A Quiet Passion: restoring the heritage of Louisiana

Most people would associate passion with loud sweaty dramatic demonstrations, perhaps like a passionate performance of Macbeth “full of sound and fury.” However, the word ‘passion’ comes from the Latin word pati meaning ‘to endure,’ whether the enduring one kvetched or not. In that sense then, Stephen Stirling and his dogged dedication to his family home is a picture of passion.

“I get real attached to these old places—I watch these places disappear. It’s like watching one of your friends get murdered,” Stirling says while sitting on the porch of his totally restored classic Louisiana cottage. “I do what I can.”

Stirling has made a few attempts at saving old Louisiana structures, and in fact he may be one of the few private citizens who can admit to using a house-moving service “several times.”

“I first adopted an Acadian cottage I found back in 1992, and I moved it to my property. Two days after I moved the house, hurricane Andrew hit and destroyed it anyway,” he remembers. “I kind of got disgusted, a little deterred—I lost a few thousand dollars.”

“I tried to find another one and a friend said, ‘It might be what you want.’ A sugar mill owned it, and [they] were about to bulldoze it.”

Stirling relates the story looking out over his back porch, which fronts on an expansive greenspace running along Bayou Teche. Cypress trees and live oaks shade a variety of native plants. A Louisiana heron stalks fish in the water. Neither the scene, nor his tone contains any trace of stress.

His friend brought him to an antebellum center hallway cottage, probably constructed around 1850. “I’ve never seen such a dilapidated place that was still standing,” he remembers. “Hurricane Audrey [1957] had torn its roof off, and the house flooded. Then they replaced the roof wrong. Some people were still living in it. There was no glass in the windows.” As if this chronicle of architectural woe wasn’t enough, he adds, “The house had never been painted, inside or out.”

The owners of the sugar mill told Stirling that if he moved the house off their property, they would give it to him. So he removed the offending roof, stabilized the chimneys, and brought it to his lot on the bayou. “I wanted it here because there are no neighbors. I felt we could make the house fit the land.” Indeed, across that relaxing bayou are nothing but trees and bushes; across the road in front are acres of sugarcane.

Over the next nine years Stirling taught himself the intricacies of restoring old homes and became a sort of expert on Louisiana heritage in the process. He researches “anything I can find to read in Louisiana, especially in this area—what did they have in their yards?—what were their customs?” He calls the Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge “an inspiration.” Prints by classic Louisiana landscape artist Adrian Persac are references he swears by. “You can look at his work and see how the properties were laid out, how they used their buildings.”

His family first came to Bayou Teche six generations ago, Scotch-Irish immigrants settling among the French families already here. “We are from St. Mary parish—I wanted to come back to live here,” he admits.

He became possessed by the restoration of the house. He cleverly scouted demolition sites for materials. “I used old nails, old hardware, old glass—I bought the treads for the staircase from a house being torn down.” He steadfastly refused to use modern materials. “The best way to do it is to find stuff at the source; if you want to replace a baseboard, you use one from another house.”

Perhaps his best find was windows in a garbage dump. “Someone left a stack of 70 or 80 old windows. My wife says that I always bring back more stuff from the dump than I bring to it,” Stirling jokes.

One of the main considerations in choosing this particular house for Stirling was that it had to have high ceilings to accommodate his furniture. “We have a lot of antique furniture that’s really high,” he says. “Our bed is nine feet tall.”

When Stirling started his long journey toward a classic dream home, he was a bachelor; now, along with a lovingly restored house, a meticulously laid out yard, and vintage furniture, he has a wife and three children. The house, which could easily serve as a museum or high-end B&B, is a true home complete with an SUV in the driveway and drawings on the refrigerator door.

“I’ll be here ’til I die, this place suits me. I can talk about it all day.” And without a lot of fanfare, but definitely with a lot of passion, he adds, “I can make my own eyes glaze over.”

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