At Home in the Bay - June 2016
A cherished family home is snatched from the verge of destruction and restored to pay homage to former owner Ellsworth Collins - Bay St. Louis artist, woodworker and musician.
- story and photos by Ellis Anderson
That would be Ellsworth Collins. He passed away in 1996, after spending his life in Bay St. Louis, most of it at 216 Sycamore. Those appreciating the talents of Ellsworth manifested in his home design would find themselves in good company. In 2005 the prestigious George Ohr Museum “discovered” his extensive collection of fanciful circus carvings and featured them in a special exhibition.
Scenes from the Ellsworth Collins Circus
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An artist to the core of his being, Ellsworth was a talented musician, as well as a master woodworker. The historic cottage on Sycamore Street was frequented by many iconic New Orleans musicians he gigged with in the city. Many came to visit with the noted guitar and stand-up bass player when they played at nearby 100 Men Hall (which his grandfather, John, helped found in 1888). Professor Longhair was only one of many guests who whiled away hours relaxing and visiting on Collins’s porch.
Today, Ellsworth’s niece, Patrice Tryman, can sit on that same front porch and finally take a breather herself. It’s been a difficult journey, one still not complete, but over the last ten years, she and her partner, Glenn Perry, managed to save the cottage from demolition after it was horribly damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Patrice herself spent years overseeing its restoration.
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The story of her passion for the house began when she was born in the front bedroom. Her parents were then living in a small guest cottage behind the main residence. Patrice’s father died when she was only two, so her widowed mother raised her with the help of the extended family.
Ellsworth was fond of Patrice and gave her the nickname “Peaches.” Yet, she and her cousin Yola (now Yola Jackson) knew they’d risk the wrath of Uncle Ellsworth if they created too much commotion. They also knew that his gruffness was just an act and didn’t take him seriously. Family was everything to Ellsworth and no matter the time of day, he was happy to see them. Decades later, nieces and nephews remember that there was always something cooking in the kitchen and a coffee pot on, ready for visitors who dropped in.
Yola’s brother, Charles Joseph, was a boy who looked up to Ellsworth and saw his uncle as a musical inspiration. Collins would allow the youngster to play with his instruments, which fired off a lifelong musicianship in Joseph (he’s a longtime member of the St. Rose de Lima choir).
Ellsworth played in a local band called the Stardusters, made up mostly of neighbors. The band members included Catherine Ishem as singer, Mitchell Smith on saxophone, Eugene Smith on trumpet, Ellswood on guitar and/or bass and his brother, Clarence Collins on drums. They’d rehearse in the cottage living room, using music stands that Ellsworth had made. Sometimes his love for woodworking and music intertwined. Charles says his uncle built an electric guitar for himself and one for “Guitar” Bo Darensbourg (of Bo and Dee fame).
Collins was also a member of the Boots Alexis Combo. One night in the early ’50s, the band was playing at the NCO club on Keesler Air Force Base. Another band performing at the Officer’s Club finished early and walked over to see the combo. Impressed, they asked if they could sit in with Collins and his group. That band’s leader was Louis Armstrong. A photo hanging in the house today shows Collins beaming that night, standing next to the American legend.
Patrice spent a happy childhood in the lively house, attending Valena C. Jones High School in the Bay for her sophomore and junior years. Her mother moved to New Jersey in 1968, where she finished out her senior year. While Patrice missed Bay St. Louis, she settled easily into life on the eastern seaboard. Eventually, she took a job with the township of Montclaire, New Jersey, where she worked as an
administrative assistant for 25 years. Trips back to the Bay to see family through the years stirred childhood memories and longings for the coast. She toyed with the idea of retiring here, sometimes dreaming of the little cottage on Sycamore Street where she’d been born.
The little cottage took a severe beating during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Charles, who still lived in the neighborhood, passed by the Sycamore house the day after the storm. He and his wife Tracy could see that it’d been flooded, but they didn’t have time to see the extent of the damage. Charles’s sister Chiquita Dorsey had been living in the house, but had evacuated.
Yola and her family had evacuated as well, coming to land in Illinois. Patrice drove there from New Jersey, and the two cousins made the journey back to a coast that was starkly different than the one they’d known. Driving south down Highway 603, they were shocked at the extent of the damage.
When they entered 216 Sycamore, the sight moved both Patrice and Yola to tears. Five feet of raging water had filled the house, upending furniture, destroying precious family memorabilia and filling the house with mud.
“It was like my mother’s generation had just all washed away,” says Yola, remembering that first sight. “There was nothing of them left. It just tore me up.”
photos courtesy architect Kevin Fitzpatrick
The house sat vacant until 2007. Ellsworth had not left a will, so the names of 21 people were on the deed — many of whom were struggling to reassemble the pieces of their own lives after the storm. Patrice began to fear the demolition of the house, which had continued to deteriorate. She hired an estate attorney and started contacting each relative who had an interest in the house. Since no one else wanted to tackle the major responsibilities and costs of restoration, eventually they sold or signed over their shares to Patrice. She became the sole owner in 2010.
Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) was administering a grant program to help with repairs of historic houses on the coast. Patrice applied and at first was rejected. Then in 2011, MDAH contacted her and said they’d reconsidered. The grant paired her with Bay St. Louis architect Kevin Fitzpatrick and contractor Ed Odom, both of whom specialize in sensitive historic restoration. The initial work structurally stabilized two rooms on the beach side that Ellsworth had built on to the original 1905 cottage. Restoration of the main house was completed in 2013. Patrice plans to tackle Ellsworth’s former workshop building next.
There’s no sign of Katrina now in the three-bedroom/three-bath house, although there is plenty of evidence of Ellsworth. On the inside, a turned column is a main feature of the back porch turned eat-in den. His photograph with Louis Armstrong hangs inside the door. Patrice has left a large wall in the formal dining room empty of artwork for now. She plans to hang an oversized photo of the altar that Ellsworth made for St. Rose de Lima — one he created from an extraordinary rooted stump that appears to be reaching toward heaven.
“He had an amazing creative intuition,” says Patrice. “He saw things differently than most carpenters would.”
Ellsworth’s circus carvings are a testament to that vision. Charles has the collection in safekeeping now, in the colorful storage boxes that his uncle also made to contain the dozens of individual carvings. The family hopes the collection will eventually find its way to a permanent home in a museum.
Patrice, Yola, Charles, and other family members gather often in the blue cottage. The restored house provides an important family touchstone for the later generations as well. In addition to other celebrations, the den has become the home to family “Saint Sundays.” The sleek kitchen may be completely contemporary, but the tradition of good food and hot coffee always being offered to visitors hasn’t changed a bit.
“It feels great to be back,” says Patrice, who retired in 2013 and now lives full time in the Bay. “I feel like I’m on a non-stop vacation. I walk. I ride my bike. If you want, you can take your troubles to the water.”
“The house I was born in ended up being my dream home. I thank the Lord everyday for this beautiful home and my aunts and my grandmother and Ellsworth. I feel like I have their approval.”
The letters below were found in the cottage during renovation, they somehow survived Katrina's surge. Both are commendations to Ellsworth Collins for demonstrating his wood carving techniques during "Hancock Day" at the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans. Click on the letter icons to view full-sized files.
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