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'Old House' in new New Orleans

The PBS show looks at recent building projects and renovations of classic houses in the recovering city.

December 29, 2007|Stacey Plaisance | Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS -- In a city chock full of 150-year-old houses with wooden porches and scrolling wrought iron, New Orleans would seem perfect fodder for "This Old House."

But when producers of the television show surveyed the city's post-Hurricane Katrina landscape, they found old houses were only part of the story.

They couldn't ignore the pastel-colored homes being built for displaced musicians, or the construction projects spearheaded by actor Brad Pitt. So both will be included in the show's 10-episode series scheduled to begin airing next month on PBS.

"It was worth departing from our comfort zone to tell every part of this story," said producer Deborah Hood, in New Orleans recently with a video crew at the Musicians' Village, where 68 homes are complete or under construction, and at sites where Pitt is building affordable, environmentally friendly homes.

On a previous visit, they interviewed singer-pianist Harry Connick Jr. and saxophonist Branford Marsalis, the New Orleans natives who launched the Musicians' Village.

They also included the story of a handicapped woman whose flooded home is being renovated by Rebuilding Together, one of the volunteer organizations so vital to the city's recovery.

Despite the new angles, Hood says fans of the show's traditional format won't be disappointed. "This Old House" will cover in detail the rebuilding of an 1892 Creole shotgun-style home in the Lower 9th Ward.

Audiences will follow homeowner Rashida Ferdinand, 32, a fourth-generation resident of the neighborhood, as she rebuilds the home she purchased in 2004, about a year before Katrina smashed levees and inundated her home with flood water.

A ceramic artist by trade, Ferdinand called finding the home "a blessing" because of its lot size, art studio out back and location near the Mississippi River. But it was the history of the neighborhood she cherished most.

"The 9th Ward was a place of pioneers, a place where people found land, built on the land and started communities, especially right here along the river," she said.

Though it's taken more than two years to rebuild her dream, Ferdinand expects to be in the house by February. She's "on the forefront of the rebuild" in the Lower 9th Ward, said "This Old House" host Kevin O'Connor.

Less than 10% of the neighborhood's population is back, and like many of her neighbors, Ferdinand did not have flood insurance. She had to wait for help from a federally funded state rebuilding program.

"It's hard for a lot of people to come back, and it's not for lack of will. It's for lack of resources," O'Connor said.

Because Ferdinand's home is a historic one, she qualified for a grant from the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office to save historic elements, such as the exposed brick fireplace in her living room, the home's tongue-and-groove ceilings and walls made of boards from a disassembled Mississippi River barge.

To chronicle her renaissance, Ferdinand is writing a blog, which, like her video portrait and volunteer stories, can be accessed at the "This Old House" website,

This Old House magazine also will feature the New Orleans projects in its April issue.

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