At Home in the Bay - February 2017
Love at First Sight
In the early 80s, a visitor to Bay St. Louis was smitten with the historic cottage at 308 Main Street. Thirty-five years and one addition later, it's the Millers' dream home.
- story and photographs by Ellis Anderson
Yet, in 2014, the first time she and Kent toured the interior of the house, the couple was disappointed. The rooms were dark, the natural light blocked out. And although the house was nearly 2000 square feet, there was only one real bedroom. They kept shopping for their new home.
The Millers were set on moving to the coast and after owning two historic houses in New Orleans, were determined to purchase another. Yet, the ones that were available had already been renovated in ways that weren’t suitable. Finally, they returned to 308.
“Cynthia asked me to look at it with fresh eyes,” says Kent. “To see the potential. I realized it really was an incredible house.”
If a bit small. Once the Millers purchased it and started moving in, they realized that it didn’t have room for most of their furnishings. Avid entertainers, they also discovered that the living room only comfortably accommodated five or six people. And with one bedroom, they couldn’t have overnight guests.
So they began working withlocal architect Ed Wikoff to build an addition that would not only give them more space, but create a flow making the house more livable. Filling the rooms with natural light was one of their primary considerations in the new design.
Since the Millers didn’t want to change the appearance of the original house from the street, the 1,500-square-foot addition is cunningly tucked behind the house. An earlier addition (a small sun porch on the back) was torn off to make way for the new one, which includes a spacious and open living and dining area and a large master suite. A series of French doors opens onto a wide l-shaped screened back porch - with room enough for outdoor living and dining rooms.
The front two rooms of the original house were transformed into a music room/library with an adjoining guest bedroom. The original cramped kitchen will be the next project the Millers tackle – it will be expanded to include the home’s original dining room.
Construction of the addition began in the summer of 2015. Since the house is located in the Bay's Historic District, the addition first had to be approved by the city's Historic Preservation Commission.
"The experience working with the historical commission was a easy and very positive one," says Cynthia. "They expressed gratitude that we were tackling the renovation in keeping with the historical significance of the building."
The construction process itself was also a positive process. The Millers say that contractors Rick Dedeaux and Ed Madden were “great to work with.”
“I was really dreading the process, but it was painless,” says Cynthia “Ed Madden has the same eye for detail that I have.”
Cynthia picked out every fixture and finish for the addition. “I can see it in my head,” she says. “I pick things that intrigue me and group them together. When you take chances like that, you wonder if you’re making a costly mistake, but somehow, it’ll all come together in the end.”
Kent has learned through the years to trust his wife. “Whatever she’s got that tells her that it’s going to work, I don’t have,” he says, laughing. “I’m just happy to hang this or build that, whatever she thinks needs to happen.”
The checkerboard flooring in the master bath is a case in point. Cynthia loved the classic look, but wanted something softer than black and white. The muted tile tones she chose give the room a spacious, clean feel that doesn’t dominate the eye.
Cynthia was apparently born with the knack of knowing. When she was five, growing up in rural Stone County, Mississippi, her parents were amazed at her early drawings. There’d never been an artist in the family before.
Her father persuaded her to channel her artistic inclinations into an education that could earn her a living. Cynthia attended Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (MGCCC) in Perkinston and in 1969, was the only woman to graduate with a degree in drafting and design.
Her father was right about career opportunities. She took a job with the college and worked there for the next seven years. Since classes were free for employees, she spent her spare time taking advantage of the opportunities, learning everything from art history to photography.
Kent grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi, graduating as Gulfport High’s valedictorian. He worked his way through USM in Hattiesburg, first doing construction and later as a bookkeeper for an appliance company. When he graduated with a degree in business (with a concentration in accounting), he immediately signed on with an accounting firm in Biloxi.
In 1976, Kent received a life-changing assignment: he became the member of a team auditing MGCCC.
“I met him at the Xerox machine,” Cynthia says. “He asked me to play tennis and we played all afternoon. That was it.”
Soon after they married, Kent was offered a partnership in his accounting firm, but the couple wasn’t ready to narrow their horizons. They traveled to Houston, where Kent found an accounting position with Gulf Oil Company and Cynthia snagged her “dream job,” working as a photographer for the University of Texas Health-Science Center. For the next several years, she worked with some of the top physicians in the world.
Kent was transferred to San Francisco when Gulf Oil merged with Chevron in the early eighties. The couple took advantage of their exciting new West Coast location by traveling often, yet remained homesick for the South. When Kent was offered a position in New Orleans in 1987, the Millers packed their bags with glee.
Although the couple had spent time in New Orleans, they’d never lived there and began their house hunt with only a few goals. After years of living in new tract houses, they wanted a home with a history.
“All my life, I’d drive past old classic houses, adoring them. People say they’re more trouble, but it turns out that’s not really true,” says Cynthia.
They started with a turn-of-the-century Greek revival on Coliseum Street and spent the next six years happily renovating it. Then they purchased an enormous Queen Anne on Camp Street further uptown, which they ran for several years as an exclusive bed and breakfast.
Always eager for more education, being back in New Orleans afforded Cynthia the opportunity to attend UNO, receiving a degree in sociology, then pursue her master’s at Tulane School of Social Work. After graduation and an internship, she accepted a job at Touro, working to help rehabilitate quadriplegics and paraplegics. Meanwhile Kent traveled frequently for his job with Chevron. The couple jokes that although they’ve been married forty years, they’ve only been together for twenty.
Several factors intersected to bring them to the Gulf Coast. Cynthia’s widowed mother in Stone County was suffering from congestive heart failure, so Cynthia retired from her job as a social worker to help out. Kent had retired from his Chevron job in 2008 with the intent of working part-time as a consultant, yet found himself busier than ever. He was determined to retire completely.
So the Millers put their New Orleans house up for sale and began exploring the possibility of retiring on the Mississippi coast. Then, in 2013, Cynthia was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was in the middle of treatment when their New Orleans house sold.
The Millers’ friend, Dita McCarthy, who lives in Harrison County, presented the situation to her Pass Christian book club. One of the members offered to rent the Millers a house on Second Street in the Pass, completely furnished, with a view of the beach. It was the perfect place to heal and plan the next phase of their lives.
After Cynthia finished her treatment, the Millers began the hunt for their new home, shopping the coast from Gulfport to Bay St. Louis. Cynthia’s childhood friend and director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, Malcolm White, has a home in Bay St. Louis and was a factor in helping persuade them on settling in the Bay.
“The Bay had so many of the things we were looking for,” says Kent. “It’s a grass-roots community, with an active arts scene. There was a great stock of historic houses. Once you’ve lived in an older home, you don’t want to live in a new house anymore.”
“It’s also less than an hour’s drive from New Orleans. Plus, there’s the Mayberry Effect,” he says, referring to the town’s reputation as “Mayberry by the Sea.”
Once they settled on 308 Main, they began researching its history. It had been built in 1880 by esteemed contractor/craftsman “Papa” Joe Labat. By the early 1900s, the house served as part of the Bay’s fire department.
“The early paperwork says that the department consisted of a steam engine, two horses and the house where the engineer lived,” says Cynthia. “The steam engine apparently had to be kept going at all times. There was a special alarm that would ring the engineer in event of a fire. I found that thrilling.”
Later in the century, the house provided quarters for out-of-town visitors attending services at the nearby funeral home.
There’s nothing somber about the house now. It’s filled with art and memorabilia from the Miller’s rich life together.
For instance, there’s the enormous vintage Miller beer sign that they rescued from a fate as part of a pigpen. Hanging on a stairway wall is a quilt that Cynthia’s mother made as a teenager. A painted drumhead from Kent’s high school livens up the music room. Cynthia’s art and photography catch the eye at every turn.
Cynthia points to a painting in the dining area.
“It’s worthless to most people,” she says. “But I remember my daddy holding me up to it and asking me to find the alligator in it.”
“We’re where we ought to be,” says Kent. “Bay St. Louis has the vibe of New Orleans, yet a great hometown feel. People immediately embraced us in this community. We love the house. And our location is great. We’re within three blocks of everything we want to do. We don’t even feel the need for a golf cart,” he says laughing.
“Being a social worker keeps me aware that life can change in a minute,” says Cynthia. “But we’re happy here and plan on being here to the end.”
She smiles mischievously, then continues. “We’re prepared to get walkers with tennis balls on them and stroll right on down to the Mockingbird Café.”
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