[StBernard] A corner of paradise: A vacation-style house in St. Bernard is a symbol of rebirth

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Sat Mar 28 11:33:33 EDT 2009

Pictures available here: http://adjix.com/ahqe

A corner of paradise: A vacation-style house in St. Bernard is a symbol of
Posted by Renee Peck, The Times-Picayune March 28, 2009 5:00AM
Categories: Breaking News, InsideOut cover story

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, when Robby and Susie Showalter decided to
return to St. Bernard Parish and to replace their flooded Chalmette home of
29 years with a new house, on a higher lot, in a different part of the
parish, they knew just the kind of place they wanted to build.

It had to be raised, but look like "a real house," nothing of the
fishing-camp variety.

It would need to be strong, with wind-resistant framing and water-resistant

It should have an open floor plan and lots of windows. Balconies and decks
for indoor-outdoor living. Casement windows that could be cranked open to
catch a breeze. Tall ceilings and guest suites with separate baths and
privacy. And something high enough to capture the views offered by their
75-by-300-foot lot, situated on the Mississippi River in Meraux, which they
had bought soon after the storm.

So they Googled "beach homes."

"If we were going to live on the water," Susie said, "I wanted a
vacation-style house."

The Showalters' three-story stucco residence on St. Bernard Highway does
indeed look much like the sleek contemporary beach homes going up in Gulf
Shore, Ala., or Destin, Fla., these days. It has the same ground-level
parking and party room, the same casual-chic color palette, the same
attention to balcony views, cozy al fresco seating and palm-studded

It has a to-die-for lazy river pool that meanders around the rear yard, much
like a miniature Gulf-front water park.

"I tell my friends that if they have a bad day, to come over and pour a
drink and get away," Susie said. "When I'm here, I feel like I'm somewhere

The house has, in fact, been both a refuge and a symbol of rebirth for the
Showalters and their friends.

It was the first new house to be built in St. Bernard Parish after Katrina,
offering hope to people in a parish that lost 70,000 residents.

"People always knock on the door and ask to see it," Susie said. Even the
conductor aboard the freight train that passes daily out back has drawn
solace from seeing the house go up.

"He'd toot every day, and then one afternoon he stopped and waved me over.
He told me the house was beautiful, and he loved watching it being built.
'This is the biggest part of my day,' he told me. 'I keep telling my friends
about it.' "

Indoor-outdoor living

The couple bought the house plans on the Internet, at a site called
www.coastalhomeplans.com. The layout is centered on a second-floor living
room with a 23-foot atrium. The master suite is on the same floor, while two
guest suites on the third floor are joined by an office loft.

"When we saw this one, we both said, 'That's it,'¤" Robby said. They paid
$1,200 for a set of build-ready plans (the cost of nonbuildable plans is
about $800), and made a few slight changes to accommodate local building

"The only limit to plans like these is that you have to like the floor plan,
and we did," Robby said. "The balconies were the selling point -- every room
opens to a balcony -- and we wanted the house to be oriented to the back.
The best thing about it is that when you look out, all you see is green."

Building a new house in those early months after Katrina involved
by-now-familiar setbacks: materials available when workers weren't; workers
available when materials weren't; subcontractors lured away to bigger jobs.

The ground floor sits 8 feet above sea level. "The house next door got 3
feet of water (from Katrina), so we built up the grade to that level," Robby
said. Downstairs, a spacious garage and slate-floored party room are
designed to withstand any future floods.

Custom choices

The house took 16 months to build, with the Showalters doing whatever work
they could themselves. Susie did most of the interior painting; Robby
created the massive built-in entertainment center. "I just started putting
up the wood, and if I didn't like something, I'd take it down," he said.

He added a few other custom design elements as well: The staircase was
enlarged from 4 to 6 feet wide ("I hate walking into a house and having to
go through narrow spaces") and the upstairs loft broadened to hold an
office. Downstairs, indoor/outdoor baths were added to service the party
room and pool, and a second garage door installed on the backyard side, so
that you can back a truck into the rear yard for, say, a crawfish boil.

The tray ceilings, three-step crown molding, French doors, glass transoms
and casement windows were all part of the original plans.

The couple together chose the engineered wood floors, glazed maple cabinets
and exterior columns. "You wouldn't believe how many different kinds of
balustrades they have," Robby said. He picked the black toilet in the powder
room; she selected the black-glass-front appliances in the kitchen.

The sleek, stamped-and-stained poured-concrete counters in the bathroom were
a matter of expediency; granite was in short supply at the time. Robby asked
the drywall installer to round the corner edges of the walls.

Susie perfected the palette with a Benjamin Moore paint program. "You can
take pictures of the room, upload them and then 'paint it' different colors
online," she said. She settled on earth tones with an edge: a taupey green
called Shelburne Buff, a soothing brown hue called Northampton Putty.

"I'd go in the store and get 25 gallons of paint at a time," she said. "The
scaffolding in the living room stayed up for a year." She's not repainting
it again any time soon. "This is a 25-year paint job."

In late 2007, several weeks before moving in, Robby threw a surprise party
for his wife.

"He told me to go shopping. The place was a mess. I came back at 7 p.m., and
there was a policeman standing at the front door. My heart stopped. He told
me to go inside, and there were 100 people there."

Many artful touches -- metal sculptures, vases tucked into wall nooks, silk
pillows strewn across a window seat -- date to that impromptu party, thanks
to a friend and interior decorator, Linda Catalanotto.

"I asked her to help decorate, meaning for the party, and thinking she'd
bring a couple of plants," Robby said. "She brought all this great stuff."

Cool pool

The pool arrived a year later, a 6-month project that ended just before

"We had talked about building a pool, and my son e-mailed me a picture of
one off the Internet," Robby said. "He said, 'This is what you have to

"We showed it to my brother, who's a pool builder," Susie added, "and he
said, 'Yeah, we can do that.'¤"

So the couple joined together eight or 10 garden hoses and arranged them on
the ground to create a wavy, circular "river."

"We'd go to the third-floor balcony and look at it, then go back and change
it," Susie said. Once they agreed on the configuration, they staked and then
spray-painted the design. The resulting 4-foot-deep salt-water pool
encircles an island, studded with palms and flower beds and deck chairs that
can be reached via a wooden bridge.

A round hot tub sits near the house, while a waterfall splashes from a
false-rock ledge farther away. The entire pool can be heated, so the
Showalters cranked it up upon completion in December for a family pool
party. Since she has five sisters and a brother, and he has five brothers
and a sister, the usual family gathering runs to 50 people or more.

"We've invested in a bunch of tables and chairs," Susie said.

They also plan to use the backyard pool and adjacent party pavilion for
public gatherings, including fundraisers or pool parties for children with
special needs. Lifelong St. Bernard Parish residents, they are dedicated to
helping rebuild their community. Businesses are returning daily, they say,
schools are state-of-the-art and many young families are taking advantage of
the opportunity to buy houses at more-affordable prices in St. Bernard.

"We've been documenting progress since the day we got back, and you wouldn't
believe the difference," Susie said.

Meanwhile, they hope that their own little corner of paradise proves as
inspirational for others as it has rejuvenating for themselves.

"If I'm having a bad day," Susie said, "you'll find me on the island."

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