Today the city of New Orleans lost a very important piece of historic architecture. The Montgomery- Grace house caught fire early this morning and raged for a good part of the day. After my morning tour, I walked over to the site to find the house still burning, 5 hours or so after the fire department had arrived. The fire was finally put out at 1:45pm. It was a devastating sight.
Already, many media outlets are publishing the fascinating history this house through stories of the people who lived here staring with John Morris, who was heavily involved in horse racing and the Louisiana State Lottery, and then Mr. Robert Moore, who bought the house for $28,000 and was the father of Leila Moore who would marry Kemper Williams, and then finally the Montgomery’s -the current family who has owned this home since 1906. Not just an architectural masterpiece, this dwelling is steeped in Mardi Gras history as quite a few residents were members of our most famous parading krewe – Rex. To learn more about the people who have lived there check out the Preservation Resource Center’s article: https://prcno.org/history-2525-st-charles-avenue/.
Being an architecture girl, I wanted to focus a little more on the architecture of this house and share some info about the architect – Thomas Sully.
Thomas Sully, Early Life and First Projects
Thomas Sully was born in Mississippi in 1855. He spent time in New Orleans and studied architecture in Austin, Texas with Larmour and Wheelock. In his late twenties, Thomas came back to New Orleans and started his own architectural firm in New Orleans. Sully’s architectural career started in 1883, a moment in New Orleans history where one might say a changing of the guard was happening. According to Fredrick Starr, it was “the year after Henry Howard had designed his last building, Reynolds was dead, and only James Freret posed any major competition”. He designed homes and commercial properties in many different styles ranging from Italianate, Romanesque Revival, Renaissance Revival to Queen Anne in the Victorian Period. Many of his projects can be seen from the St. Charles Streetcar, the best mode of transportation in his day.
One of his first designs was the Hersheim house, for Samuel Hersheim a tobacco supplier. This 1883 house is historically significant because it is the only house created by Thomas Sully in the Italianate style that is still standing. It was originally a two story building whose façade was rendered asymmetrical by a large tower on the right. Sadly, the tower was destroyed in the Hurricane of 1915. Major renovations took place, including an addition to enlarge the attic to create a full third story, demolition of the tower and extensive interior work. This building is currently the home of Columns Hotel.
1884 found Thomas Sully showing his how versatile his design skills were, switching from Italianate residential motifs to Romanesque style for commercial buildings. In the Central Business District, one can find the New Orleans National Bank at 201 Camp Street. The hallmarks of this style include a startling (for New Orleans) rusticated stone first level, brick upper levels decorated with pilasters, a modillion course in the cornice and many examples of carved decorations from the faces on the capitols of the pilasters to the rinceau ( foliage motifs). His adoption of the Romanesque style would be repeated in the Confederate Memorial Hall, located next door to the Howard Library on Camp Street. This building was built in 1890 has rusticated stone details and carved terra cotta designs.
In 1889, Thomas Sully was contracted to build the Grace Montgomery House located at 2525 St. Charles Avenue for John Morris, racetrack owner, lottery investor, etc. The lot had contained a cottage built by Henry Howard for a fellow named Charles A. Miltenberger. One resource consulted claims that Mrs. Morris was superstitious about destroying the whole cottage, so the new design incorporated the existing living room into the new design and basically built the new house around the old one. (Interesting…)
The new home that emerged is a spectacular example of Thomas Sully’s Queen Anne fanciful architecture. Sure it might have some Greek Revival throwback elements like Ionic columns and a centrally located door, but the overwhelming asymmetry and heavy textured decorative features scream a later more whimsical, playful style.
Let’s dig in:
The door is centered on the front façade giving it a center hall look, but that is where the symmetry ends – the windows to the right are set into a slight protruding bay whereas the windows to the left are pretty standard. On the second story, the bay extends at the same proportions, and the windows on the left side of the door follow the pattern found below. Above, in the third story one finds a double gambrel roof, with an even taller gambrel roof above it, giving the house a barnlike appearance. On both sides, there are other roofs that extend over side wings. Overall, there appears to be many different heights and widths of roof gables in keeping with the Queen Anne Style.
Decorative features include turned balusters that support curved porch railings on the second story (we have finally emerged out of the days of plain wood slats or cast iron). Palladian windows light the third story, and the attic air is vented with little eyebrow windows? vents? The most interesting feature on this house is the siding. Texture is one of the key components of this style so the main body of the house is covered with shingles, but in the gables there appears to be a siding with a chevron pattern. Chevron pattern? I can’t think of any building in the city that has siding like this, residential or commercial. The Montgomery Grace House is really unique.
Soon after completing the Montgomery-Grace House, Sully went on to design many other buildings including commercial projects such as the Maritime Building (our first 10 story sky scraper) and residential buildings such as the Grand Victorian Bed and Breakfast (2727 St. Charles Avenue) and the Thomas Sully Bed and Breakfast (2631 Prytania Street). Many of his residential projects were located further uptown on St. Charles Avenue, as this is where a major building boom took place at the turn of the century. He retired in 1905.
According to Frederick Starr, “Driving in his surrey from Carrollton to Lee (formerly Tivoli) Circle in 1900, the architect could have admired over five dozen examples of his own work.”
As a result of this morning’s fire, the city is now missing one.
- Malone, Paul, and Lee Malone. The Majesty of the Garden District. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 1998.
- Starr, S. Frederick., and Robert S. Brantley. Southern Comfort: The Garden District of New Orleans. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998.
- Wilson, Samuel, Bernard Lemann, Sally Kitteredge Reeves, and John E. Walker. New Orleans Architecture. Jefferson City. Vol. VII. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2010
- Taken by author, 02/20/19
- Tulane’s Southeastern Architectural Archive
- Historic New Orleans Collection