NEW ORLEANS – Architecture lies. The long, narrow house of Karina Gentinetta and her husband, Andrew James McAlear, in the Lakeview district, looks like a classic New Orleans side-hall cottage that miraculously made it through Hurricane Katrina’s ravages intact. The tall windows have old-fashioned shutters, and the rooftop corbels look as if they are 150 years old. Inside, romantic, often distressed antique furnishings speak of generations of wealthy owners, their money eroded by circumstances or adventures of the Havisham sort. It’s a house where a threadbare Oriental carpet with a rip down the middle looks good. There are French and Italian chairs, some with linen slipcovers, and mirrors with the unmistakable patina of age. The one hanging in the couple’s bedroom looks to be 16th-century Venetian.
In fact, this house is barely over three years old. It was built on the lot where the couple’s previous home stood, before it was ruined when the floodwall along the 17th Street Canal a few blocks away broke and the water rose nearly to the top of the front door.
Katrina also took its toll on their finances, careers and marriage. McAlear, once a wine salesman and real estate agent, went through a patch of heavy drinking; a contractor they hired to help build their slice of genuine New Orleans after the hurricane stole $100,000. And they still had to pay off the mortgage on a house that no longer existed.
Yet Gentinetta, a onetime lawyer, ebullient as a fountain on hyper-spritz, managed to furnish the entire new house, not counting appliances and electronics, for $12,477. She found the 150-year-old corbels in salvage shops; many of the furnishings, ranging from down-on-their-luck antiques to ‘50s kitsch, were bought in consignment shops. Very few of the family’s possessions could be salvaged after Katrina, but some were: a teak desk that weathered the flood, which she bleached and painted a pale gray, now has the look of a Swedish piece; a silver tray McAlear gave Gentinetta for their anniversary the year of the flood, now corroded and discoloured beyond repair, sits in the entry hall.
What is interesting is how beautiful the metallic objects are. The damage from the flood gave the tray the appearance of history and mystery and age. But tap the frame of the heavy Italianate mirror in Gentinetta’s bedroom, as she invites a visitor to do, and you will find it is plastic.
“I bought it for like $16 at a dollar store,” Gentinetta says. “It went through Katrina and it aged. It’s now my million-dollar antique mirror. I call it my Katrina patina.”
Some people never recover from monumental loss. Gentinetta, who is 42, is of the persevering school. She and her 45-year-old husband, known as A.J., agree about why this is: She has an immigrant’s can-do attitude.
She had a gift for being stylish, but frugal. In 2002, when she married McAlear, the dress she wore was a runway sample. The couple bought a 121-square-metre cottage built in 1892 in the Uptown section of New Orleans. In March 2005, with a young son and another child on the way, they sold that house and moved into a bigger two-story stucco cottage in Lakeview, paying $389,000. Five months later, when Katrina struck, they evacuated. They were able to return a few weeks later, but the inside of their home had been destroyed.
“You try to prepare yourself, but it is an emotionally traumatic thing,” Gentinetta says.
She saved a few things from the muck, and they settled in a cottage her husband’s family owned, in Covington, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, and began struggling through the financial nightmare of rebuilding. They received $250,000 in flood insurance for the house, but $200,000 went to pay the mortgage, and they lost another $100,000 to a contractor who never did the work for which he was paid. Gentinetta’s husband, who had lost his job as a real estate agent, began drinking heavily. (He has since been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which Gentinetta thinks contributed to the problem, and has stopped drinking.)
Commuting three hours a day back and forth from Covington to her law job, Gentinetta found solace in shelter magazines, dreaming of a home. She also began buying furniture and fixing it up, work that involved more than simply slapping on paint. She experimented with glazes, plaster of Paris and wax, detailing here, sanding there.
“People need hope, and that’s how I did it,” she says. “By the time I moved in, I knew exactly where each piece would be. I’d had three years to figure out where I wanted it to go.”
Eventually, with the help of a state grant of $100,000 and a loan of $240,000, she and her husband were able to rebuild. They could not afford to leave the neighbourhood, so they raised the grade of their lot about 1.2 meters. Gentinetta’s inspiration was the cottage where they once lived.
“Happiness is not a big house,” she says. “It’s being in each other’s way. That’s what brings memories. The master bath was huge when I saw the plans: two sinks. I said, ‘Do you ever brush your teeth together? I don’t.”’
The house they ended up with has two bathrooms, three small bedrooms, an office, and a large kitchen and family room; it cost $356,000 to build.
Early in 2010, there was another big change in Gentinetta’s life, when her elderly father died. Gentinetta felt liberated, she says, because she had the sense that before his death, he had come to understand that life is short and it is important to do what makes you happy. She left law and began working with antique furniture. She now has a shop on Magazine Street, Disegno Karina Gentinetta, and sells at 1stdibs, online and in the new 1stdibs shop in Manhattan.
In her own home, there is the occasional splurge, like the $700 Florentine desk in the bedroom and the fanciful chair beside it, which she bought for about $350 from an online dealer whose name she prefers to keep a trade secret. But there are funkier finds as well, like the $5 pair of club chairs in the living room covered with Belgian linen slipcovers, for about $35 each. Or the once “hideous” lamps she calls Hollywood Regency, which she got for $45 each at a consignment store and remade by cutting down the long necks and replacing the wide 1950s shades with rectangular ones, for $165 each.
For the Swedish-inspired padded headboard in the master bedroom, she brought a local woodworker a photo from a magazine and paid him $275 to recreate the frame with a screw-on plywood back. (She added the linen-covered foam padding herself.) The threadbare rug in the living room, which is torn almost in half, was $85 on Craigslist, and she bought the tattered area rug atop it for $15 at an antiques shop’s sidewalk sale.
“They all look like they have a history,” Gentinetta says. “All of us are damaged in some way, so why should we not love something that had a previous life to it? Just because it is old and damaged doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful.”
She adds, “I am one of those people who was very much a perfectionist, and Katrina really helped me just say it’s OK if it is not perfect.”