Pro-File Design: studioWTA
Few cities in the United States conjure the past as readily as New Orleans. Walking through the French Quarter or Garden District neighborhoods, especially, has the power to send you back in time and to what feels like an entirely different country—one more lushly romantic than ours. But even in New Orleans, time does not stand still. Humans continue to alter the city’s buildings and surroundings—to repair, renew, and reimagine.
Hurricane Katrina hastened some changes, of course, and reshaped everything touched by its wake. Twelve years have passed since the storm, and the remarkably resilient city has rebounded strongly. Coming so close to losing such an important and beautiful city has reawakened appreciation for its charms, and fueled investment in rebuilding while addressing some of its flaws along the way.
Katrina and its aftermath have kept architect Wayne Troyer, FAIA, and studioWTA very busy. He was closely involved with planning efforts after the storm and has always been a strong advocate for preserving what’s best about the city. Looking ahead while keeping an eye on the past comes naturally to the New Orleans native and has served him well in practice there.
The firm, which Wayne leads with partners Tracie Ashe and Julie Babin, AIA, excels at parsing and curating New Orleans’ unique eclecticism and, simultaneously, interjecting modern sensibility and delight. The firm balances a mix of remodeling, new construction, single-family, multifamily, commercial, and institutional projects—but houses and housing make up the majority of the work. The architects fully embrace a charming historic building or a completely modern new one, but what they never lose sight of is how it pairs with the scale and spirit of the city.
“We do large-scale multifamily, and we’ll do a kitchen remodel,” says Wayne. “We’re like a small firm pretending to be a big one. We have a young staff. Right now, we have five or six licensed architects, and most have gone through their training with our firm. We are 15 people total. We have an active university practice, and we have a $65 million mixed-use project in permitting. Each project informs the others, especially the custom work. And the smaller work gives the younger designers some good experience.”
The firm is more than 25 years old, but Wayne added Traci and Julie as partners just two years ago. The wake-up call to initiate succession planning came four years ago, when Wayne lost a dear friend and sometime collaborator, Frederic Schwartz, FAIA, to cancer. A health scare of his own underlined the urgency to take action.
“Fred’s death hit me hard. I was working with him at the time, and he got sick and died—with no transition in place and no clear path for his clients,” Wayne recalls. “I wanted to make sure that the people who worked with me and supported me over the years had something they could take as their own, and that they would have a basis for continuing their practice. It was something I thought was equitable, and something they appreciated as well. For sure, though, firm ownership is not for the faint of heart.”
Both Tracie and Julie have been with the firm for more than 10 years and share Wayne’s passion for reviving New Orleans’ precarious structures. “I’ve been very lucky to find the right people. We’re very much an open studio practice,” he says. “It’s why I love coming to the office—getting to have conversations about intention and details and how to work with some new material and put it together.”
Old Made New
A background in music (it was his undergraduate degree at Loyola before architecture school at Tulane) underpins Wayne’s sense of balance and rhythms in design work. It’s something you can see at play in 704 Marigny, a renovation to an early 1800s building in the Marigny district, adjacent to the French Quarter. The structure started life as a corner store with a dependency and was converted to residential in the 1880s with the addition of a second floor. Other renovations over the years lost track of much original detailing, so the architects went about preserving what merit they could still find, while inserting modern functionality and, yes, a little jazz.
“I have always been in love with New Orleans architecture, but I don’t want to reproduce it,” says Wayne. “I loved working on this project. Part of it is understanding what the house was before and how it functioned. There’s always research into the history of it. And there’s a real refinement to how we approach the historic buildings while bringing in the contemporary. We want to clearly make what’s new new. Any new element is detailed in a very minimal way or it’s unabashed about what it is. If the materials are considered and detailed well, there’s a dialogue between old and new. You get to experience the history, but you allow the modern in, too.” In music, they call it “contrapuntal” when two voices or strains weave in among each other—independently but together.
Sometimes the preservation exercise is about finding new purpose for original features. For instance, the old vitrine window on the ground level—it had been closed up when the store became a dwelling, but the team convinced the clients to restore it. “They decorate it now for the seasons—Halloween, Mardi Gras—it’s a nice way to interact with the street. No one buys a house like this if they don’t want to engage the activity of the neighborhood.”
New Made Bold
Negotiating privacy and community is an ever-present challenge with the city’s tight lot lines. Layer onto that complexity the insertion of an entirely new, modern dwelling amid a streetscape of 100-year-old houses, and you understand better the daily challenges of studioWTA. But these may be the kinds of challenges that excite them the most.
The new, 5,500-square-foot Webster Street Residence is located on a corner lot in an uptown neighborhood of New Orleans. Its intrepid owners had built several buildings before and had strong opinions about what they wanted in their new family house. Essentially, it’s a courtyard house that doesn’t turn its back on the neighborhood. The courtyard is shielded from view by a sculptural metal fence that will ultimately disappear behind trained vines.
To use Wayne’s word, the house is unabashedly modern, but still infused with references to the city’s antebellum grandes dames, among them: the soaring first story that finds the coolest ridge of fresh air, the articulated second story shaded by louvered screens like plantation shutters, the layered materials that give the façade depth and grace. “These are all elements of traditional design,” says Wayne. “And they’re what help make the house contextual.”
Mid Mod Remade
There are few New Orleans architectural firms more legendary than Curtis and Davis. They designed many notable buildings in town—including the 1975 Superdome, which was technologically very advanced for its era—and many more out of town and out of the country. When they set up shop in the 1950s, their mainstay was houses. They were inspired by California patio homes, and by Davis’ studies at Harvard with Walter Gropius.
They designed the lovely Emerald Street Residence in Lakeshore, La., in 1953. However, the ensuing 60-plus years and a number of misguided owners had not treated the building kindly. The final blow seemed to come from Hurricane Katrina. Then, nearly 10 years later, a well-traveled, forward-thinking couple stepped in and bought what was left of the house. They hired Wayne to repair and update it, and that was it—or so they thought.
“The house had flooded during Katrina—several feet of water. When I first went to look at it with the clients, I thought it had great potential, but had been ruined by earlier renovations,” Wayne recalls. “I said to them, ‘If we’re going to do it, we have to go back to some of the original elements of the Curtis and Davis house, and bring back its integrity and authenticity.”
This is a case where the architects were happy to reproduce original details—to a point. They were lucky enough to have access to the Curtis and Davis plans for the house, which gave them insight into their creative vision but also the practical-minded thinking behind some of the design decisions.
The first imperative was to restore the roof overhang that was part of the original’s rear elevation. “What you see now is an addition, because the original overhang was captured and integrated into the square footage of the house,” Wayne explains. “That’s a southern orientation, so the overhang was critical. The new window wall we designed is where the original cantilever was.”
New Weldtex wing walls and sliding glass panels from La Cantina connect the interiors to the landscaped outdoors, while also establishing small, covered patios outside key rooms. This was no small technical feat, as the team had to design and install an entirely new steel structural system to support the new mono-pitch roof and overhang.
Ultimately, the project ended up as a “full gut,” says Wayne, including the landscaping and pool. The result, however, looks like it was always there, a natural fit with the spirit of the house and its times.
The extent of the intervention and reinvention came as a bit of a shock to the clients, but they couldn’t be happier with the house and the way it lives. The architects brought them along with care. and made sure they were involved in all key decisions. Says Wayne, “The way we’ve curated our website, we find we attract people who want to try something distinctive. Our clients want their signature on the project, too. We don’t dictate, we direct.”
What’s Old Is New, Etc.
Although Wayne was involved in New Orleans’ planning and rebuilding effort, he doesn’t feel Katrina’s aftermath provided any new information, just new resolve. “We understood a lot about how to build sustainably before Katrina, but the hurricane provided the impetus for the city to adopt some things faster than we might have otherwise,” he says.
“In a way, disasters have been good for New Orleans. We now have a levee system that will protect the city for 100 years or so. Investments are coming; we’re a top five tourist destination; we have lots of new construction multifamily. Of the nine custom houses we’re doing right now, eight are primary residences,” he adds.
For the firm that straddles the old and new worlds, there are lessons to be learned from all timelines. Established fundamentals about solar orientation, shading, and natural ventilation coexist with the exciting possibilities and problem-solving that new materials and technologies promise to provide.
Wayne likes to test new ideas and materials on his own house first. That’s where he learned to love polycarbonate, a material he’s used in many applications since. Now he’s about to incorporate Thermory ash into his new kitchen remodel—he’s hoping it can replace the ipe he’s accustomed to using for its rot resistance and overall hardiness in New Orleans’ hot, humid climate.
Apparently, it’s not just the young folk in the office who still learn from kitchen remodels, after all.
Projects by StudioWTA
From the Firm:
Originally constructed between 1809 and 1836 as a one story brick corner store with a two story detached kitchen, this existing Marigny building was converted to a residence in the 1880s, with a wood framed second floor and traditional iron gallery added in 1886. Multiple renovations over the years resulted in a convoluted structure of which very little of the original was evident. Utilizing careful research and extensive documentation, this renovation was able to restore the simplicity of the historic interior while adding modern conveniences and technology to enhance the owners’ experience.
A series of distinct living suites were developed and detailed: The owners inhabit the second floor of the main building; the first floor is one guest suite, and the detached dependency is a second guest suite. Existing available space in the main house limited the owners’ suite, so the attic was integrated as extended living space for home theater and office, accessed via a compact, spiral steel stair, and three dormers were added to provide natural light.
Throughout the buildings, existing architectural features informed the development of custom millwork, finish and fixture selection, and detailing specific to each suite. Building systems can be controlled from the owners’ suite via extensive home automation infrastructure.
Emerald Street Residence
From the Firm:
Originally designed by renowned New Orleans modernist architects Curtis and Davis, and built in 1953, the Emerald Street Residence was published in Architectural Record in 1955. After decades of neglect, a damaging renovation in the 1990s, and massive water damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the house required a full rehabilitation. This intervention restores key original design features that were previously destroyed while also fulfilling Curtis and Davis’ original planned intent for a master bedroom suite at the southwest corner of the house, with large outdoor patios connecting all main rooms.
A key design feature restored to the Emerald Street residence is a deep mono-pitch roof overhang over the south facade of the building, extending the year-round livable area out to its backyard patios. Restoring the overhang as a design element proved to be a very complicated task, as a renovation in the 1990s fully enclosed the original covered space, thereby moving the entire south facade of the house out into the backyard five feet. Re-incorporating the overhang required that a completely new roof be designed and built, with a new steel structural system carefully woven and concealed into the design of the house. The house is fully rehabilitated to high contemporary architectural standards in the spirit of Curtis and Davis’ pioneering embrace of the newest technologies and methods available at the time of their works. In this spirit, the south façade–water damaged beyond repair after Hurricane Katrina–was redesigned to be composed entirely of floor-to-ceiling 7’ x 9’ sliding glass panels floating independent from columns or supporting walls. Interiors–including a fully custom kitchen and built-in furniture throughout the residence–are fully contemporary with clean, minimalist detailing tending towards mid century modernism
Backyard patios were added to connect all major rooms of the residence below the rebuilt extended roof. These patios are partially divided for privacy by large walnut-clad wing walls, which are treated with the Weldtex process originally used to striate plywood in the 1950s. Originally used on plywood panels in the residence, the process was re-imagined here as an extra layer of texturing for the solid walnut siding. The patios connect directly to a combined salt water pool, hot tub and freshwater pond. The remainder of the backyard has been redesigned to include a private garden with outdoor shower and bath, as well as a cocktail fruit orchard.
Evans + Lighter Landscape Architecture
Webster Street Residence
From the Firm:
Situated in a well-established uptown neighborhood of otherwise ornate, traditional Southern homes, the Webster Street Residence stands out for its modern use of brick, storefront glazing, metal trim, and contemporary detailing. The clients, with whom studioWTA has worked extensively on other developments, have substantial experience designing from the ground up. This allowed the home’s interior to be a highly-refined example of clean modernism grounded in careful detailing and rich material choices, rather than stark minimalism.
Through the front gate and up a few meandering pavers, an oversized, custom wood-clad pivot door leads into a dining area and library. The path then descends to a sunken limestone floor living space with twenty-foot tall ceilings. The scale of this interior offers a liveliness by tying together private spaces above to living below, and welcoming the full-scale views of the oak trees into the living room through a large operable curtainwall.
The house, despite its substantial square footage, doesn’t overpower its 19th century context; instead, it nestles beneath two impressive, mature live oak trees along the north edge of its corner site where a shaded yard with a pool was a natural fit for a young, growing family. The siting of the house away from the tree also allowed its foundation to avoid the trees’ extensive drip line. With an open side to the street, the courtyard scheme is made private with a custom metal picket fence covered in climbing vines along the sidewalk. The front of the house responds to the courtyard and trees via a porch extended as a dramatic steel “frame” perch off the second floor playroom, protected by sliding shutters and the oak tree canopy above. Anchoring one side of the courtyard is a 700 square foot guest house with a loft, designed to provide eating, sleeping, and living space overlooking the pool, while maintaining privacy from the main house.
Within the house, the clients’ desire for a modern yet comfortable home come to life in the detailing and material selection: kitchen cabinets in matte charcoal; upper level balcony railings in frameless glass; the entertainment wall enclosure in concealed, hinged wood slat panels. All these well-developed ideas were a collaboration, and only made possible through a clarity of vision and a refined sensibility.
John Chrestia AIA, Chrestia Staub Pierce, Design Consultant
Aaron Adolph, NOLA + Design Landscape Architecture
On the Boards: Bywater Residence
The Bywater Residence is set on a very tight, 30 by 110-foot New Orleans lot in the city’s Bywater neighborhood. The owner wanted the house to have an “iconic form, representing New Orleans architecture,” says Wayne.
The firm answered with an abstracted, layered form that uses screens and louvers for shading and privacy. Following FEMA guidelines, the building is elevated 36 inches off the ground. “It’s set back from the street, but still engaging with it,” explains Wayne, who grew up in the neighborhood. “It’s a funky neighborhood that is now highly in demand. This project went through the historic district’s landmark commission. They are excited about it, too. They look for elements that reference historic patterns of the city, but don’t necessarily replicate them.”