Published: Saturday, April 02, 2011, 5:00 AM
There’s nothing “typical” about typical shotgun houses. They may have side halls or no halls. They may have front porches but many have stoops only. Most are one story but some are camelbacks. Rooms can include living and dining rooms, offices, bedrooms, baths and kitchens, configured however the occupants have decided.
But a tango parlor?
That is exactly what Valorie Hart and Alberto Paz have in the front room of their double camelback (converted to a single) in the 800 block of Washington Avenue in the Irish Channel, on tour today as part of the Preservation Resource Center’s Shotgun House Tour.
Hart and Paz bought the bracketed shotgun from the Methodist Home in 2004, when the group was beginning to liquidate some of its properties. The building, situated on a double lot, had served as a group home for girls and looked nothing like the showplace it is today.
“There were fluorescent lights everywhere, linoleum, laminate — picture institutional,” said Hart. “Our agent and Alberto said to run the other way, but I saw that underneath all those finishes, the house was sound and had lovely proportions and loads of potential.”
Thanks to her keen sense of design and talent for color, Hart can see the promise in even the most dismal of interiors and has spent the past seven years working with her husband to transform the house into a stylish and comfortable haven.
The front door opens into the tango parlor where the couple teaches private lessons. Painted a warm cocoa color, its left wall is hung with a cluster of white-framed mirrors, in varied shapes. Another wall holds a grid of tango sheet music covers, all framed exactly alike, that add color and romance to the space. Overhead, a chandelier — painted a vivid coral color, provides soft light. A low bench where dancers change their shoes was purchased at a thrift store, painted white, and then upholstered in imitation white patent leather.
Orange and brown? Mismatched mirrors? Thrift store purchases? Fake patent leather? It’s all part of what Hart describes as her dynamic decorating style, a tricky pursuit that she pulls off with the deftness of a pro.
“When I was growing up, my mother loved to redecorate our house all the time, but not by buying new things. Instead, she’d say ‘I feel a little blue. Let’s rearrange the furniture!’ And we would,” Hart said. “My father would come home and play along. He’d say. ‘I must be in the wrong house! Why look at this place — it’s beautiful.’ It happened all the time.”
Hart says she also developed her confidence with paint at her mother’s knee.
“When spray paint became popular, I remember sitting obediently on the sofa watching my mother while she carefully spray painted polka dots on a wall,” Hart said.
A different kind of decor
You won’t find polka dots in the Hart-Paz home, but the cased opening between the tango parlor and living room (the first room on the right side of the house) is fitted with slab doors painted in wide stripes.
“The doors were there — part of the institutional décor — but I had paint left over from various rooms in the house and used it to paint stripes and tie everything together,” Hart explained. “They’re my ‘Loretta Young’ doors.”
The living room is painted the same warm cocoa as the adjoining tango parlor and benefits from the same jolts of accent colors: Orange on a sofa throw and side-table bust, acid green on the silk drapes and a wing chair. A striped animal skin bridges the space between the settee (“70s French” according to Hart) and graceful sofa, both upholstered white.
“I bought the sofa from Bridge House and fabric online and had the sofa, settee and dining chairs in the kitchen all covered with it,” Hart said. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a great look.”
Hart should know. For a few years, she has been sharing her aesthetic insights and exotic do-it-yourself know-how on her blog, Visual Vamp. She works full-time as a design consultant at perch., a Magazine Street home design shop, and also performs interior design services for clients.
When she isn’t dancing, that is.
“Alberto and I are ardent tango dancers,” she explained. “We first came to New Orleans in 1999 to teach a tango workshop and were seduced by the city. We were ready for something new, and New Orleans reminded us of Buenos Aires, where Alberto is from. So we cashed out of the real-estate market in San Francisco and moved here.”
After buying the Irish Channel house, Hart says top priorities were the bedroom, kitchen and bath.
“I knew if those spaces were in shape, I could be comfortable in this place while we were in the process of ripping out everything we didn’t like and making it over,” she said. “I am a great believer in finding ways to use what you have, so a surprising amount of things actually stayed.”
Instead of tearing out the closets and upper cupboards in the dining room/office (immediately past the tango parlor toward the rear of the house), Hart left them in place but removed the doors. The upper cubbies now hold a book collection and the lower portion has been converted to a buffet area by the addition of a mirror-topped counter and a burlap skirt below to conceal supplies.
In the kitchen, the original cabinet boxes remain in place, but Paz made new doors for both the tops and the bottoms. Up top, chicken wire inserts fill the doorframes and the cabinets now serve as a display area for Hart’s ironstone collection. Laminate countertops were transformed by the application of a mixture of pigmented concrete, extending all the way up the wall to the bottom of the cabinets, to yield a uniform and sleek look.
Style in motion
Recently, rooms from the Hart-Paz house were featured in “Undecorate: The No-Rules Approach to Interior Design” by Christine Lemieux and Rumaan Alam. But changes to the home’s interior design since the book photos were taken help explain why Hart uses the term “dynamic” to describe her design style.
“People have told me that they haven’t changed the location of the furniture or paintings in their house since they put them there 25 years ago,” she said. “But why? You can get a whole new look just by moving things around and changing colors.”
In the book, for example, a white console now in the living room is shown in a different room, painted shades of blue and green. The orange chandelier in the tango parlor was white. Where there is now ironstone on display, there had been majolica.
“Sometimes I paint rooms in the middle of the night,” Hart said. “Alberto wakes up and asks what happened.”
Throughout the house, Hart has employed strategies to make spaces feel more private, sometimes a feat in shotgun houses with doors leading from room to room. In the living room, for example, a burlap curtain stretches the width and height of one wall, concealing the door to the guest room on the other side. Likewise, in the guest room, a wide, tall curtain of white duck hangs behind the bed.
“It’s actually a drop cloth,” Hart explained. “Drop cloths are great for decorating because they’re made of good quality fabric and are big and inexpensive. All you have to do is wash them to soften them up a little.”
Hart employed another visual trick in her living room to improve its symmetry. Frustrated by the off-center side window, she installed a pair of shutters over it on the inside and a second pair adjacent to them on the wall.
“Now the ‘window’ is centered on the double doors to the tango parlor and everything is balanced,” she said.
Hart and Paz say they still have projects to do (think new appliances, and refreshing the master bath), and if history repeats itself, the evolution of the house will be a never-ending process. For the Visual Vamp, that prospect is just fine.
R. Stephanie Bruno can be reached at email@example.com.