Decorating a pre-Civil War historic home is no simple task. But for preservationist and interior designer Hal Williamson, it was a labor of love. Williamson has designed many beautiful interiors, but among his most impressive works is this 10,000 square-foot Italianate mansion—his very own home. The historic residence has been meticulously renovated and restored to its former glory. We asked Williamson to talk about this special home that pays homage to New Orleans magic. Read on:
This home has a fascinating history! Can you tell us about the families that lived here before?
Built in 1859, Colonel Robert Henry Short was the original owner. He commissioned renowned architect Henry Howard to design the home. It took up half of the square of a city block in those days. During the Civil War, the Union General Nathaniel Banks from Connecticut lived here. It was taken as his headquarters while he was in command of the Gulf South. It also served temporarily as the Executive Mansion for the newly elected Governor of Louisiana Michael Hahn during the Reconstruction. After the war, the United States government returned the home to Colonel Short.
The next family was the Britton family, and then in 1950 the Moran family moved here. They were that first family to really tackle the restoration of this fine property. The family that we purchased the home from was the Favrot family. We were given many lovely old photographs and information about our home. A lot of what I learned of this home’s history came from them.
How much of the house has changed since you moved in?
I’m a preservationist, so preserving the original essence of the residence was very important to me. It was designed by Henry Howard, who I dare to say, designed the most beautiful homes in the Mississippi River Valley.
This home dates back to 1859, and in 1950 it underwent it’s first renovation. The family living here at the time employed one of the greatest architects in New Orleans, Samuel Wilson, to assist them. When we moved in, we did the same, hiring Frank Masson who had helped us renovate or French Quarter home. We needed to update everything here. The process spanned ten years.
What were the most challenging parts of decorating this home?
It’s immense size and the fact that the entire first floor is open to see from any given angle. I spent quite some time developing a color plan and furniture placement design before the first paint brush touched a surface. It was extremely important for me to get things right the first time. For example, I needed over 500 yards of silk just for the drapery alone on the first floor. Every decision was important.
Tell us about some of your favorite antique pieces in the home. We spy a lot of Louis XV and Louis XVI!
I love the Louis XVI-period console table in green and gold in my front parlor, and the period-1st Empire bibliotheque in the stair hall. My favorite piece is the early Louisiana Creole made armoire in the study upstairs. It has French-style cabriole legs with an American eagle inlay on the top. So I guess you could say it has one foot in France and another in America. Personally we prefer period French and early Louisiana furniture. Our home has a very collected old New Orleans feeling, but at the same time it’s very comfortable and inviting.
The home has seen many famous guests in its days. Who can you tell us about?
Famous chefs Julia Child, James Beard and Lee Bailey have all cooked in our kitchen. French actress Sarah Bernhardt sang in our gardens. During the Civil War, General Sherman and Commander (and later President) Grant dined here. Cellist Pablo Casals has played in our music room. It’s a home that has hosted governors, presidents, princesses, movie stars, and musicians. At one of our very first parties we enjoyed the company of Francis Ford Coppola. There was a Brian de Palma film shot here in the 70’s movie called “Obsession” starring Cliff Robertson, Genevieve Bujold and John Lithgow.
How did Mardi Gras influence your design choices in the home?
Most of the Carnival organizations are named for mythological gods or ancient folklore. My subtle sense of humor has to come into play here, so over the years I was able to collect some very special pieces. The French 18th century commode in our entry hall has on it’s hardware the masque of Comus. A little further down that hall is a console with old leaf legs carved with the face of Bacchus. The early 18th-century Dutch tall case clock has a final on the top of Hermes. I love having these elegant but whimsical touches in the decor.
This may be a hard question: What’s your favorite thing about your home?
I love waking up in the middle the night and hearing the calliope from a riverboat drifting into my bedroom. Or the church bells ringing not far away, or jazz coming from around the corner at Commander’s Palace. I love the smell of the magnolia, jasmine and sweet olive in our gardens. I love the moonlight when I look out of my upstairs bedroom through an old oak tree. I love that I can walk to dinner to the best restaurant in America.
But most of all, I have loved sharing the beauty of a place that is so dear to me with people from all over the world. It is our sanctuary and has given us such peace and joy.