At Home in the Bay - October 2015
The Little Pink Cottage On Union
One of the most charming garden cottages in the Bay St. Louis historic district, "The Laughing Place" on Union has a colorful past - and present - thanks to owners Mack and Judy Pursell.
- story and photographs by Ellis Anderson
“He told me that I’d better get on back to the coast as fast as I could, because the workmen were painting the house pink,” says Judy, grinning. “He just couldn’t believe it when I told him that was exactly the color I’d picked!”
Mack and Judy both grew up in George County, Mississippi. It sits directly above Jackson County, the state’s eastern-most coastal county. Their families often took the short drive to the Gulf to boat and fish, so the Pursells both formed early attachments to Bay St. Louis. Mack remembers coming to the Bay for fishing trips as a child, while Judy sometimes visited a good friend who attended St. Joseph’s Academy on the beach (the site of the present day Our Lady Academy).
Mack and Judy attended Perkinston Junior College (founded by Judy’s great uncle) and then USM before marrying and moving to Baton Rouge. They’ve lived in the River City for the past forty years, raising a son and a daughter there. Mack spent nearly 30 years working for State Farm Insurance, and then 17 years ago he “retired” to open his own insurance-related business: an auto collision shop. Meanwhile Judy operated Judith Pursell Interiors and worked as a popular interior designer.
Through the years, the Pursells made frequent trips between Baton Rouge and Lucedale in George County to visit family. Often, they’d detour to the coast and swing through Bay St. Louis. After the children were grown, they began contemplating a second home on the coast. While the beaches in Alabama and Florida may have been more popular, the short drive between Baton Rouge and the Bay would make it possible to visit the coast almost every weekend.
In 2000, the fantasizing ended and the shopping began. The Pursells worked with realtor Marlene Logan. They’d been looking for three months when a new “for sale” sign popped up at 201 Union. But the market in Old Town was sizzling and several people had already viewed the house before the Pursells got a showing, only three days after it went on the market.
The walk-through was not encouraging. The 1600-square-foot house had been used as a rental for several years and needed lots of work. However, one big plus was the postage stamp yard. Their ranch house in Baton Rouge has a full acre of grounds, and as much as both Pursells enjoy gardening, they were looking for a light load in their second home. And Judy’s interior designer’s eye saw the cottage as a blanck canvas with unlimited possibilities. Mack made an offer the same day they first stepped inside and on August 15th presented the house as a gift to Judy for their 34th anniversary.
“Nothing in here was pretty,” says Judy, remembering those early days. “When our daughter saw it, she said, ‘The first thing you have to redo is that little bathroom off the kitchen. That’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen in my life!’”
They followed their daughter’s advice and then spent weekends and vacation time slowly working their way through the rest of the house. In addition to multiple renovation projects, Judy tiled the kitchen countertops and backsplashes with a mosaic of vintage dish and pottery shards, the first of several interior and exterior mosaic projects. Antique-dealer friends would save their shop casualties for her. She’d also scour garage sales looking for colors and textures she liked and buy undamaged pieces. When she was ready to start working, she put on goggles, sat on the back steps with a hammer and “broke up stuff for days.”
A friend who wanted to learn Judy’s mosaic technique helped her lay the floor of the front porch. For eight days, the two friends sat on pillows while they fitted colorful tile pieces together.
“That’s when I realized something was wrong with my brain,” says Judy, laughing. “I’m missing the part that says ‘Don’t do that! It’s too much trouble!’”
The kitchen cabinets were another stroke of creative genius. The Pursells purchased new doors to replace the dated, worn ones. Judy had read about a technique to age them using Rit dye on raw wood. She then applied a glaze to add depth and character.
“Of course, Katrina helped me out,” she says. “They look a lot older now than they did when I finished them.”
In 2005, about the time the Pursells were beginning to see light at the end of their restoration tunnel, Hurricane Katrina forced three feet of water into the cottage. Debris from other buildings and the force of the surge structurally damaged one corner of the house. The couple rolled up their sleeves and started over.
Judy turned into a salvage queen while the couple worked through the aftermath. When beaded board wood was ripped out of other historic houses and left at the curb for garbage pickup, Judy would save it from the debris pits and carry it back to the cottage. Those salvaged scraps eventually became a charming wainscoting that replaced the bottom three feet of every wall that had been ruined by Katrina.
When the Corps of Engineers began tearing down another damaged house in town, a Judy was able to save the beveled glass doors before they bulldozer crushed them. The doors now have a new function as a charming divider between the living room and the closed-in porch.
While the Pursells didn’t make any major new changes when restoring the second time around, Judy keeps adding to the whimsical nature of the house each year. When asked what style it is, she’s not able to pinpoint it. Shabby chic? Not exactly. Garden cottage? Well, maybe.
“I see things and colors that seem perfect for the cottage and find a way to work them in,” says Judy. “I experimented with the cottage from the beginning, trying things I’d never have done if I was living in a house day in and day out.”
Judy’s experiments only show her superb instincts and training as an interior designer. There’s the French bedroom for the granddaughters that incorporates French flashcards that her mother used for teaching the language. In the bathroom that doubles as a gallery for collectibles, the showpiece is a restored claw-foot tub that was original to the house since 1929. The gas fireplace in the living room is a recent add-in, yet looks like it was an integral part of the original house. And everyone’s favorite detail, the antique plates that can be seen by passersby through the window.
Outside, the Pursells’ green thumbs are evident. Blossoms spill over the ribbon strip of property that separate the house from the sidewalk. A picket fence captures a private nook of yard on Second Street, while in the back, a deserted driveway has become a charming gated courtyard shared with the house next door (belonging to neighbors Paulette and Glenn Bohne). Judy’s mosaic tile work on the side porch makes the intimate place sing with color and whimsy.
Now Mack has turned the Baton Rouge business over to his son and Judy has downsized her business, the couple are spending more time in the Bay. Even though their corner is a busy one — at least by Bay St Louis standards — Mack says it’s a serene spot. Both Pursells enjoy the fact that they’re just steps from the beach and the shops, restaurants and galleries of historic Old Town. Soon they’ll be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, their 16th in the Laughing Place.
“We get the best of both worlds here,” says Judy. “We’re still part of Louisiana — which we love — and we’re still part of Mississippi. Nothing could make us happier.”
Al Lawson - On Design
It’s a uniquely human endeavor to decorate our domicile. It is something that visually communicates who we are and articulates what we value. I am always fascinated to see the elaborate collections people have created in their homes --- whether it is vintage dishes or an unusual collection of tchotchkes.
Whatever people choose to collect or decorate with - I am reminded that they have an identifying interest and find meaning through their collections. I first witnessed this design concept in Italian homes that displayed ceramic plates on their walls from restaurants they had visited. The plates were beautifully painted and helped the memory of a wonderful meal or remarkable evening last longer.
And I love seeing anything that shares a love for the fanciful, celebratory or simply beautiful. It’s so inviting when it is combined in a home filled with joy and warmth. Thank you everyone that shares your home with us as we read The Cleaver. We are grateful that we have been able to glimpse a little of the special spaces where you find peace and happiness .
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