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Faces of Holy Cross: An impulse redo on Caffin Street

As Jane Castillo was arranging the scalloped valance covering her second-floor window, the crystals sewn along its bottom edge reflected light from the streetlamp.


Jane Castillo and Gene Benda

“I love the color of your house,” I shouted, and was invited inside to tour the newly painted raspberry-hued home accented with white trim and panes of stained glass.

Castillo and her husband, Gene Benda, impulsively bought the Caffin Avenue mansion last year, slowly restoring it to its former glory. The house was built on the main street of the Holy Cross neighborhood, named after the 19th-century river plantation owner Charles Caffin.

The Los Angeles couple were attending the National Association of Art Educators Conference in New Orleans in December 2013, and she was exhibiting work at the Contemporary Arts Center when they first saw it.

While touring alternative art spaces on a field trip, they met Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, founders of the L9 Center for the Arts, who showed them around the Holy Cross neighborhood, noting that many artists make this lesser-known historic spot their home.

“I didn’t imagine we would buy a house,” Castillo said. “Some say the magic of New Orleans has a way of grabbing you.”

Living room 2

Jane and Gene in their renovated living room

Almost across the street from the arts center, a rundown but charming Victorian that had been unoccupied since Hurricane Katrina was being sold that day in an online auction. For fun, they made an offer far below the starting bid of $90,000. By the time Benda finished taking a shower, however, the Californians had bought the house.

“Every time I have come to New Orleans something wonderful begins,” Castillo recalled.

Castillo, a professional artist and elementary school art teacher, and Benda, also a teacher, were married two years ago, and not really prepared to renovate a 3,000-square-foot house from across the country. Although they purchased the property for a song, renovations would be costly. So, they have traveled back and forth from Los Angeles for more than a year, doing work as they were able to put money aside.

“I feel like this house chose us. When we realized we got a house in the auction, we were literally leaving the next day. So, we took a cab there and took pictures.”

They learned something about historic renovation from the Historic District Landmarks Commission and Preservation Resource Center.

Bedroom vertical

“I feel like this house chose us.”

“Noticing original details in the woodwork, doors, mantels, and windows were imperative. We always kept the historic details in mind to honor the original design. We even spent a few months searching all over the Internet until we found the exact doorknobs that had been manufactured in the 1850s by the Reading Hardware Company, which had gone out of business in the ’50s. I learned the name of the design of doorknob was ‘Creston,’” Castillo said.

“The house is a diva and wants what she wants because we have sacrificed a lot,” she added.

“As the purchase of the home was completely unanticipated, it seemed, after the walk-through, that the restoration process and costs would be realistic and attainable,” Benda said. “Plumbing and electrical was run through the house, framing was done, there was an HVAC system installed both up and downstairs. The house seemed very solid. We thought that maybe we could get away with restoring the home for $35,000-$50,000 max as far as bringing it back to its mostly original state,” Benda said.

“Boy, were we completely wrong.”

All of the plumbing, electrical, and HVAC was completely out of code. Work had to be done on the foundation, all 22 windows restored by hand, floor work, roof work, chimney repair, deck and balcony replacement and on and on, he explained.

“At the end, we can say that we loved the process and learned so much along the way from so many people from all over the New Orleans area and beyond,” Benda said.

During their first walk around the neighborhood, Markus Wittmann greeted them. As it turned out, he coincidentally had lived in the same L.A. neighborhood when he worked in the movie business.

“Save your pennies and stay with me while you renovate the house,” he offered. They occupied another neighbor’s house for a month, as well.

Benda said: “We realized that Holy Cross is pretty much its own island of a neighborhood separated by the river, the [Industrial] canal, St. Claude, and the [Jackson] barracks. In a matter of hours, we met most all of our neighbors who actually came up to our house and either knocked on the door, if it was closed, or walked in, if it was open, and yelled, “Hello..? I’m your neighbor from across the street.”

“Knowing that you can stroll along the river on the dirt path a block from your home and see downtown New Orleans so well and so closely is a treat. All of the neighbors tell us they love it here in Holy Cross and that it’s a special place. I feel that special feeling,” Benda said.

Castillo agreed, saying, “I have met warmer neighbors here than I have in any place I have ever lived. It is a truly beautiful thing you don’t find everywhere.”

The couple is mixed ethnicity, first-generation American. Castillo’s roots are in Colombia, South America, and Benda’s family immigrated from Czechoslovakia. She has been mistaken for Creole, but they were both raised in Los Angeles. Accustomed to living among a diverse population, they felt comfortable moving into Holy Cross.

“Oral history will tell you the South is racist, but evidence shows that history is rewriting itself,” Castillo said. “If there is a deep-seated racial tension, I have not seen it.”
The wonderful welcoming support they received is “testimony of the true meaning of neighborhood,” she said.



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