Right place, right time: The Grigson-Didier house in New Orleans

Elizabeth Pochoda

Elizabeth Pochoda Furniture & Decorative Arts

Photography by Don Freeman | from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2012 |

To understand the world of James Donald Didier you should pay attention to his silence. This is a man who sees history; too much talk and too many questions will only extinguish what the eye should behold and the spirit feel. The Grigson-Didier house of 1835 in New Orleans, the first house built after the subdivision of the Jacques Livaudais plantation, is the setting for a good part of what matters to Don Didier-in history and in life. Like its owner, the charm is obvious; but the deeper meaning here, the way in which the house has become one American’s dialogue with America-North and South, past and present, black and white-unfolds much more quietly.

The front of the Grigson-Didier house, built in 1835 for Mary Ann Grigson.  

Don’t be fooled by the paradox that this freewheeling individual, who will lead you on a memorable night of drink and revelry or casually bring out his shotgun to blow the head off a troublesome possum, is drawn to the restraint of the Federal style. That paradox dissolves when you recognize that discipline is as much a part of Didier’s work as it is of American classicism. Begin with color, his passion. The hues of the house’s exterior are exuberant, they are deeply considered, and they are period colors. He remembers seeing the yellow as a child; it contains some seventeen shades and took twenty tries to get right. After awhile he will suggest you notice the way the yellow changes as the day moves along and the way the lavish use of Paris green disappears when you put that color everywhere. He would, of course, much rather you discover this on your own. Far more important is a remark he makes in a rare moment of pride about Mary Ann Grigson, the original owner of the house. “If she looked at it now she would recognize it.”

That is no small accomplishment. It helps that in reconstructing the house Didier can call up everything of its period that he has ever seen, or as Josh Broussard, one of a new generation of antiques dealers in the city suggests, he can “pull up anything of any period that he has ever seen.” Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Benjamin Latrobe’s Basilica in Baltimore, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, his own attendance at the reenactment of George Washington’s funeral on the two hundredth anniversary of the president’s death-it is all embedded in vivid, passionate detail. The jalousies on the loggia are modeled on ones from Oakley Plantation in SaintFrancisville, Louisiana, a place he visited often as a child and one that left an indelible impression. He and Arthur Ostrowski, a student in the master’s program of architecture at Tulane, went back to Oakley, studied the jalousies, and then Ostrowski developed the drawings from which these were made-a matter of many weeks worth of research. For all that, this is a house that wears its considerable earning lightly. The plant material in the parterres may not inch much past what was grown in the 1830s but the garden looks right rather than studied. This is not an interpretation. Mary Ann Grigson would recognize it.

The portrait above the faux painted mantel in the front parlor is of a member of the Minor family of Natchez, Mississippi, by John Wesley Jarvis (1780-1840). A hand-colored aquatint of c. 1830 by Robert Havell (1798-1878) of the Mottled Owl by John James Audubon (1785-1851) hangs over an 1830s Boston mahogany server. In the foreground is a circular marble-topped mahogany Boston center table with lotus carvings, c. 1830.

She might have a harder time with the interior, but anyone who knows Didier will understand the objects there as signposts that mark his journey from New Roads, Louisiana, where he grew up, through his years of apprenticeship and education, to his life as a much admired dealer in classical American antiques and southern material culture, to these rooms. His ancestors came to Louisiana from Paris in the 1720s, subsequently went back to France, and then resettled in Louisiana in the nineteenth century. Creole culture is alive in Didier’s cooking, in his linen clothes and the boutonniere he wears of an evening, in paintings like the portrait of François Paul de Brueys by James B. Read that speaks eloquently of Creole pride (see Fig. 18). This is not a collector’s house, and his is not an especially acquisitive nature. When I asked him why he had not kept a particular painting he was thrilled to discover, he replied, “I have already sucked the love out of it.” The pieces that abide do so for deeper reasons. Some of them are highlighted here (see Figs. 7, 9, 10, and 15).

This is a life formed as much by doing as by learning. Didier studied art and architecture at Louisiana State University, where he met Dave Wojciechowski who later became his business partner in the New Orleans gallery Didier Inc., but he also early on apprenticed himself to the Taylor Clark gallery in Baton Rouge, where he learned about framing, a subject in which he is an acknowledged authority and a skill at which he excels. He can turn a pot, dovetail a joint, paint on porcelain, and create bonsai. It helps, he says, “to know how much you have to struggle to get a clumsy version of something you admire.” It also helps when you are urging on a reluctant upholsterer or cabinetmaker to get it right: “You got to squeeze them a bit but you can get it done.”

To get it right in Didier’s view you have to live the life. When he, his wife, and two children moved to New Orleans in the early 1970s they lived on the second floor of the Marchand House on Royal Street in the French Quarter, “a sweet wreck” as Dave Wojciechowski, who occupied the top floor, describes the place. The three adults restored the building, garnering the coveted Vieux Carré Commission award for historic preservation when they were finished. “By being absolutely faithful to the house and its period,” Didier says, “we restored all the panache that made old Creole houses so stylish.” The project went deep, right down to the plasterwork by people of color, descendants of those who had done the original plaster and whose skills and culture Didier worries have been lost to history.

A few years later the Didiers left the Quarter and went to live in the Mayor James Pitot House, a French colonial style plantation house on Bayou Saint John, restoring that too-every fabric, every plant. It is now the headquarters of the Louisiana Landmarks Society. Didier Inc., which opened on the ground floor of the Marchand House, began by developing a following for the work of southern painters like William Aiken Walker. When they outgrew that space they moved to a double shotgun on Magazine Street, “the most beautiful shop in New Orleans,” according to the scholar H. Parrott Bacot, former director of the LSU Museum of Art and professor of decorative arts at the university. They were among the pioneers on Magazine Street’s antiques row, and as Michael K. Brown, curator of the Bayou Bend Collection, points out, Didier was among the first to take American furniture and decorative arts of the second quarter of the nineteenth century seriously. His twice yearly trips to New York to exhibit this material and cook gumbo for his clients are legendary. Early on Didier had also acquired expertise in the works of John James Audubon, of which he has sold close to a thousand, including a magnificent set with descriptions in the artist’s hand behind each plate (see Fig. 4). Gene Canton, a dealer from Baltimore who has worked with him over several decades, explains his colleague’s success by pointing to his exceptional aesthetic. “It really doesn’t matter what he is looking at. His eye is strong enough to see the merit in something he has never encountered before.” Federal furniture led him to Boston where he became a favorite of the established dealers on Charles Street, who set aside for him the furniture that had fallen from favor with Boston families. The furnishings in his front parlor are an homage of sorts to the Boston material of that period (see Fig. 1).

Between his house and its kitchen, a separate structure built in 1860, there is a porch that was later closed in to connect the two buildings. Here, appropriately enough, is a no man’s land of historical styles with chairs that range from Windsor to arts and crafts to Eames surrounding a chrome and glass Warren Platner table (see Fig. 14). Didier, like Platner before him, is in favor of anything that succeeds in its time, something that can be said of everything here if you have learned how to look at it.

Two Windsor chairs and a 1790s southern dropleaf table occupy the loggia, where the floor is painted canvas.  

Didier will teach a select few how to look-or in the case of William Keyes Rudolph, curator of the exhibition In Search of Julien Hudson: Free artist of color in Pre-Civil War New Orleans-where to look. “He drops hints slowly,” Rudolph says. “He will give you leads, trails to follow if he thinks you are okay, but he is adamant that you have to pursue the best works.” Didier owned several of Julien Hudson’s best works at one time or another. He awaits an exhibition that will go beyond this one artist and rescue the rich culture surrounding Hudson-the music, food, furniture, and literature by and about free people of color that vanished after the Civil War.

Didier’s standards about everything are equally exacting, and he is disciplined and passionate in meeting them. Josh Broussard, who says he has “studied him studying,” describes his unusual calm. “Nothing breaks his focus. He looks at things in a different way from anyone else. With most people you see right away a judgment forming in their eyes. Don doesn’t do that. It is a long, long time before a judgment is made. When he finally does judge there is no wavering.” And, Dave Wojciechowski says, “there is no compromise. You can’t fool Don by touch or eye.”

All of this helps to explain how he was able to find and disseminate what Dale Couch, curator of decorative arts at the Georgia Museum of Art, describes as masterpieces of southern culture-among them works by Adrien Persac, a set of eighteenth-century watercolors of birds that came from Drayton Hall, paintings by Julien Hudson-not to mention masterpieces of American classical furniture and decorative arts.

At some point anyone this closely attuned to history will sense the way his life has entered its current path. In the years following Katrina there was suffering both public and private, and no doubt there has been a narrowing of focus in Didier’s life to needs more important than things. Didier Inc. now occupies a smaller space on MagazineStreet while Don Didier considers the future. But there has been a widening of focus too. One afternoon he brought out a group of objects he acquired a few years ago-the badge, ticket book, and blood-spotted Ku Klux Klan robe of Lawrence A. Rainey, sheriff of Philadelphia, Mississippi, when civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were murdered there in 1964. Rainey had an alibi for that night, but Didier knows that the robe is significant because in the wider investigation of conspiracy the sheriff always claimed that he had never been a Klan member. (“The damn FBI was paying all these witnesses to lie,” Rainey said. “I attended some of the [Klan] meetings. They had open meetings, but that was all.”) If you have been listening to Didier you don’t need to ask him why he has these things. Seeing history clearly also means facing unpleasant facts. Its most important artifacts, beautiful or gruesome, belong in careful hands.