Along Lake Pontchartrain at the edge of New Orleans are two neighborhoods set geographically apart from the rest of the city. With acres of lawns and rambling houses, Lake Vista and Lake Terrace stand in contrast to the typically dense neighborhoods of the Crescent City. On any afternoon, a sense of quiet pervades the neighborhood, save for the low rumbles of lawn mowers and the soft chirping of birds. Tucked amongst the curved streets of this postwar suburban environment, striking homes of glass, steel, and concrete cast shadows along green spaces like overgrown sculptures. With their clean lines and geometric forms, these houses are among the most enduring examples of mid-century modern architecture in the country.
Also known as the “contemporary style,” mid-century modern refers to a period of architecture from the 1930s through the 1960s that softened the image of modernism through natural materials, open layouts, and floor-to-ceiling windows that blended the interior of the home with the outdoors. As urbanites moved to the suburbs post-World War II, many professionals bought large tracts of land and commissioned architects to design houses that offered a relaxed, luxurious style of living based on the sprawling ranch houses of California.
With abundant parkland and lake views, New Orleans’ Lake Vista community offered a perfect site for many homes of this style. Conceived by the Orleans Levee Board in the late 1930s, Lake Vista was planned with cul-de-sacs of homes, all of which face parkland and walking paths on the other side. “It was designed to be a neighborhood where children and elderly people would be safe from vehicular traffic,” says Francine Stock, curator at the Tulane School of Architecture. There are two front to every house: one facing the street and the other facing the park. “This created sites that were ideal for architects, as homes could be seen from both sides.”
Mary and David Halpern’s expansive Lake Vista home faces parkland on all sides. Designed in 1948 by L.F. Defrechou, the house is wrapped in windows punctuated by concrete balconies. To maximize views, the Halperns removed all window treatments from the first floor, and painted the window frames stark black. From the outside, the house stands as a bold composition reminiscent of the grid paintings of Piet Mondrian. Inside, where walls of glass limit space for paintings, the park views themselves serve as the home’s major works of art.
Though the Halperns renovated the interior, they preserved the structural integrity of the house while updating it. The open layout of the home has been been expanded, while the decorative woodwork, open tread staircase, and sunken living room remain in tact. Though the openness of the house makes for a comfortable living situation, “it’s not very conducive to studying,” remarks Mary Halpern. “Because there are no walls, there is no place to hide.”
Just across the park, Monte Shalett lives in a house his parents built in 1957 on a lot overlooking the lake. Designed by George Saunders, this rambling home creates an oasis of privacy within the city limits. From the street, a strikingly futuristic port cochere across the driveway only hints at the luxuriously appointed courtyard inside, complete with kidney- shaped pool and lush plantings. None of the windows inside the house face out onto the street. Instead, floor-to-ceiling windows open the inside of the house onto the lanai. “This home was built for entertaining,” remarks Shalett, whose parents hosted parties for New Orleans notables throughout the 1950s and 60s. With decorative steel beams, intricate brickwork, walnut panelling, and Japanese-style garden alcoves, “most people walk in and are just blown away. It’s art. Someone thought about all of these details.”
Though the Shalett residence is one of several modern houses in Lake Vista, most of the homes throughout the development tend to be more traditional in design. Lake Terrace, created fourteen years after Lake Vista, has even more examples of modern homes, and shows the integration of contemporary stylings onto both luxurious and modestly appointed homes. Though it does not feature the greenbelt design of Lake Vista, Lake Terrace has a stark concrete fountain as its center focal point. Driving past the fountain along Lakeshore Drive, the eclectic nature of Lake Terrace becomes apparent as one passes mid-century modern dwellings influenced by Asian pagodas, Greek temples, and western ranch homes.
Situated on a curved lot along a canal in Lake Terrace is the ranch home of partners Allen Thomas and Gary French. With long horizontal lines, bold redwood siding, and panels of floor-to-ceiling frosted glass, the facade of the home epitomizes 1950s modern. Inside, slate floors, unadorned windows, and a butterfly roof create an environment perfectly suited for casual living and entertaining. Though Thomas and French love their home, owning a house of this style does present challenges. “Since the house uses many building techniques new to the era, it presents interesting challenges,” remarks French. Since moving in, Thomas and French have had to replace the air conditioner, repair damage on the terrazzo floors, and remove several leaking skylights. Though their house is constantly a work in progress, they are devoted to preserving the original styling of the house, while creating a comfortable home.
Though many owners of the mid-century modern houses of Lake Terrace and Lake Vista are intent on preserving their architectural integrity, these contemporary houses by the lake are not protected by historical landmark status. As a result, mid-century modern gems are continually at risk of being severely modified or even demolished. Hopefully, through greater awareness and appreciation of the style, these livable works of art can endure.
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