Twenty years ago, New Orleans residents Dr. James Briggs and David Bourgeois acquired a large pasture on the northshore and began transforming it into what would become North House, a splendid compound that includes houses, a state-of-the-art conservatory, eight beautifully manicured gardens with more than 35,000 plants strewn with 2,000 lights, a fruit-filled orchard, and a large man-made pond stocked with catfish, bass, and brim. The fountain centering the pond to the rear of the main house creates a dreamy setting as ducks waddle on the water’s edge.
A labor of love, the project began with the construction of a barn, followed by a small house and a small conservatory, which doubled in size over the years. “Everything in the house was custom built in the barn that we also use as a workshop,” says Dr. Briggs. “We saved doors, wood for floors, and as many materials as we could for 10 years before building the main house. We are always collecting materials when we travel.”
Located just outside the main house, the Georgian-style barn has speakers on the roofline that broadcast melodious bell chimes on the hour from 7 am to 7 pm. “We got them from St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. They just wanted to go digital,” says Dr. Briggs. Built in Germany, the bells also play Christmas songs, hymns including Ave Maria, and songs for the weddings that are held here.
“We kind of lived in the barn,” reveals Dr. Briggs. The construction of the main house began and was completed “after 20,000 man hours,” he reports. “We did most of the inside ourselves,” says Bourgeois, an artist whose vibrant paintings of the gardens and exquisite murals can be found throughout the property. He lovingly oversees the gardens each day. “The gardens are designed according to what the sun does,” he explains. “The Diamond Garden is in exact proportions to the design in the Peruvian cherry wood floors of the house.”
The star inlay in the floor of the center hall (which is flanked by large statues of St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary, circa 1820), reflects the Star Garden to the left, while the diamond inlay reflects the Diamond Garden to the right of the house. This pattern of inlays is also repeated in the halls found on the second and third floors. “This is my own little chapel in here,” states Dr. Briggs of the hallway. “I plan on building a chapel on the property some day,” he says.
During hurricane Katrina, the owners left their home in New Orleans and rode out the storm at North House. “We had a propane refrigerator and freezer built for the barn,” Dr. Briggs reflects. “During hurricane Katrina we didn’t have power for 31 days, so we used the freezer in the barn, which we now use 365 days a year,” he remarks. “The main house is backed up by a 25 KW propane generator. We have 1,000 gallons of fuel on reserve. Everything, all three floors of the main house including air conditioners and TVs, can run on the generator. This is where we come for storms,” he says.
Designed for major storms, the three-story main house was built to withstand 180 mph winds, and the conservatory was built to withstand 125 mph winds. “We drew up the plans for the home ourselves. We built a house to emulate Williamsburg,” says Dr. Briggs. “We did most of the inside ourselves and we also put in the stairs at the back entrance of the main house,” Dr. Briggs comments as we stand on the carrera marble and limestone steps facing the peaceful pond while watching his young nephew, Tyler, hooking a fish nearby. Pepper, the cat, pounces on the flapping fish.
As we enter the spacious kitchen after viewing the pond, Bourgeois explains the concept behind the 17th-century French tiles that he put in as a backsplash. “The idea was to depict land, sea, and air,” he says of the pattern. As he pulls the custom-made corbels on either side of the stove, they reveal large spice drawers. Everything in the kitchen was designed impeccably, as Bourgeois enjoys preparing dishes for parties. An artist, he creates visual masterpieces for the soirees that are held here, including the annual Christmas open house and the popular Easter egg hung, for which he designs elaborate invitations. Each year during the hunt, 500 pastel balloons containing individual prayers are released "into heaven," says Dr. Briggs.
From the kitchen’s computer terminal, the Hal 2000 (Home Automated Living system) voice-operates the TVs, microwave, the security cameras, the thermostats, lighting, as well as music emanating from speakers hidden in the walls in the house and also the garden speakers throughout the property. “It says ‘good morning’ and prints out your grocery list, and it will even tell you your flight schedule,” Dr. Briggs exclaims.
A grandfather clock made in 1804 by William Noble of London graces the handsome living room. “David’s father was an extraordinary cabinetmaker and he built the doors, the sidelights, and the surrounds and gave it to us before he even saw the house,” Dr. Briggs says of the intricate living room doors in the front of the house.
The dining room, accented in hues of Ralph Lauren suede mulberry paint, is centered by a Waterford crystal chandelier. A remote-controlled two-way mirror over the faux painted mantel “does things,” says Dr. Briggs. Photos of the two owners, with North House as a back drop, appear in the “haunted mirror” as the lights are dimmed, then they gradually fade away. “We love remotes that make things happen,” he remarks. A 25-pound sterling silver Soccer Loving Cup, with dates ranging from 1923-1936, reigns on a pedestal in the corner beneath the arch windows that overlook the gardens.
The second landing showcases large oil paintings by an Angola prison inmate depicting Lord Beecham and George V. In Bourgeois’ spacious bedroom with cypress arched windows, a 100-year-old bust of Caesar is perched on a podium. “It weighs 400 pounds and it took four people to get it up here,” Bourgeois exclaims. The floor in the adjoining bath has an intriguing mosaic made of 3,200 pieces of cut marble. Recessed lighting accentuates the design. “We were in Santa Fe at a bed and breakfast when we discovered it. They told us that it is the same design that Bill Gates has in his entry hall,” says Bourgeois. In the toilet cabernet, Bourgeois spent 40 hours painting a diamond pattern on the wall. “No two diamonds are touching the same color,” he points out.
“The doorknobs on the master bedroom were from Paris Hilton’s grandfather, Conrad’s first Hilton Hotel in Chicago,” Dr. Briggs says. The master bedroom, which goes across the entire front of the house, has a lovely view of the lake, and is enhanced by French doors made by Bourgeois’ grandfather. “That’s the Eva Peron balcony,” Bourgeois jests. The large silver punch bowl near the four-poster bed once graced the governor’s mansion.
“My desk is a copy of a desk that Winston Churchill used,” points out Dr. Briggs as we walk to the corner of his grand bedroom. Behind the desk, over a cast metal mantel is a large painting by an Angola inmate of Edward XIII in full military garb. “He gave up the whole throne of England for a woman,” Dr. Briggs exclaims. He pushes a button and the painting slides over to reveal a television monitor. “You can see people at your front door and also watch the grounds,” he smiles.
One hundred-year-old cypress was used to make the cabinets for the sink in the master bath. A 200-year-old table with a top made of oyster wood imprinted with hearts accents the roomy bathroom, with its shower head imprinted with the family crest.
A large Waterford chandelier made of 1,000 pieces of crystal centers the stairwell. The media room/family room on the third floor displays the famous pop-up Easter egg hunt invitations, each made of 250 parts. A lighted altar, enclosed in glass, was obtained from a Catholic church.
Although the main house is intriguing, and the gardens are beautiful, perhaps the most enchanting aspect of the property is the diminutive Chart House, which is used as a guest house and also for bridal parties.
“The building is only 20 feet by 20 feet and we wanted to put five rooms with 12-foot ceilings,” says Dr. Briggs. Bourgeois painted a mural on the ceiling to resemble the sky and an arbor depicting the four seasons, as well as murals on the walls to appear as “a painting within a painting,” he explains. “We painted inlays in the floor like the Europeans did,” Dr. Briggs points out. “We used the same idea. It forms a perspective down the little hallway,” he says. The chandelier in the living area, which is lowered by a cable with a remote, was constructed by the owners and weighs 500 pounds. A fan comes on to suck the smoke out when the remote-controlled candles are lit. “It is very romantic for dinner parties,” he says.
Two cabernets serve as a dressing room and a bath. “You close the doors and bolt them and then the two cabernets and the hall become a dressing suite. It is great for weddings,” he explains. To lend a sense of roominess to the tiny bathroom, Bourgeois painted a graduating diamond pattern on the walls. “Each diamond is 1/16 of an inch smaller as it graduates to the rear wall,” he discloses. The second room was painted “to look like big blocks of old stone,” he says.
As Dr. Briggs pushes a button, and the opening anthem to the 1990 Olympics blares from the speakers in the walls, a staircase begins to descend dramatically from the ceiling painted to resemble the sky. “It’s a 2,000-pound hoist for the stairs that weigh 850 pounds,” he says. We ascend the sturdy staircase to a small bedroom with a window seat overlooking the main house and the Spalding Garden. The center of the ceiling rises to an apex. “The idea was to paint the corners of the ceiling to make it look like a big tent,” says Bourgeois.
The Ayerst Conservatory, built in two phases and named for a family friend, Dr. Bob Ayerst, was constructed in anodized steel and aluminum by Texas Greenhouse. The family crest is engraved in the brick at the entrance. “A roof opens up automatically and the fans turn on at 80 degrees,” says Dr. Briggs. “We have two wells. Water runs through the walls and sprinkles the plants.” Parakeets fly about the breezeway, which is crowned with an eight-foot upside down satellite dish resembling an umbrella. “They never rust,” says. Dr. Briggs. “It gives you a seamless way to go from one conservatory to another,” he adds. “The sliding doors are bullet proof. They were from Oakwood Shopping Center and we incorporated them into the design. The conservatory and annex are heated during the winter with propane,” he reveals.
A pair of female sphinxes graces the Main Garden. “It was one of our first gardens,” says Bourgeois. “The idea was to make it a shade garden,” he adds. “We were in Williamsburg and we brought them back. Each sphinx weighs one ton. They were from a 17th-century chateau,” Dr. Briggs remarks. “This was the way they used to advertise their daughters’ eligibility for marriage, by putting a sphinx resembling the daughter in front of the house.”
Devoted to their second home, the owners are always developing new projects for North House. “Our Cat-5 wiring will support our new holographic telephones in the future. You will appear out in space,” Dr. Briggs says. “We saw the holographic phones in Disney World.”
A new caretakers cottage is being planned, complete with its own driveway and a path through the woods for guests meandering on the golf cart. The chapel is already in the works. “We have the doors in the barn,” Dr. Brigs informs me. A commercial nursery is also underway. As we stroll past the orchard and stop to observe the 5,000 boxwoods and numerous azaleas at the site of the future nursery, Dr. Briggs turns and says to me with a warm smile, “North House is an ongoing project. We love it here.”