Special for the National Trust for Historic Preservation by Alex Lemann
When Audrey Smith first made contact with the National Trust Emergency Assistance Team in the spring of 2006, she had already been working on her house for months. Although she was living in Gretna and her neighborhood was still closed to permanent residents, Mrs. Smith began work on her house only a month after the storm, making the trip to Holy Cross on weekends with her son to clear out waterlogged furniture, gut the house, and do whatever they could to help her get home. After Kevin Mercadel, program officer for the National Trust’s New Orleans Field Office, conducted a site visit for Mrs. Smith in May and helped draw up a scope of work for her house, she quickly took over, hiring a contractor and putting her scanty insurance and FEMA money to work. “We were really impressed by her drive,” Kevin says. “She used our report with the limited funds she had, and she took charge of the project herself.”
Unfortunately, Audrey Smith’s funds couldn’t cover the full renovation, and she was soon out of money. When the Trust’s Home Again program received a generous donation from the Favrot Fund that fall, Mercadel says, they looked for a home that could be brought to completion, with a homeowner who would be involved and set a good example for the neighborhood. Audrey Smith immediately came to mind. “We want homeowners to be really invested, and Mrs. Smith drove the process from the beginning.”
Now back in her home and out of her FEMA trailer, Smith seems dismissive of the obstacles she faced to reach this point, and remains remarkably upbeat about her neighborhood. “I was afraid we’d have to fish this house out of the river,” she explains. “51% damaged seemed like nothing.” Still, the house on Deslonde did require a good deal of work. Electrical and plumbing had to be redone, plaster had to be replaced with drywall, new flooring had to be put in, some doors were replaced, and the house even got a new roof. For Mrs. Smith, though, it’s the same old house: “I liked this house just the way it was, so they put it back the way it was.” The house’s historic wooden windows were carefully repaired rather than replaced, and the only change that is visible from inside is the new flooring that replaced Mrs. Smith’s old, warped linoleum.
Now that her house is finished, Mrs. Smith is in tune with its historic character. Walking through the house, she points out the intricate molding on the porch and the traditional shotgun floorplan, interrupted only by a few walls added to form a hallway. Mrs. Smith’s house was completed just before her birthday, and the National Trust and the Favrot Foundation gathered for a tour of the finished work, and to sing her happy birthday. Mrs. Smith has lived in her house for 34 years, and she’s well known in the neighborhood. “The whole neighborhood is coming back,” she says, surveying the street from her front porch. “Only two houses on my block are empty.” Thanks to Home Again, the Favrot Foundation, and a lot of hard work, hers isn’t one of them.