A Garden District couple teams with designer Rivers Spencer to create an elegant art-filled abode
By Keith Marshall (This article originally appeared in the Dec. 25, 2015 issue of InsideOut.)
As he envisioned turning a former Garden District corner store into a private residence, physician Rich Awtrey heard voices.
Faint voices from the past, as he stumbled onto relics of previous owners and occupants. Louder suggestions from his partner, Jason Strealy. Soothing advice from interior designer Rivers Spencer. And insights gained from conversations with artists whose works would add spice to the environment.
“I knew what I wanted,” Awtrey said, “but I wasn’t quite sure how to get there. From the day we gutted the ground floor interior, things changed as we went along. My goal was to have layers of style and images, not a blend. I wanted a mix of new furniture, vintage pieces and antiques. And I wanted to source as much as possible locally to keep a local feeling.”
In other words, Awtrey was looking for an interior where spatial, decorative and artistic touches could hold a dialogue — brilliantly, but politely, and with New Orleans flair.
“Rivers helped me make sense of all this,” Awtrey said as he gestured across the broad living space toward the dining platform, raised slightly above its surroundings.
The renovation is the second that Awtrey has undertaken with Spencer’s assistance.
“In 2011, I purchased a cute little side hall Victorian on Aline Street,” Awtrey said, “I had a bachelor kind of pad there, but it needed help. I walked up and down Magazine Street in search of a good designer and found Rivers. She had the clean, elegant look I wanted.
“When she walked in the Aline house, her response was, ‘You know, this is not as bad as I thought it was going to be.’ It took a lot of nerve to say that, but she’s the kind of person I needed to tell me what to do.”
In 2013, Awtrey purchased the Garden District former store, which once served as a rehearsal hall for Art Neville and the Funky Meters. Renovations lasted eight months.
“I wanted the dining room to be a sort of jewel box,” Spencer said. “The lacquered walls (a pale obsidian custom color by Fine Paints of Europe) help create that effect. Kevin Gillentine’s ethereal painting serves as a focal point for the room. You are drawn to it as soon as you open the front door.”
Maintaining the building’s historic façade, include the corner entrance, was central to Awtrey’s vision for the property.
“We wanted to put back the original store windows to have it look like an old store from the outside, and we added a third, matching window, in the dining room, which had been a storeroom, accessed through an outside door,” he said.
The additional window gave the dining room the light, airy feeling that Awtrey and Strealy, both 42, wanted. And, during the renovation, they found the original entrance doors to the store and reinstalled them.
The original plan was to gut the ground floor and unify the three levels: the main space, with its 12-1/2-foot ceilings; the storeroom, now the dining area, which is raised 6 inches; and the kitchen, up several steps. But the juxtaposition of the three levels, when opened up, added drama to what could have become just another open-space renovation.
The dining room is the star. Awtrey seems almost in awe of its elegant formality.
“I love the space. It’s beautiful. But,” Awtrey confided, “we actually don’t use it much. It’s very formal, and our friends tend to congregate in the kitchen.”
The kitchen is one area where Awtrey, Strealy and Rivers were in complete agreement.
“I wanted the kitchen to be timeless,” Awtrey said. “Subway tile never goes out of style, and there was old subway tile in the original kitchen.”
Spencer was concerned with creating an airy space. “The lanterns in the kitchen are polished nickel,” she said. “The island is 13 feet long, so we had to have something substantial hanging over it; but I also wanted something open, to keep the feel of the kitchen light.”
Strealy, the director of property management at Volunteers of America, viewed the kitchen pragmatically. “It really is a gathering place for people and is where we do a majority of our entertaining, as Rich is an incredible cook,” he said.
Strealy also was instrumental in the addition, just off the kitchen, of a new porch that runs almost the length of the house, overlooking a long, narrow lap pool.
On the opposite wall in the kitchen now hangs an eye-popping, lacquered-and-bejeweled image: “Frida Kahlo as Warrior.” The dramatic 48-inch-by-48-inch painting, by local artist Ashley Longshore, is a piece that Awtrey couldn’t resist as he collected artwork for the home.
Two large paintings also face each other across the living space. Monroe native Meredith Pardue said her “Rocks from Canon Beach Ten Years Later III,” a 60-inch-by-48-inch painting that Awtrey commissioned in 2010, invokes “images of some of my previous paintings, which spoke to Rich most — all of which had natural, earthy palettes with organic, undulating forms that were clearly derivative of those found in nature.”
Gazing from the opposite wall, two surreal figures in Louis St. Lewis’ “The Conjuring,” another 48-inch-by-48-inch painting, are like a highly charged explosive amidst the oysterhued silk curtains and Hermes pillows. Andy Warhol once said of St. Lewis’ work, “It’s like Hieronymus Bosch meets MTV.”
“It’s one of my favorite mixed media works,” St. Lewis said, “and it summons forth a variety of ideas. Are these men dressed for Mardi Gras, or has a devil been invoked? Is the skull-headed man the grim reaper, a ghost or just another masked reveler?”
These are layers of questions one hardly expects to encounter in such an otherwise orderly environment. But it’s the careful juxtapositions like these that make the home so intriguing.
“Rivers’ aesthetic is basically feminine,” Awtrey said, “with rich materials, subtle colors and flowing lines. I wanted to play off that a bit with something angular, more masculine, so, for example, I hung those Spy prints (19th-century caricatures of lawyers and judges) near the dining room.
“It’s my stamp, along with the furniture I’ve collected, on the design, a bit of me coming through in these lush surroundings.”
PHOTOS BY CHRIS GRANGER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN DEC. 25, 2015’s ISSUE OF INSIDEOUT