As personality types go, the well-heeled bon vivant and the pious preservationist would seem to have little overlap. The guy intent on living with a state-of-the-art surround sound system and an outdoor spa big enough to hold 20 friends is generally not the same sort of person who purchases a dilapidated historic house as fragile as a Ming vase.
But Lyndon Saia is the exception to that rule. He is both of those people. For the past 4½ years, he has funneled profligate sums of money and almost all of his time and attention into the painstaking restoration of one of New Orleans’ neglected treasures: the Old Spanish Custom House at 1300 Moss St., thought by architectural historians to be the oldest surviving residence in the city.
Situated on a half-acre parcel at a hairpin bend of Bayou St. John, the atmospheric West Indies-style plantation house began its life circa 1784 as two rooms downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs, with airy front and back galleries supported by colonnades.
These days, Saia, who at 52 is retired and single with grown children, arrives at the house at 7 a.m. every day to consult with craftspeople and subcontractors, and he stays until they quit work in the late afternoon. For years now, he has wrangled with the folks at the Historic District Landmarks Commission, seeking permission to make small and large alterations to the exterior and grounds.
Working closely with architect David Waggonner, who has restored some of New Orleans’ pre-eminent historic buildings, he spent a year just getting permits.
“This is my project, what I get up for in the mornings,” said Saia, a scion of the local family who founded and later sold Saia Motor Freight Line, now headquartered in Georgia. “It’s the faucet I can’t turn off.”
The property is still a construction site, fragrant with sawdust and littered with piles of bricks, but he hopes to move in this summer. “My friends just laugh at me because every year I say, ‘Oh, I’ll be in next year,’ ” he said.
The Moss Street property is Saia’s first historic house. When he bought it in 2009, he just wanted to keep it from falling down and to make it comfortable. The first objective turned out to be a complex structural puzzle where nothing was as it initially appeared. Termites, rot, water and time had done their worst.
“None of it was easy, and it was all suicidal,” said John Voss, a master craftsman who lives in a trailer in the middle of a north shore cornfield but has made a career of rebuilding the city’s historic houses. “The whole back of the house was rotten. When we took it off, we had to build supports to hold up the roof from the inside so the house didn’t collapse.”
Saia has restored the house’s exterior carefully, expensively and correctly, Waggonner said. All the plaster was removed from fortress-like walls. Studs from a 1927 addition that had crumbled to dust were replaced with treated lumber. Walls were overlaid with a rubber vapor barrier before being replastered. Original cypress exterior doors half the thickness of the ones used today were babied back to life.
“We took a staircase off the façade that probably wasn’t original,” Waggonner said. “The volumes and the openings that were there from earlier times are evident again. The circulations are generally improved.”
Waggonner also applauds Saia for letting him design a new $25,000 fence based on the original fence, which had twisted and was falling down. “It’s what meets the sidewalk, what you’ll see on the street, and it will be a huge benefit to the area,” the architect said.
On the other hand, Saia’s manner of enhancing the house’s comfort level has sometimes made onlookers wonder why he wanted this fragile antique of a house in the first place. He has added everything from a steam shower and wine cellar to geothermal air-conditioning and a security system with 17 cameras. There will be a pond, the 20-person spa, an elaborate Sonos sound system, computers, outdoor lighting and electronic gates — all of it operable from an iPhone. In a house with 16- to 22-inch-thick masonry walls, such high-tech undertakings have proved to be convoluted, if not maddening.
“I call it ‘Star Wars,’ ” said Voss. Or as the writer Stewart Brand said about another important and even earlier house in his book “How Buildings Learn”: “Try putting modern plumbing and heating into a stone Chatsworth — it’s like performing lung surgery on a tetchy giant.”
Saia has has added a barbecue station with marine resin cabinetry and a Versailles-sized fountain that doubles as a spa in the backyard between the house and its two outbuildings. Within viewing distance of bathers will be a 50-inch TV inset into some shutters. None of this is visible from the street, and it all can be removed and hauled away if the house becomes a museum someday, as Saia pointed out to the Landmarks Commission.
A neighbor once groused about the fountain addition, arguing that people didn’t have spas on their little indigo farms in the 1780s. Saia’s reply: “Well, they did have fountains, and if they could have had spas back then, I’m sure they would have.”
Nevertheless, the arduous restoration process has taught him things.
“I had patience,” Saia said, perching on the rim of the empty limestone fountain recently as men dug trenches in the yard for a Shell refinery’s worth of pipes that will feed the spa. “But I’ve got even more now. Before, if I wanted it a certain way, I expected to get it that way. Now I listen to people, get their ideas. I take into consideration what’s proper for the house, architecturally and aesthetically.”
This psychic evolution was not planned. At the time he bought the house, Saia was living in a Houma subdivision and considering moving to New Orleans. If he did move, he figured, he’d live in the West End boathouse he already owned and had renovated post-Katrina — a low-maintenance bachelor paradise with a titanic TV and a kitchen island surrounded by barstool-height director’s chairs.
But in February 2009, he walked into the Neal Auction Co.’s sale of the Bayou St. John house, held onsite. It felt like a lawn party, with tables of champagne flutes and desserts set up on the ground-floor gallery. At the time, the house was an enticingly romantic wreck, with sagging walls, tumbledown outbuildings and a musty, frozen-in-time charisma that was vividly sensual. Plants that had escaped the garden beds wandered the property.
“I found it to be in a state of charming disarray,” said Ann Masson, the local architectural historian and author who researched the house’s history for Neal. “It had a sense of being remote in time. It didn’t seem like people had just moved out of it. I could catch a glimpse of what it would have felt like to live there in that early time period — how it would have been, walking on that porch over the bayou at night.”
Scores of people turned up to bid. The house’s dappled patina made it irresistible to members of New Orleans’ ever-growing cult of scenic decay. But Saia wasn’t one of them.
“The first time I saw the house was the day of the auction,” he said. “I walked through and thought, ‘This is nice; I can see living here.’ But I wasn’t sure I was going to bid. I really hadn’t planned on bidding.”
Still, something must have worked on him — the graceful façade with its low-key nobility, the broad galleries cooled by steady breezes rippling off the bayou, the friendly neighborhood where everyone seems to have a dog.
“My mother grew up nearby; my grandmother used to live on Bienville Street. I would cut her grass,” Saia said. Bidding spiraled up, and he ended up paying $1,045,000 for the property. “When the gavel went down, I almost fainted,” he said.
At one point, he sold his Ferrari, pouring the proceeds into the ever-hungry house. At times the whole enterprise seemed like a dreadful mistake. “Be glad you didn’t get it,” he said to someone he outbid that day. Fortunately, his buyer’s remorse didn’t last long or cut deep.
“In the end, I think it will be worth it,” Saia said. “I’m very close to my family and friends, and I want to share it with them. I can’t wait to live here. I think it’ll be an amazing place to own and have parties and dinners.”
He’s also come to see the house as his life’s work and a gift to the city.
“Hopefully, my name goes in the history books for saving this house,” he said. “The good part is that it stayed a residence and stayed with a local person. It wasn’t sold to a movie star or somebody that turned it into a restaurant or a hotel to profit off it. My intentions are to live here until I die.”
photos below courtesy Lyndon Saia