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

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.

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

» View All