Have you ever driven along Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, past the New Orleans Mission on your way Uptown, and glanced up to discover a rooftop row of sculptures in rabbit costumes staring straight at you?
And have you ever wondered who in the world would put them on top of this tiny building with its bright blue side wall and, more to the point, why?
“You could say it’s because we got custody of the bunny men,” laughs Elizabeth Eckman, former New Yorker-turned-New Orleanian.
She means it. She and her husband, Gary, owners of the building, adopted this group of sculptures by artist Alex Podesta after they found out they had to be relocated from their original spot atop the old Falstaff Brewery. The Eckmans weren’t the only ones interested in finding a new home for the bunny men. But they won the bid, and that’s why they now stand guard on O.C. Haley.
The Eckmans, both artists and longtime residents of Brooklyn, NY, live year round in New Orleans in the 1200 block of Baronne Street immediately behind the bunny men. They bought their historic Henry Howard house just three days before Hurricane Katrina, a decision made after many trips to New Orleans over a period of years.
Last year, still in the process of renovating the Baronne Street house, they realized that the yoga classes Elizabeth was offering to the community by donation had outgrown that space. Looking for something bigger but close by seemed to be the obvious answer.
“So we bought that bite-sized building we could see from our backyard,” Elizabeth says. “It’s going to be a yoga and dance studio and also a place our theater friends can use to rehearse. We hope to have it finished and open by the end of the summer.”
Renovating property is something the Eckmans know how to do. Transforming themselves into New Orleanians is a story of a different kind.
“In Brooklyn, we lived in a house that sort of looked like a French villa,” Elizabeth recalls. “Every time people came to see us they would tell us it looked like something that should be in New Orleans.”
She had no frame of reference for that, because she had never been here. Gary, on the other hand, had. A real estate pioneer who had renovated property in Park Slope, he used his credit card to buy construction materials, racking up beaucoup points along the way.
“So in 2003, when the bank called to tell me I would lose those points if I didn’t use them, I went to their website to look at the prizes,” Gary says. “One of them was a two- to three-day trip to New Orleans and another was to San Francisco. Since we had always talked about going to New Orleans and Elizabeth’s birthday was coming up, I surprised her with a trip here.”
“We were knocked out by what we saw,” Elizabeth says. “So we decided to buy a double, rent out one side and use the other as a place to come and go when we wanted.”
And that’s how it stayed for a few years.
“You know, for a long time, even before I came to New Orleans, I was having this recurring dream,” Elizabeth says. “I would dream about going through an old house, entering through the front door, and it would be beautiful. But there was always something like a sort-of industrial space attached to it. I just kept having this dream.”
After a couple of years spent commuting between the Big Apple and the Big Easy, and prompted by New Orleans friends who kept suggesting other property for them to buy, the Eckmans started looking online for another real estate opportunity here. That’s how they discovered the Baronne Street house. On a trip to New Orleans, they decided to investigate.
“I rented a car and we drove around the neighborhood,” Gary says. “We looked at each other and we both said, hell no, we’re not doing this.”
But next morning, drinking coffee at Café du Monde, Elizabeth suggested they should perhaps at least look at the place, and then they could go hear some music before returning to New York.
“I mean it was ridiculous,” she says. “We walked in and I said, this is our house. There was never a doubt that this was our house. ”
Not only was the building – a wreck of a former rooming house – exactly what she had always imagined, but there was an attached welding shop that clearly conformed to the odd industrial aspect of Elizabeth’s strange dreams. It had been built, probably in the late ’40s or ’50s, on the site of the house’s original side yard. Since the house never did have an indoor kitchen, the Eckmans transformed the welding shop into a large cooking and eating area; put a pool in the backyard; and started work on art studios for themselves in the main house’s rear attachments.
Now, having acquired not one but two properties in Central City — plus a half dozen or so bunny men — the Eckmans look forward to more positive happenings in their ‘hood. They are watching the gentrification of O.C Haley with parental pride and encourage all who migrate there to add art to the exteriors of their buildings, as they have.
They even have the new public relations phrase they want to see used in all references to the street: Things are looking up on O.C Haley. And so they are.