By Karen Taylor Gist
- Times Picayune, Saturday, July 22, 2006

Between the floodwater and the termites, you might say Lee and Sarah Campbell Phillips' 100-plus-year-old house on Bienville Street had gone to the devil. But now, a set of angels is watching over its redemption.

In September, Lee Phillips began the grueling task of gutting the shotgun room by room, starting in the back of the house and methodically working his way forward.

"We decided to gut up to the ceiling," said Sarah Phillips, even though the house got only about a foot of water after Katrina. "We knew there was termite damage in part of the house. We were working on rafters, completely re-doing everything. There was not a stitch of drywall or a wire or anything."

After the next-to-last room was stripped bare, the couple noticed something unusual.

"We knew something was there in the next room because we could see the curved outline" through the topmost lathing, she said. "We were just hoping to have nice crown molding underneath."

What they found instead were angels -- cherubs, in fact -- in a late Victorian (1880-'90) mural that was probably added to the formal front parlor shortly after the house was built. The circular artwork has an 8-foot diameter, and is framed by a 2-foot-wide decorative border all the way around the room.

"It looks like a Victorian Valentine stylistically. Heavy on the drama, the pansies and the roses," said Blake Vonder Haar, president of the New Orleans Conservation Guild Inc., who, at the Phillips' request, examined the artwork.

"You know, I wouldn't have put it up there myself," Phillips said of the distinctive look. "But I do like antique furniture, so it gives me a good reason to go buy a red velvet fainting couch. We want to do the house in the style of that period. We want to restore as close to the original as possible, which will take a while."
The couple had owned the house for only a year and a half before being forced out by Katrina.

"When we bought it, they had done a not-great renovation, so it didn't look good. It also had dropped ceilings. In the '60s that was the thing to do," said Phillips.

Those aesthetically unappealing false ceilings had one beautiful side effect. "Being covered up probably helped the mural," Vonder Haar said, by protecting it from further deterioration.

Theories for explaining the mural's existence have captured the neighborhood's collective imagination. "One neighbor thought the house used to be a brothel," said Phillips, "but there aren't enough rooms. Another neighbor thought the artist maybe lived here."

Vonder Haar has found two other murals in town "that could be by the same hands. They have the same subject matter, the same stylized cherubs." One was uncovered about three years ago on St. Charles Avenue.

"There's another one at the Opera Guild house that is probably the same artist," Vonder Haar said. "The style just jumps out at you."

Vonder Haar postulates that they were done by a traveling artist. One of the two is signed. "With artwork, it's all about the autograph, about the artist," she said.

The parlor also once had a fireplace. "That's clear because of the way the wall wraps and the painting wraps, with a gap in the middle," she said. "And there was probably originally a gas outlet in the medallion for the light," now wired for electricity.

To restore the mural, Vonder Haar would fill cracks in the plaster -- "the normal kind you get in walls or ceilings."

Restoration experts would then stabilize chipping and loose paint. "A lot was peeling," she said, and the surface, heavily discolored by dirt, pollutants, coal smoke and the like, must be cleaned.

Then, any areas missing paint would be retouched. The area where the fireplace used to be would also be re-plastered and painted. Vonder Haar stressed that this kind of painting is a job for professionals. "It's imperative that people understand this is not something you want to try yourself. Amateur restoration causes more problems than if you just left it alone."

All in all, she estimated that work on the mural, which takes up most of the 15-by-14-foot ceiling, would take about 10 days for two conservators, or 160 man hours.

A less time-consuming -- and less expensive -- solution would be to stabilize the artwork structurally so that it doesn't continue to deteriorate, but to put off the aesthetic restoration.

Phillips expects to go ahead with the project, but will first spend time researching whether grant money is available to defray the cost. "There's got to be some money out there somewhere for it," she said.
Renovations to the rest of the house continue.

"It'll probably take a couple more months because Lee's doing it himself," Phillips said. Meanwhile, the couple is living in another house they own in Esplanade Ridge, and their first child is due in September.
"Our plans change every day, just like everyone else in New Orleans," she said.
. . . . . . .
Karen Taylor Gist can be reached at (504) 826-3467 or by e-mail at

Back to the NOCG press page

Click on a department name for more information.

Frequently Asked Questions

The Guild in the Press
Workshops and Lecture Series
Employment Opportunities at the Guild

New Orleans Conservation Guild Home Page

Contact us for more information:
New Orleans Conservation Guild, Inc.
3620 Royal Street
New Orleans, La. 70117

Phone: (504) 944-7900
Fax: (504) 944-8750