Lake Vista home updated for a modern family

The house on Swan Street makes a spacious family home for David and Mary Halpern and their children, Taylor Schmitt, Gigi, Mitchell and Charley.

But long before the Halperns took up residence there in 1999, the mid-century modern home had a fascinating history.

“It was built about 1948 for Larry Gilbert, who was the general manager the New Orleans Pelicans baseball team at one point,” Mary Halpern said. “When we moved in, we found pelican wallpaper and pelican faucet handles — everything pelican!”

Not only was New Orleans-born Gilbert the general manager of the Pelicans from 1932-1938, but he was a major league outfielder who played for the Boston Braves when they won the World Series in 1914. He and his wife, Gertrude, were known in the city as Mr. and Mrs. Baseball.

The Halperns open their home to the public on Friday, Nov. 22, from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., along with six additional houses in Lake Vista, all to benefit St. Martin’s Episcopal School. For home tour information and tickets, go to www.stmsaints.com or call (504) 733-0353.

The 5,400-square-foot house built for Gilbert was designed by Leon Francis Dufrechou, an architect who graduated from Tulane University.

Later in his career, Dufrechou would design the West Jefferson hospital in Marrero and develop a subdivision in Waveland, Miss., but in the late 1940s and early ’50s, he designed three modern houses in the then-nascent Lake Vista subdivision. Famed photographer Clarence John Laughlin photographed them.

As is usual in Lake Vista, the rear of the Halpern house faces the street — in this case, a cul-de-sac at the end of Swan. The front faces Ozone Park and the levee between Lake Vista and Lakeshore Drive.

The design is distinctly horizontal in accent and features a prominent wrap-around balcony that cantilevers out from the body of the house. The walls — with more than one hundred windows — are virtually all glass.

“Believe it or not, only one of the windows broke in Hurricane Katrina, and that was because a branch flew through it,” Halpern said. “I found the branch lying in the stove.”

But the broken window wasn’t the only damage the house sustained, as the family discovered when they were able to visit post-storm.

“About a third of the flat roof had peeled off, and it rained into the house for two weeks and during Hurricane Rita. We had to completely re-do upstairs and some of downstairs, even though the house didn’t flood,” Halpern said. “On the plus side, though, we got a new kitchen.”

According to Halpern, architect Lee Ledbetter, known for his sleek contemporary style, had been working on plans for a kitchen makeover for the Halpern family for about six months before the storm hit.

“When we were still in Baton Rouge after the storm and we realized what had happened to the house, we called Lee and told him to just keep drawing, to forge ahead,” Halpern said.

The handsome new kitchen is just one of many improvements the Halperns have made to the residence since purchasing it in 1999.

Some of the changes aren’t as visible as others but make a huge difference in the comfort of the home.

“We knew with so many windows that we needed to do something about the heating and cooling, so we decided to go geothermal,” Halpern said. “Now, our utility bills are cut in half.”

Visitors enter through an iron gate and pass a pool in a landscaped courtyard before reaching the house. Inside, the entry foyer leads down a few steps to the living area or down a hallway on the right to Halpern’s office.

On the left, the short hall leads to the renovated kitchen, which connects to a family room situated in space that the Halperns reclaimed from a garage.

Furnishings are contemporary — a sinuous white leather sofa in the living room, a microfiber sectional in the den — and brightly colored art work complements the interior. With wall space scarce, the Halperns came up with an idea for adding art to the environment.

“We commissioned Tony Mose to paint the doors to the storage area with a Modigliani theme — the swan necks,” Halpern said. “You have to be inventive if you don’t have many walls but like art.”

Mose owns Esom Gallery on Magazine Street, and his work enlivens several New Orleans homes that have been featured in national magazines.

Halpern’s husband, David, uses a room near the foot of the open stairway as his office and retreat. Windows wrap around the room on two sides, making the room transparent to the green spaces just outside. A bar at one end of the room features a mirrored wall, the better to reflect the greenery. The only other solid wall in the room is outfitted with bookcases filled to the brim with books.

“My husband loves to read,” Halpern said. “Thank goodness he has discovered eBooks — we really don’t have room for even one more book on the shelves.”

Although the park and the reading porch appeal to David Halpern, the couple’s children spend most of their time around the pool, in the family room or in the redesigned kitchen. The lively space features red lower cabinets, a stainless steel tile backsplash, and white quartzite countertops and centers around a long table, the family’s main gathering spot. Often, Mary Halpern’s mother — Gerry Gillen — joins the gang.

“We use it for everything,” Halpern said. “The kids do homework there and we eat there. The cooktop used to face another direction but we re-oriented it so I can look out through the glass and see the kids when they are at the pool while I cook. I said I wanted to be able to flip pancakes straight from the cooktop to their plates on the table, and now I can.”