French Country living in the French Quarter: Every room in this fanciful home is defined by the gardens without.
- by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
- photos by Ellis Anderson
I was reminded of that book when I walked inside the gates of Tom and Alycia Reagan’s 1814 Greek Revival home on Gov. Nicholls Street. Even from the outside, the resurrection fern icing the red brick fence and the seductive tops of mature ficus trees made clear this was not your usual residence. The four – count ‘em - courtyards beyond are an opulent feature, even by French Quarter standards.
The first courtyard you encounter is just inside the old brick fence and gate with its ironwork notation: Cité Thierry 1814 - 1940. The home’s Doric columns and open French doors extend a welcome just beyond the brick floor of this shady space. Defined by the street beyond – one of the quietest in the quarter – and the arches of the house, it’s easy to envision never leaving the front yard.
“I felt I was in France,” Alycia says of the first time she saw the home. Her observation credentials are in order. She hails from a village near Aix-en-Provence.
I am greeted by the puppyish dog, TD, which stands for “Tom’s Dog,” a small rescue, white and fluffy as a mimosa bloom. A black cat named Storm, also a rescue, rests unperturbed in a fern pot.
TD and Alycia lead me through the shady carriageway to the central courtyard, located between the main house and a detached kitchen and dining room.
This particular courtyard is Tom Reagan’s favorite, if he has to choose, because of the dappled light in the afternoon and the abundance of tree frogs. He loves the sound of them, and has been known to order online at a site called Josh’s Frogs.
“We have frogs as pets,” he laughs.
Tom has owned the home since 1976, slowly bringing it back from tenement status – at first he had five renters – to its present glory, as he could afford to. He had the advantage of the mansion’s good bones – Henry Latrobe designed the house for Jean Baptiste Thierry, editor of a French-language newspaper – and the help of contemporary architects. Henry Kratzer worked on the first major renovation in 1976. Architects John Williams and Lacey Wolring designed subsequent projects.
But the soft colors – a ruling peachy-pink like the inside of seashells -- the gurgling pools, the overall look came from Tom Reagan, with the help of designers Patrick Dunn and Susan Gillibrand.
In this favored garden space Tom stands in the midst of plumbago, yew hedges and thriving citrus. There are gigantic stag ferns on a brick archway wall and a young fig tree in a pot. Every detail fits like a jigsaw piece.
Tom explains he once lived in an apartment right across the street. Spinster sisters then owned the delapidated big house and conveniently enough for then-bachelor Tom, had a bevvy of stewardeses as tenants.
“And I had a swimming pool!” he says.
Erudite, but quick to laugh, Tom loves architecture and cooking, art and gardening. His father started Reagan Tool Company in 1946 in Natchez, Miss. - now Reagan Power & Compression headquartered in Broussard, La. The patriarch died when Tom was only 16. After that his mother ran the company.
French Quarter neighbor Archie Casbarian, who took the reins of Arnaud’s in 1978 and began the restaurant’s grand restoration, both inspired and encouraged Tom. When Tom saw Casbarian’s kitchen and witnessed his social flair, he thought, this is the life.
The young man left his mechnical drawing studies in Texas to enter a prestigious hotel management school in Lausanne, Switzerland. Before he could begin the cooking course, Tom was required to master French. He did.
For eight and a half years Tom remained in Switzerland and worked as a hotelier in the luxury hospitality industry. But when he was called home to run the family business, his cooking skills took back burner. “That was tough,” he admits.
It was not, however, a waste. He hasn’t stopped cooking and entertaining, only now it’s his passion, not his paycheck. In the former servants’ quarters is the large kitchen and dining room. Gleaming copper pots, a rotisserie big enough to roast a pig built into a brick hearth and a seven-burner Molteni range the size of your mother’s Buick attest to an abiding love affair with food. The view this now-private chef sees from his own kitchen must underscore he made the right decision to take the family’s industrial reins.
The adjoining dining room has views of both the central courtyard and yet another behind, a practical and private retreat where they grow vegetables and swim laps in a saltwater pool. The back yard, if you will.
Tom bought the extra lot a few years ago and seamlessly expanded. He grows tomatoes in raised brick beds in the summer. Soon, winter greens will prosper in this more utilitarian, yet seductive, space.
Inside, on the wall of the dining room, is a menu with a Tennessee Williams sketch. Long ago Tom Reagan noticed the playwright at a French Quarter restaurant and asked for an autograph. The writer went one better, drawing a quick self-portrait with cartoonish tears and saying, “Je pleur pour la monde.” I cry for the world.
But as interesting as are all furnishings and art – framed notes from Jimmy Buffett, lithographs of Josephine Baker posters from the 1920’s, paintings from Alycia’s late mother’s gallery -- you cannot keep your eyes and attention from wandering outdoors, a restless schoolchild looking out the window. The courtyards beckon; they connect, they rule.
Deft, subtle touches are everywhere, and yet there is a dependence, always, on the amazing natural light.
I’ll admit. I don’t know a Doric column from a barber’s pole, but I can appreciate quiet elegance, know it when I see it. Hang the Hanging Gardens. Four courtyards in the Quarter, that’s a world wonder.