HOME AGAIN! The Bennett Family Home Update

New Orleans on Dauphine Street

Mrs.
National Trust for Historic Preservation President Richard and Moe and Mrs. Mildred Bennett.

Credit: Rick Olivier

By mid summer, when the Trust completes the roof-to-piers rehab, great-great-great grandmother Mildred Bennett will be HOME AGAIN in the little pink house built for her family in 1884. In the meantime she occupies a place in the hearts of many Americans, including First Lady Laura Bush.

"Mildred's home received no mercy from Katrina," Mrs. Bush said in her keynote address at the National Trust/Tulane University conference Rebirth People Places Culture in New Orleans. "The shotgun house that has been 'home' to seven generations of Mildred's family…appeared beyond rescue. Now, with the help of $40,000 from the National Trust, the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans, Tulane architecture students, community organizations, and neighborhood volunteers, Mildred's home is being rebuilt."

Since the hurricane Mrs. Bennett has been hospitalized three times and uses a wheelchair. A great Katrina tragedy has been the elderly New Orleanians who could not survive the stress brought on by the loss of everything familiar in their lives. "She died of a broken heart," is the way many adult children describe their parent's death. So Mrs. Bennett's granddaughter Donna Duplantier has chosen to not let her see the devastated house until it is rebuilt. Instead, Mrs. Bennett has followed the saga of her home through frequent stories in the local and national media, which have drawn hundreds of volunteers to help renovate the narrow five-room house typical of New Orleans' vernacular architecture.

Repairs
The Trust is rebuilding the new kitchen on piers so that it will be wheelchair accessible.

"It was the most gratifying work I have ever done," says Ohio high school student Tom Murphy who helped repair the Bennett house. "I've seen a lot of sadness, but until I went to New Orleans, I'd never experienced it through someone else's eyes.

Like Tom, countless volunteers with the National Trust, Preservation Resource Center and Rebuilding Together have immersed themselves in Mrs. Bennett's home. They have studied her special needs and designed a handicap ramp and wheelchair accessible bathroom and kitchen. Volunteers have assisted contractor Carlos Galeas in rebuilding the back of the house on piers so that it would be level with the front rooms. Teams have worked with Mrs. Bennett's grand children to maximize the 1200 square foot house so it can continue to be the family center. Knowing that a new generation will one day move in, they have updated the layout and minimized the space needed for modern comforts such as central air and heat.

Detroit contractor Jim Turner has driven to New Orleans three times to work on the plans. Structural engineers and architects from eight states have optimized the design and strengthened the wooden cottage. Hundreds of volunteers from such diverse institutions as Oberlin College, the Knights of Malta, AARP and American banks have been part of the deliberate process designed by the Trust to demonstrate to thousands of homeowners the feasibility of restoring their ravaged historic houses.

The Trust, in partnership with the Preservation Resource Center, has also been helping other homeowners in the 5200 block of Dauphine Street, where Mrs. Bennett lives.

Help
Peter Brink and National Trust for Historic Preservation President Richard Moe present a check to David McGraw. To the far right is Robert Smith, who also received a grant to bring electricity back to his home.

"Volunteers come to work on Mildred's home," the First Lady told the sold-out conference and roomful of reporters. "Then people go next door to help the neighbors. They're spreading this confidence, this belief that the neighborhood can come back and that it can be revived."

The Trust and Preservation Resource Center arranged for six houses on the block to be gutted, using the best preservation methods -- saving the cypress floors, wood-framed windows, much of the plaster and all the historic details such as mantles, molding, and decorative trim. Since October professional volunteers, who do weekly rotations into New Orleans under an ongoing Trust program, have inspected dozens of homes to measure the damage and advise owners in this Lower Ninth Ward National Register neighborhood known as Holy Cross.

Many of these professionals have worked with Mrs. Bennett's 71-year-old son, Robert Smith, who lives next door to his mother. For months he has been laboring everyday, alone or with volunteers, to rebuild his double shotgun house. A retired longshoreman, Smith waits for the promised federal money and longs to live in his house instead of a FEMA trailer on the other side of the Mississippi River. A resilient man with a strong spirit who can work as hard and long as any of the student volunteers around him, Smith stepped back and wiped the tears June 2, when Trust President Richard Moe presented him with a check to rewire his house. Once the electricity is on, Smith plans to move back into his gutted home so he can work round the clock on the renovation.

Generations
Alton Smith, great-grandson to Mrs. Benton, and Loyola University women’s basketball coach, hopes to one day live in the little pink house on Dauphine Street, which has been in his family since 1884.

On the other side of Mrs. Bennett is the home of Dolly McGraw. The two women have been best friends for almost four decades. In April, never having come back to her home, Mrs. McGraw died. No one has told the fragile Mrs. Bennett. David McGraw, a cook at the famed Galatoire's Restaurant in the French Quarter, has inherited the home he where he grew up. Thanks to a grant from the Trust's HOME AGAIN! program, David has the funds and an electrician ready to rewire his family home.

"You all come by Galatoire's and I'll make you the best stuffed eggplant you've ever tasted," David told the National Trust trustees who were touring the 10 HOME AGAIN! New Orleans projects.

Mrs. Bennett's home has become a symbol of hope for the entire neighborhood, granddaughter Donna Duplantier told the First Lady. In truth, it goes further than that: The house, Mrs. Bennett, Dauphine Street, the Holy Cross neighborhood, Mr. Smith, David McGraw, Donna and the rest of the family have all become symbols of why New Orleans is worth rebuilding.

"When Donna first saw the devastation, she cried in the street in front of Mildred's house," Mrs. Bush said. "When Mildred sees her home restored and improved for the first time next month, Donna says she knows her grandmother's tears will be tears of joy."

The Trust and its partner the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans are intent on spreading the joy. 

 

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit organization, works to save America’s historic places.
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