At Home in the Bay - March/April 2018
- story and photos by Ellis Anderson
Bay St. Louis is the sort of place where creativity shines. Where people who think a little outside the box can manifest their dreams. Where a few simple ingredients can turn into something remarkable with the help of artistic alchemy.
Take the cottage at 420 Sycamore. It’d be a showstopper in any historic district in the South. Its diminutive size only adds to the charm. A good portion of the house seems to be made up of porches, front and side, beckoning guests to kick back, sit a spell, savor the breezes.
The owner is Curtis Lassere. Because of his vision, any passerby would guess the building had been there for generations. They’d call it a neighborhood gem. And only the sharpest of eyes might recognize its humble beginnings as a kit home that was designed to house disaster survivors, known as a Katrina Cottage.
At Home in the Bay
The most popular of the cottage designs was created by New York designer Marianne Cusato. Often compared to the early 1900s “Sear & Roebuck” kit houses, the Katrina cottage was attractive, designed to fit into historic neighborhoods and could be built for around $34,000. 3,500 were built for Mississippi alone.
Yet, they met resistance in most coast towns. The cottages were initially perceived as trailers or modular homes that might bring down the value of neighborhoods where residents were restoring or rebuilding more conventional homes. The cottages wound up scattered across the state, with FEMA eventually auctioning off many.
Curtis Lassere’s imagination was captivated by the small houses he saw around New Orleans after Katrina. He had been dreaming of downsizing from his 3,500 square foot home in Metairie, one he’d renovated over a period of many years. And he had his sights set on moving to Bay St. Louis on the Mississippi coast. For twenty years, he’d been visiting friends who lived in the Bay.
Curtis assumed he’d eventually build on the lot, but while investigating small house designs, he came across a listing for a Katrina cottage for sale in Gulfport. Since he couldn’t drive over to look at it immediately, Matt agreed to check it out. He brought back a positive report – the cottage basically just needed cosmetics and updating. The sale was made, sight unseen.
The original cottage was one of the larger, two-bedroom versions, coming in at around 950 square feet. Curtis went to work designing a master suite addition. And porches. And an outside living room, adding nearly 700 more square feet total. Local draftsman Chip Prevou drew up the plans and Curtis had a foundation built that would accommodate both the cottage and the additions.
The foundation was completed four months later, in October 2016. The cottage was moved over from Gulfport and construction on the additions began. All plumbing, electrical and HVAC had to be brought up to city code standards as well. Contractor Scott MacDonald, recommended by Curtis’s longtime friend Vicki Hughes, had the cottage move-in ready by in March 2017.
“Most people don’t even recognize it as a Katrina Cottage anymore,” Curtis said. “And those that do, walk in and say, ‘Wow!’”
His hometown is located on the west bank of the Mississippi River, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The community’s five thousand residents mostly lived off the land – hunting, fishing and sugarcane farming. Vacherie is best known for its two plantations, Laura and Oak Alley.
Space for outdoor living is an essential ingredient of any Louisiana home, and the new porches were designed with that in mind.
Curtis worked for more than 20 years as a kitchen designer for a major cabinet company in New Orleans, so he was able to rework the kitchen without much fuss. The original cabinets were a decent grade, and he simply painted them. He added granite countertops, a tile backsplash and the butcher block island with pullouts, made by a friend who’s a master cabinet maker.
He says the kitchen “suits my needs as a cook. It’s a compact area and easy for me to get around. I don’t cook as much as I used to, but I do it at least a few days a week.”
Other special touches in the cottage include a bead-board and beam ceiling over the screen porch. Painted in hues of white and soft turquoise, it lends a vintage look to the outdoor living room. The same technique was used in the master-bath, where the tiled walk-in shower gives the room a spa-like feel. A large reclaimed transom window in the same room protects privacy, while providing a soft light.
Curtis gestures around the inside living area and laughs. “Sometimes I feel like this is too much room,” he says.
“I love the simple life here in Bay St. Louis - cooking for friends, biking the bridge, walking along the beach, things like that.” He also spends free time gardening and working in the yard.
“Next on the list is to finish the porch screening and the fence in the front yard,” he says. “It’s always something. You’re never finished – even in a little place like this.”