- story and photos by Ellis Anderson
It’s called a homing instinct. Lots of animals have it. Some inner compass compels salmon to return to the stream of their birth and birds to navigate thousands of miles without a map. Each year, millions of butterflies take flight across the vast Gulf of Mexico, driven by the same mysterious guidance system.
If scientists want to research the homing instinct in humans, a team should come to Bay St. Louis. It’s a notoriously hard place for people to leave and if they do, there’s often a strong desire to return. Bill Stakelum is a perfect example.
Bill is the third-generation of his family to live in the Bay. His grandparents owned a cottage on Leonhard Avenue (in the town’s Cedar Point section) and his parents had a house on Wolfe Street, bordering a canal. Both these houses were second homes, places to escape the pressures and heat of New Orleans, retreats where laughter and relaxation ruled.
At Home in the Bay
Apparently. Although Bill has spent most of his life in New Orleans working as a convention manager for large hotels, he never stopped dreaming of a return. Several of his close friends had houses in the Bay, so he visited often, the dream growing a little stronger each time. Finally, in 2005, he began shopping for a home of his own. He found one that seemed perfect, but Hurricane Katrina permanently interrupted the sale.
Even then, the Bay kept pulling him back – yet he couldn’t find anything that seemed “right.” At one point, he actually made an attempt to buy his grandparents old house on Leonhard Avenue. It had been built in the 1870s. The historic gem was still salvageable even after heavy damage from Katrina. But it was outside the Bay’s Historic District and lacked any protection or oversight. Before a deal could be struck, the owners bulldozed the irreplaceable community asset.
It turned out that the lot was part of a small infill development that local builder Terry Stoltz was creating. One day, they chanced to meet at the site and begin discussing the possibilities of Terry building a house specifically for Bill.
Bill, who had studied architecture at Tulane University and fine arts at UNO before turning his focus to business, had very definite ideas on design. Over the years, he had purchased and renovated six different houses in New Orleans, enjoying the process each time. Yet, this was the first time he’d embarked on the process of seeing a new house take shape. He discovered that he and Terry shared very similar values and sense of aesthetics.
During the building process, Bill believed that the house would just be a weekend home; he planned to keep his main residence in uptown New Orleans. Even so, he had a few “must haves.” A walk-in shower in the master bath. A large, open floor plan, encompassing living/dining/kitchen. A picket fence and a porch swing. Front porch steps that were exact copies of the one at the Mockingbird Café. And an enclosed sleeping porch.
“My grandparents’ house had porches on three sides,” says Bill. “One of them had big windows, lap siding and partial walls. I wanted a room to look like that, to have that feel.”
Bill smiles again. “I had a guiding principle as we worked. When given the choice between two evils, pick the one you’ve never tried before.”
The orange doorway of the new cottage pays a bright tribute to the Wolfe Street house.
“My mom was very creative. She designed the inside of that house to be like the popular restaurant Bali High in New Orleans. We had bamboo glasses, tiki torches and grass walls. Our front gate was bright orange. She got these black iron trivets that were shaped like fish and mounted them on the porch rails. People didn’t use our house number, they’d just say ‘the house with the orange gates on Wolfe.’”
The sleeping porch of the new house has become Bill’s favorite room. The windows are different sizes, exposed rafters cross a bead-board ceiling and the floor is made from porch decking. Almost every piece of furnishing, painting or decorative object in the has a family connection.
Bill says, laughing, “I have some new things in the house, but for the most part, it’s furnished courtesy of deceased people. They’re meaningful things that remind me of my family.”
For instance, on the wall of the sleeping porch hangs a black metal fish that’s been framed against a background of bright orange. It’s one of the original fish from the Wolfe Street railing. In fact, an entire wall on the porch is dedicated to that family home.
Bill says that his family spent the summers in that house, with Bill’s dad commuting into New Orleans each day on the train. Bill’s idyllic days were spent crabbing, fishing, and making trips into “town” with his Mom to pick up mail from the post office and fresh bread from Bobbye Ann’s bakery.
But these days, he’s making new memories.
“When you’re driving to the Bay from New Orleans, you go through different stages of relaxation, each deeper than the last. The best sound of all to me was pulling into the gravel drive of this house. I had insisted on keeping it gravel, because of the sound. It seems to say ‘welcome back.’ You can relax now.”
Bill’s move to the Bay full-time continued incrementally. First he sold his house in the city and rented an apartment. Eventually, he gave up the apartment and commuted to New Orleans every day. Currently, he’s taking a hiatus from work and spends nearly all his time in Bay St. Louis.
“Am I retired? Absolutely not!” Bill says. “I want to work until I’m 90. I’m just taking a little break.
“I used to think that I’d be bored living in the Bay full-time. But I know more people and I’m busier than ever. It feels very, very good to be back.”