with a pond, the house is bordered by unique varieties of bamboo including Black Henon, Robert Young, and Giant Timer in addition to 50-foot cypress trees.
Upon entering the house, visitors are always amazed by the two unusual picture windows; one is circular, and the other is square. Both are floating in a colorful glass bottle wall that was made with the help of artists.
The home was built in the 1960s by landscape architect Russell Dupuis, and served as a magnet for local artists, professors, and students. Dupuis was a professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, then known as the University of Southwestern Louisiana. The one-of-a-kind, handmade house was created from salvaged materials. It was one of the early “green” homes of the period, according to Vallot.
“When I first saw it, I felt like I had to protect this amazing house,” Vallot points out. “I couldn’t see it at first because it was surrounded by bamboo. It was modern and cool, and something just happened to my heart after I peeked into the big windows. I was told that it had been a gathering place for artists in the 1960s, and there were carvings on the posts from Elemore Morgan and works by the many other artists who had gathered here.”
The late Morgan (renowned contemporary Louisiana landscape painter), Robert Gordy (whose whimsical neo-expressionist works are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others), David Alpha (known for his murals, sculpture, and light shows), John Geldersma (best known for his totemic sculpture or “spirit poles”), and other notable artists designed, carved, painted, and crafted the handmade house so that it emerged into a working canvas.
Vallot and Whiting have added their own personal touches as keepers of the flame, so that the legacy of the artful house would continue. Whiting built a spiral staircase and landing, crafted the reclaimed cypress kitchen cabinets and counters, added a contemporary back porch, an 800-square-foot outbuilding/studio, and created a front entrance fountain, as well as various furniture and sculptures in the house and around the grounds.
Whiting uses carved steel, cast-iron, and mixed media to create his contemporary figurative sculptures. His images are influenced by various factors, including religion, ancient cultures, and cinema.
Vallot, who purchased the house in 1989, began renovations after acquiring the home, including the expansion of rooms on the second floor to incorporate one larger master bedroom suite with a sitting area and an updated master bath (with a copper-lined shower), and a separate dressing room. The tongue-and-groove antique longleaf pine adds a rustic element to the space.
Whiting made an intriguing steel bed for the master bedroom, and various contemporary sculptures were added in the upstairs quarters. The view from the glass-enclosed upper deck leading from the master bedroom is spectacular, and forms the covering of the porch below.
“Last weekend, we had a pig roast for around 30 people,” says Vallot. “This house lends itself to all kinds of entertaining, from casual get-togethers with friends to large, formal dinners and fundraisers for the arts.”
The open living area in the great room on the first floor has carved and painted beams and contemporary furnishings, some made by Whiting. Stained glass adorns the doors of a nearby TV nook. In the dining area are “corn and scull” carved posts by Elemore Morgan; the beams were carved by students and friends of Dupuis, who built the house. Paintings by Hunt Slonem, wood wall hangings by Geldersma, stained glass works, and other artistic flourishes are seen throughout the room. Contemporary bar stools by Whiting add interest to the small gallery kitchen area.
Because Vallot is a gifted chef who is beloved by her family and friends for her extravagant holiday treats, she decided to build a large commercial kitchen near the house for her various food projects. Vallot eventually created the Zydeco Foods line, and began commercially producing her fruit-nut Zydeco Bar at the end. The all-natural nutrition bar is made with sweet potato as a main ingredient, with a focus on Louisiana products.
“I was always in a hurry to eat at the law office and was eating those health bars you get at the supermarket, and they didn’t taste very good. One day, I decided to create my own health bars because I didn’t like the others,” she recalls. “So I started playing around with recipes.” Working in conjunction with several university food science departments and after many trials, Vallot perfected the recipe for her nutrition bar. It is currently being manufactured by a major producer of food bars and is sold in supermarkets.
An attorney by day and an entrepreneurial baker by night, Vallot is becoming increasingly enamored with her culinary endeavors. “I am now considering retiring from my law practice, and doing Zydeco foods full-time,” she discloses. “I love baking and doing the food line. And I especially love living in this amazing house. It isn’t fancy, but it has a lot of history and character.”
“The house and grounds are always evolving, like a living, organic thing,” Vallot notes. Meanwhile, Whiting’s sculptures are continually adding interest to the grounds of this ever-evolving artists’ jewel hidden in the woods of Acadiana.