HOME AGAIN! To the Sounds of Kid Sheik's Trumpet

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, in partnership with PRC and with assistance from the State Historic Building Recovery Grant Program, brings the indefatigable Emelda Skidmore back home.

Emelda Pierre Skidmore always thought of the house where she was born 93 years ago as a sanctuary from storms. Her raised shotgun on Deslonde Street in the Holy Cross National Register District could be counted on to never flood, and it filled with family evacuated from newer parts of the Lower Nine during Hurricane Betsy and other emergencies. There would be "plenty, plenty" red beans and rice and gumbo cooked over an outdoor barbecue built from scattered bricks. There'd be lots of singing and praying, and a shared sense of being held in the arms of seven generations of family who were born, lived and died in this same home.

August 30, 2005, the past ceased being prologue. The levees broke and water rampaged through the low-lying neighborhoods in the northern end of the Lower Ninth Ward, ripping houses off their foundations and heaving them onto their neighbor's. Then the water continued its destructive path toward Holy Cross, swelling above the brick foundations and inside the 100-year-old homes where it had never flowed before. 

Sing and Then Sing Some More

Mrs.
Mrs. Skidmore sat immobilized in her wheelchair as the water rose in the kitchen until L?tanya had to lift her higher onto a table. The last hours before the water receded she spent on the stove, clinging to the hood vent and singing hymns.

Credit: Mary Fitzpatrick

Sitting in her wheelchair, Mrs. Skidmore could feel the water soak her ankles and then her knees in less than a minute. "I lifted her out of the wheelchair and onto a table, but I had to hold the table down," said her daughter L'tanya Jackson. "When the water got to the top of the table I thought I would put her on the fridge, but at that moment it toppled over. I lodged my back against a door and cradled her until I could get her on the stove."

For six hours Mrs. Skidmore rested on the stove, gripping the vent hood above for balance, and L'tanya perched on a cabinet. As the water rose to their chins, mother and daughter sang songs of praise: "I took the Master's hand and I joined the Christian band / I'm on the battlefield for my Lord" and "This little light of mine, I'm goin' let it shine." And they reminisced: "The water was up to here and we were thinking about everything, even in this situation," said L'tanya, "and we were laughing."

Historic
939 Deslonde was home to jazzman Kid Sheik Colar when he was married to Mrs. Skidmore?s mother. PRC placed a commemorative plaque on the house. PRC has put plaques on 54 houses in New Orleans to commemorate their jazz heritage.

Credit: Mary Fitzpatrick

They sang second line hymns that Mrs. Skidmore's stepfather Kid Sheik Colar had become famous for: The Saints Go Marching In, Just a Closer Walk with Thee and Didn't She Ramble. They remembered Kid Sheik lying on his bed practicing the trumpet all afternoon in the extra room that had been added to the side of the house on Deslonde Street so he could have his own entrance when he came home late from gigs at Preservation Hall or with the Eureka Jazz Band or even from Copenhagen, London and behind the Iron Curtain. They giggled about him standing on the corner of Deslonde and North Rampart in his short pants smoking a cigar and talking to everyone who passed by.

The two women sang and called for help "in the name of Jesus" for so many hours that Mr. Percy, stranded in his attic across the street, could hear them. "This was God's timetable," Mrs. Skidmore said. "I said to Him, 'You spoke to the wind and the rain. Can You quiet these waters down now?'" And the waters receded, six to eight inches right then, they both claim. It was mid-afternoon and Mr. Percy motioned to a patrol boat that two ladies were trapped inside their house. The patrolmen forced open the kitchen door and pulled Mrs. Skidmore out on the end of a Swiffer mop. From there it was five hours waiting on the St. Claude bridge, an Army transport to the Superdome parking garage, followed by two weeks at Nichols State University in Thibodeaux, until finally Mrs. Skidmore's son Kernell was able to take the family to Houston where they stayed until the National Trust finished the extensive and complicated renovation of the house on Deslonde.

"I never prophesy ahead of time," said Mrs. Skidmore, in one of her many phone calls from Houston to Averil Oberhelman at the PRC. "I put it in God's hands. It is His will. It's not about us, it's about everybody. We need to pray for everybody." And so she waited patiently for "Jesus to bring your servant Emelda Pierre Skidmore back to her birth place."

In the Hands of the Lord and Joe Michael

L’tanya
L?tanya Jackson, Mrs. Skidmore?s daughter, prepares to enter the house for the first time since Katrina. Ever optimistic, she smiles and rolls up her sleeves. Note how the fa?ade has been wrenched away at the corner. The city has posted a red tag, the first step in the demolition process, on the front shutter.

Credit: Mary Fitzpatrick

The mortal hands of general contractor Joe Michael took over the earthly job of putting the house back together, under the direction of National Trust field officer Kevin Mercadel.

"This was an especially difficult challenge," says project manager Kevin Mercadel, who had already been responsible for 19 HOME AGAIN! projects of the National Trust since Hurricane Katrina. "To begin with, Mrs. Skidmore was in Houston and unable to come back and forth to New Orleans. In addition, there were a number of pre-Katrina issues severely compromising the building, including major subsidence and foundation problems at the rear of the house that required a contractor who truly understood older homes and was committed to the highest standards."

The original three rooms of the house were probably constructed in the third quarter of the 19th century and added to in three stages: a gable roofed addition with an open rear porch, which was later enclosed, and a 20thcentury attached shed. A vernacular wood house with barge board subsheathing, it was covered with clapboard on three exterior walls and with drop-lap sheathing on the façade. The interior was originally finished with plaster on wood lath, but subsequently covered with gypsum board.

Skidmore
The National Trust and PRC completely renovated the kitchen where Mrs. Skidmore and L?tanya spent the longest six hours of their lives.

Credit: Mary Fitzpatrick

Joe Michael began by demolishing the weakened rear additions and installing a new rear foundation and 12 piers, the floor, walls and roof framing – essentially rebuilding the back of the house. He also stripped the Sheetrock and wall coverings from the entire house, reframed interior and exterior walls that weren't already framed, installed a support sill and rebuilt the front of the house. The rafters needed repairing, new roof sheeting and shingles were necessary, plus gutters, spouts, roof caps and a turbine vent. Michael substituted 2100-square feet of cypress and Hardi Plank for ruined weatherboard on the exterior and replaced the drop-lap siding on the façade as needed. The windows were all repaired or replaced with period windows. Sheetrock, cabinetry, baseboards, and molding were all replaced. Pre-finished Laminate flooring was installed throughout the house, with tile in the kitchen and bath. Michael oversaw the total rewiring and plumbing of the house and added an energy-efficient central air and heating system.

Thanks to the Trust, PRC and State of Louisiana

"Mrs. Skidmore had no flood insurance (it wasn't required in her zone and the area had not flooded during her lifetime). It took a while to assemble the full funding needed for the project," says Mercadel. "It required assistance not only from the Trust but also from the Preservation Resource Center's Jazz House Fund, plus a grant from the Historic Building Recovery Grant Program, Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation."

The state grant, which consists of congressionally appropriated funds administered by the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation, paid for a new roof, structural work, and The roof and much of the siding was replaced. Note the original barge board from the house's construction in the late 19th century. The house was braced on the interior during construction as its supporting walls were removed. But now a new vista through the house from the front door awaits Mrs. Skidmore's return from Texas where she has lived since the storm. repairs or replacements of the doors, windows and shutters. "Because Mrs. Skidmore was far away and unable to manage her project, we actually worked in tandem with the National Trust and turned the grant over to HOME AGAIN!," says Tracy Nelson, program director. "Kevin [Mercadel] and the Trust deserve all the credit for executing this work." Nelson adds that the Historic Building Recovery Grant Program will also be working with the Trust's HOME AGAIN! on L'tanya's tiny house next door.

Phoning Home

Emelda
Emelda Skidmore and her daughter, L?Tanya Jackson return home to Holy Cross.

Credit: Kevin Mercadel

The staff of the Historic Building Recovery Grant Program says that Mrs. Skidmore is one of their most delightful grantees, even though they were not able to actually meet her during the entire renovation. That's because Mrs. Skidmore loved to sit in Houston with New Orleans on the phone. Over the past year she shared many stories with those of us who grew to love her, especially Averil at the PRC. She liked to talk about the old days and how excited she is to get back and see the children.

"Our neighborhood was full of truck farms back then, Germans, you know, gardens from Rampart to St. Claude," Mrs. Skidmore told Averil. "Over on Jourdan Avenue they had a big ole' barn where they'd bring all the veggies and wash them and load them on wagons and trucks to sell at the French Market. When they got all they wanted out of the fields they let the neighbors come and take what we wanted and then they'd turn over the soil and plant again. We didn't have to have our own garden because the Germans shared. We had chickens and ducks and a hen house, though. We'd let the ducks walk in the street. And we had a cherry tree to ferment cherry bounce for the holidays. During Christmas all the neighbors would go to each other's houses to get a little taste of fruit cake.

"This is how it was," she continued. "At Dauphine and Lizardi there was Florita's Dream Theater with a big old organ and no talking pictures. Blacks up and whites down, but we went downstairs to get our ice cream and we would mix. We weren't separated. I'm going to tell you the facts: If I wanted to hang my clothes in your yard because they would dry faster, I did. We were just a family of people. Everything was right here, the sweet shop, the place you'd go to get watermelons, the ice man. The Inchajollas, I don't remember how to spell it, but they were Italian and sold food and fabrics in their store; a baker made gingerbread you could smell all down the street. The train would pass right on Rampart Street and drop coal for us to take back to the house. There was a doctor across the street. Let me tell you, this is how it was."

In her 93 years, other than her evacuation to Houston, Mrs. Skidmore has never lived anywhere but the little shotgun at 939 Deslonde St. in Holy Cross. And now she is back.

 

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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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