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

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.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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