Local literary figure Rosemary James lavishes her 1910 home with period details, art and antiques | Entertainment/Life
The Uptown home of local designer and literary figure Rosemary James is as close as a modern person would come to Mount Olympus, the mythological home of the gods of the ancient world.
The newly renovated Queen Anne-style house near Audubon Park features images of many Greek and Roman gods found in Renaissance and Baroque artwork. Diana, the huntress and moon goddess, is the patron deity of the house, James said, but it’s Cupid’s mischievous winged siblings who steal the show. They hang out by the pool and inhabit nearly every room in the lavishly decorated 4,000 square foot home.
There are so many pictures of putti – the Italian word for winged baby boys that James adores – that her late husband, Joseph DeSalvo, dubbed their home the Putti Palace.
Customers even dine while watching the putti. When a porcelain set decorated with “frogging” putti appeared at auction, James sprang into action. “I was on it like butter on bread,” she recalls. “Joe and I both loved crystal and porcelain.”
She did the same for the salon’s prized artwork: an 18th-century painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds of Cupid. “I think I stole it,” James said. “I don’t think everyone is as obsessed with putti as I am.”
Reynolds’ manipulative Cupid expression says it all. A trickster relative to the sweet son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, her arrows are life changing, not necessarily in a happily ever after way.
The two-story home was built in 1910. When James and DeSalvo purchased it in October 2019, it needed a complete renovation to suit their needs and aesthetics. When completed, it provided ample space for James’ extensive collection of European antiques and works of art.
A bust of the lords of Apollo above the staircase in the central hall. A bronze statue of Fortuna, goddess of luck, sits on her wheel above a multi-sided shower in the master bath. Most rooms require passing under custom designed transoms depicting Diana with her crescent moon. Paintings of the romantic canals of Venice cover a library wall. Images of swans grace the furniture, carved lions guard the doors, and gold-leaf mirrors shimmer in every room.
Neoclassical daybeds, chairs, tables, and desks representing three centuries of craftsmanship provide space for lounging or holding small works of art. Crystal chandeliers, some 200 years old, dazzle overhead. Bronze sconces provide additional light and velvety fabrics outline the windows.
“I’ve been like a bird all my life,” James said. “I didn’t have kids, so every time I went out, I brought a string back to my nest.”
James loves antiques and classicism, but practicality shares equal attention. Practicality drove the acquisition of this particular home when the couple began looking for a replacement for the French Quarter building they’ve called home for 30 years.
Founding owners of Faulkner House Books on Pirates Alley and founders of the Pirates Alley Faulkner Society and its Word and Music Festival, James and DeSalvo decided to sell the business and move on when a serious illness in the spine gave life to a four-story building. difficult for DeSalvo. He needed an elevator to reach their residence above the bookstore, and there was no practical way to install one, James said.
When looking for a house, they looked for space to install an elevator. This one provided that. James didn’t like the Dutch Revival element of the front facade, but she liked the avenue of tea olive trees and the extra tall wrought iron fence in the front. DeSalvo selected this home from six properties offered by James.
The house must have given off a literary vibe for DeSalvo, much like the building in the French Quarter, because William Faulkner himself lived and wrote there. During the renovation, James learned that the family of Tom Lowenburg, co-owners of Octavia Books, another local independent bookstore, had lived there for 40 years.
“It was kind of a coincidence,” she said, “that two booksellers lived in the same house.”
The renovation included rewiring, plumping updates, interior and exterior painting, the addition of two upstairs bathrooms, and Victorian embellishments such as corbels, ornate door frames and diamond pane windows. The extensive installation of classic marble throughout the bathrooms and kitchen has driven much of the construction schedule due to high demand for the installer. “I didn’t want to lose my place in the home plate line,” she said.
Period-appropriate coats replaced replicas in big-box stores. A decorative artist created the Diana transoms, stenciled the library ceiling, and applied a stingray pattern to the library walls. He also copied an expensive Venetian painting on a screen to hide the library television. James herself designed bespoke furniture, bookcases, pocket doors and a fountain wall for the chubby-cheeked putti.
She chose Benjamin Moore’s Winds Breath to paint the exterior. French blue shutters are Lulworth Blue No. 89, Farrow & Ball. Her favorite trim color is Chantilly lace from the Moore line, a “really good all-purpose white,” she said. The kitchen cabinets and some interior walls have variations of green, a compromise color for the couple.
James has also restored the first floor to its original design where each room has its own function. The walls separating the foyer from the central hall from the living room and the dining room from the kitchen had been removed at some point during the house’s 110-year life. She replaced the wall space.
Now the foyer is once again clearly a landing space that directs those entering through the front door in one of three directions: left to the public living, dining, and food preparation areas; head up a flight of stairs on the right to the bedrooms on the second floor, or straight up a hallway that separates the dining room and kitchen from a library and full bathroom on the right side of the house.
“This whole trend of opening everything up is a stupid trend,” James said. “Anyone can see the mess in the kitchen, and heating and cooling are expensive.”
Upstairs, six bedrooms have become three: one primary and two for guests. Another room has become a dressing room, which could be used as an additional bedroom if necessary. One of the bedrooms has become a master bathroom, which includes a cabana-style shower. She added a rear exit and a utility closet. “Every house I’ve had there’s been the question of where to mop,” James said.
She lived with her husband in the house until DeSalvo died in December 2020, seven months after moving in.
Since his death, James has continued to improve the property. She has turned an old garage into a guest house for rent and spends hours a day tending the extensive gardens around the pool and driveway. “It’s like farming there,” she says.