’This Old House’ focuses on New Orleans rebuilding

Published 7:25 pm Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In a city chockfull of 150-year-old houses with wooden porches and scrolling wrought iron, New Orleans would seem perfect fodder for “This Old House.”

But when producers of the television show surveyed the city’s post-Hurricane Katrina landscape, they found old houses were only part of the story.

They couldn’t ignore the pastel-colored homes being built for displaced musicians, or the construction projects spearheaded by actor Brad Pitt. So both will be included in the show’s 10-episode series scheduled to begin airing nationally next month on PBS.

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“It was worth departing from our comfort zone to tell every part of this story,” said producer Deborah Hood, in New Orleans recently with a video crew at the Musicians’ Village, where 68 homes are complete or under construction, and at sites where Pitt is building affordable, environmentally friendly homes.

On a previous visit, they interviewed singer-pianist Harry Connick Jr. and saxophonist Branford Marsalis, the New Orleans natives who launched the Musicians’ Village.

They also included the story of a handicapped woman whose flooded Broadmoor home is being renovated by Rebuilding Together, one of the volunteer organizations so vital to the city’s recovery.

Despite the new angles, Hood says fans of the show’s traditional format won’t be disappointed. “This Old House” will cover in great detail the rebuilding of an 1892 Creole shotgun-style home in the Lower 9th Ward.

Audiences will follow homeowner Rashida Ferdinand, 32, a fourth-generation resident of the neighborhood, as she rebuilds the home she purchased in 2004, about a year before Katrina smashed levees and inundated her home with floodwater.

As cameras rolled, her home was buzzing with construction workers hanging drywall and installing French doors.

A ceramic artist by trade, Ferdinand called finding the home “a blessing” because of its lot size, art studio out back and location near the Mississippi River. But it was the history of the neighborhood she cherished most.

“The 9th Ward was a place of pioneers, a place where people found land, built on the land and started communities, especially right here along the river,” she said.

Though it’s taken more than two years to rebuild her dream, Ferdinand expects to be in the house by February. She’s “on the forefront of the rebuild” in the Lower 9th Ward, said “This Old House” host Kevin O’Connor.

Less than 10 percent of the neighborhood’s population is back, and like many of her neighbors, Ferdinand did not have flood insurance. She had to wait for help from a federally funded state rebuilding program.

“It’s hard for a lot of people to come back, and it’s not for lack of will. It’s for lack of resources,” O’Connor said.

Because Ferdinand’s home is a historic one, she qualified for a grant from the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office to save historic elements, such as the exposed brick fireplace in her living room, the home’s tongue-and-groove ceilings and walls made of boards from a disassembled Mississippi River barge.

She also is enlarging the house by building a second story at the home’s rear, creating what is locally known as a camelback style. The upstairs addition will serve as a master suite, with three sets of French doors. Balconies facing the river offer views of an old pilot house, river boats and downtown skyscrapers.

“The Mississippi River was something I took for granted,” said Ferdinand, gazing in the direction of the river from the steps of her front porch. “I have so many memories of being close to the river, walking on the levee, riding bikes, flying our kites.”

She’s been living at a relative’s New Orleans home since Katrina, and longs to be back in her own house. She especially misses her kitchen.

“I love cooking New Orleans food,” Ferdinand said, spouting off some of her favorite dishes — stewed hen, baked macaroni and cheese and file and okra gumbo. “I can’t wait to get in my new kitchen and have my family over.”

To chronicle her renaissance, Ferdinand is writing a blog, which, like her video portrait and volunteer stories, can be accessed at the “This Old House” web site.

This Old House magazine also will feature the New Orleans projects in its April issue.

The television episodes begin airing Jan. 24 nationally on PBS. Check local listings.