When a neighbor knocked on Alice McNeely's door and asked to buy her house, it triggered a neighborhoodwide game of musical chairs. McNeely knocked on another neighbor's door and ended up buying and renovating that house.
"It was kind of a domino effect," McNeely says. "Everybody was buying houses from everybody else. There were four houses involved. And we all closed within a few days of each other."
A real estate agent and New Orleans native who's lived on the Northshore for more than 30 years, McNeely knew the thriving real estate market well. She also knew how to turn a tired property into one with fresh appeal. The 18-year-old red brick house she purchased was the smallest on the block. McNeely describes it as nondescript and generic. But it was in a prime location and had large, open rooms and 12-foot ceilings.
"I knew it had potential," she says. "The problem was it was having an identity crisis. It reads as a modern home but it was dark and cheerless and dated. It needed to be given a direction."
The house's modern architecture, ample light and views and McNeely's preference for clean, white spaces that highlight furniture and art set the tone. She gave the exterior a contemporary feel by filling the joints between the bricks with mortar, then sacking (a process of applying mortar with a burlap sack) and painting the bricks.
She applied the same light hand to the interior. She removed extraneous details and distractions, took out a wall between the living and dining rooms, replaced doors with casement openings, did away with a built-in desk and bookshelves to make room for her own furniture and raised the living room's sunken floor for an even flow.
"I debated about raising the living room floor because it involved raising the glass doors to the patio," McNeely says. "My good friend who owns Greige Home Interiors, a fabulous design center in Covington ... insisted that I do so and I am so glad I listened. Raising it was probably the thing that made the most impact."
She added new wood floors to the living room and master suite and painted the floors, which were stained a dark cherry, a soft white throughout.
Two of McNeely's four children — twin daughters — are still at home and the footprint of the nearly 3,500-square-foot single-story space works well for the demands of family life. The master bedroom suite is located at one end and the girls' rooms are at the other with the kitchen, living room, dining room and den in between. McNeely made one major change, turning a navy bedroom next to the master into an office. Already graced with a huge arched window that overlooks the Tchefuncte River, the room now is the perfect place to work from home.
To decorate the house, McNeely began with what she already had. She photographed and measured her furniture to determine what would fit and stored it in the new home's air-conditioned garage during the renovation. She replaced items that didn't work, such as her 10-foot dining table, which was too large for the current dining room, and a dark velvet living room sofa that didn't work with the pale palette. She also purchased a pair of distressed reproduction neo-classic occasional chairs for the living room, which feels like an airy foyer, a desk, bench and daybed for the bedroom's bay-shaped seating area, and an extra-large distressed oak coffee table for the den's roomy furnishings and dimensions. She favors a simple look that mixes old and new.
"An all-white house can be sterile if you don't add contrast and texture," she says. "The key is wood and sisal and (mixing) old crumbling things with new things to create balance. ... I have old French pots, family portraits and worn wood chests that belonged to my mother mixed with an acrylic Louis Ghost chair and big resin bowls from an artist in Canada."
A painter of figural and abstract works, McNeely also incorporated art, mostly by Louisianans, into the interior. There are works by Northshore painter Bernard Mattox, Louisiana native and former Covington resident Suzanne Longo and McNeely, whose work is represented by Greige in Covington and Huff Harrington Fine Arts in Atlanta.
"Most of my accessories, pillows, etcetera are in the neutral family," she says. "I bring color in with art. My large Bernard Mattox is alive with golds, reds, taupe and greens, and the biggest shock of color in my house is the red dress my great-grandmother is wearing in her portrait, one of my favorite possessions."
Warmed with McNeely's furniture and art, the house is well-suited to the cooler seasons and family gatherings. The family spends most of their time in the kitchen. With its many windows, comfortable seating and brick fireplace, the den draws guests when the family entertains.
"This time of year when it starts to get crisp, it's beautiful over here," says McNeely, whose next project is a landscaped patio.
"When I visualized this house, I went lighter in scale and color," she says. "The natural light provides direct light for the decor and paintings and it's really kind of elegant. It has a great flow and we really use all of it."