When architects and business partners Chris and Trula Remson were looking for office space for their growing firm, they wanted to be part of the revitalization of downtown Baton Rouge. Finding a building that would showcase their work, fit their budget, and offer them space for 12 employees was a challenge, but they eventually found what they were looking for in a nondescript building on a main street in the Beauregard neighborhood.

Though the square, vinyl-clad house did not have historical or architectural significance, Chris thought the plain structure could be updated, and the clay roof drove his vision of the renovation. His renderings inspired the whole team to see a vision of an elegant Italianate-style house topped with the original orange roof tiles. "It was a good opportunity to apply more ornament and complement the historic buildings around it," Chris says.

Though Beauregard was once a residential area, Trula says it had turned into "a sea of parking lots." The couple wanted their building to help define the sidewalk and create a main street look that was comfortable for pedestrians. "Our building is the last one before you go under the interstate -- the last building before you leave town," Trula says. "It was important that it be memorable."

To help the couple create this memorable structure, they brought in contractor Wayne Boudinot, with whom they had worked on several projects. In a typical year, Boudinot's company remodels about five houses, builds 10 new houses, and completes one or two commercial projects.

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Hiring Boudinot was an easy choice for the Remsons. Chris says he and Trula realized they'd have some unexpected conditions and difficult decisions ahead of them, so they wanted a contractor who would be easygoing and at the same time could deal with day-to-day decisions and changes. "If there were problems, we knew we could resolve them successfully," Chris says.

Boudinot joined the team in visualizing the finished product. "With a little help from the renderings and his sketches from the beginning, I saw Chris's vision, especially of the front elevation with the enclosed porch and balcony," Boudinot says. "They wanted a certain look and did not want to lose the character of the building," Boudinot says. "But they wanted it to function for their needs."

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Porch song

The team's first challenge began with the front elevation. The building wasn't large enough to house the firm, so Chris decided to enclose the front porch to add several hundred square feet of office space. Instead of a standard windowed enclosure, he wanted the porch to contribute to the design. The building already had the traditional Italianate elements of a square floor plan, overhanging eaves, and a low-hipped roof. Chris worked hard to fit the proportion of the existing house and add two more Italianate details: arched openings on the porch and balustrades on the balcony. "When you use arches, you still have a lot of glass, but the spaces between are solid, so we have some protection from western sun," Trula says.

Architect Chris Remson enclosed the front porch to add much-needed square footage to the office. The renovation is part of the revitalization of a historic downtown neighborhood.
Hatter Photographics Architect Chris Remson enclosed the front porch to add much-needed square footage to the office. The renovation is part of the revitalization of a historic downtown neighborhood.

The base of the porch was sturdy, so Boudinot just had to shim it to make it level. He installed a subfloor to prepare it for carpet and ceramic tiles in the entry.

The gravel-topped roof above the porch was leaky, so Boudinot kept the frame and topped the building with a rubber roof. It was torched at the seams to become a single, leak-proof membrane that is maintenance-free.

Around the upper deck, the Remsons chose decorative cast stone balustrades to replace the rickety wood railing. "It reinforces the style, brings dignity to the building, and makes it look more like a commercial building than a residence," Trula says. The balcony's French doors open off the new library. "We have parties up there and watch the fireworks," Trula says. "We also use it for color selections. We set up mock designs out there so we can see how they look in real sunlight."

The other issue the architects faced was bringing the building up to code, including one code that required a sprinkler system in a building with open stairs. There were no water mains nearby, so that would have made it a costly update. Chris says the city official allowed them to meet the intent of the code, rather than adhere to specific rules. So instead of the sprinklers, they kept the open stairs and added fire alarms. Also, because it houses a business, the building had to have two exits from the second floor. The officials ended up allowing the front balcony to be the only exit on the second floor. "We wanted to upgrade the building and make it safe, but did not want to go overboard and make the cost prohibitive," Chris says.

As fitting as the enclosed porch was to the Italianate style, the firm did not receive a historical tax credit because of this element. "They are very strict. The design fell outside of their criteria, and there was not a lot of room for argument," Trula says.

Outside chances

The architects also decided to build a room addition on another flat roof on the back of the house. Boudinot replaced the flat gravel roof with new floor joists and a floor deck, and framed new walls to square off the upper floor. He didn't need to reinforce the house because he was just replacing the wood structure and subfloor, so he was not placing additional weight on the building. He topped that new enclosure with membrane roofing.

Arched French doors lead into an entry that houses a receptionist desk and waiting area.
Hatter Photographics Arched French doors lead into an entry that houses a receptionist desk and waiting area.

A clay tile roof on a wood house is unusual, and it was one of the driving factors of the design. "It has nice proportions and was in good shape -- it didn't leak," Trula says. Boudinot says the surrounding trees and leaves caused the tiles to become dirty and mildewed. His crew used a cherry picker to reach the roof and used chemicals to wash the roof and remove the green film.

A talented subcontractor installed the stucco on the front of the house and most of the sides. On the rear, Boudinot refinished the wood siding. Boudinot says when he hires a stucco sub, he looks for someone who uses correct waterproofing techniques. That means "placing a membrane between old wood siding and before the cement layer, attaching tieback paper correctly, and overlapping and taping joints," he says.

Inside story

On the interior, the original plaster walls had to accommodate extensive wiring for computers and telephones. "We routed the plaster, ran our lines where we needed, then went over everything with drywall. It was a much cleaner finish. Patching plaster would have been nightmare," Trula says.

Boudinot hung 1/4-inch drywall on the walls to accommodate the trims and doorjambs but used 1/2-inch material for the ceiling to prevent sagging. The first floor was not level, so Boudinot hired a leveling sub to shim up the floor from beneath through the crawl space, where much of the ductwork was installed.

The team decided to keep the side and back wood windows, but they are not operable. On the new back section, the architects chose insulated aluminum windows. "We used the same proportion and mullion spacing as the original windows," Trula says.

Completed in seven months, the project took longer than expected, but the results are spectacular. Boudinot says he knew he would enjoy the challenge of making decisions as they came up. "It was not perfectly detailed. Some of the things they wanted, they were playing with and having fun," he says. "We made many decisions as we went along." He believes in constant communication with clients so they can make decisions as questions arise.

Trula says she realized how dramatic their changes were when one of the former tenants visited. "He had known the building intimately, and he could not figure out his orientation," she says.

The Case of The Missing Sphinxes

Two heavy stone sphinxes flanked the front steps on the original house. They were hidden until contractor Wayne Boudinot and his crew cut back the overgrown brush in preparation for construction. It was then that the 400-pound statues caught the eye of a thief.

Owners Chris and Trula Remson posted flyers around the neighborhood and reported the theft to police. "They laughed at us and said, 'You'll never see those again,'" Trula says.

A month later, a man called to say he had seen them. "We gave him $100, and he told us they were in front of a shack off the interstate," Trula says. The police retrieved the statues, and they were returned to their rightful place at the base of the steps.

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"They look like they belong even more, with the renovated elevation," Boudinot says. This time, the team didn't take any chances: They firmly grouted the statues to the bases.