Marly Sweeney and Greg Thompson lived in the Riverside neighborhood in the 1980s, but knew exactly where they really wanted to be and frequently took walks along Laurel Street, admiring a row of shotgun houses.
The 19th century houses were built in an area once known as Hurstville, a stone’s throw from the river and near enough to Audubon Zoo to hear the roars of lions and howler monkeys, a peculiarity that appeals to Thompson’s love of nature.
The couple experienced a stroke of luck in 1990 when a family left New Orleans right after remodeling their shotgun home, updating the kitchen and adding a second floor.
They immediately fell in love with its heart pine floors, high ceilings, cypress doors and exposed brick walls.
“The front room was spectacular,” Sweeney recalled. “They did everything perfectly in renovating the house.”
The former owners also left behind two elegant crystal chandeliers they’d bought while honeymooning in Venice.
Sweeney added her own touches, including painting the walls a grayish lavender and hanging floor-to-ceiling sky-blue silk window coverings that give the room a peaceful feeling of floating in a misty cloud. “I love blue and violet,” she said.
Paintings and objects placed throughout hold personal meaning. Most prominent is the piano she learned to play growing up in Connecticut - a George Steck baby grand, the last American-made piano, she noted. Sweeney also plays guitar and sings with Shades of Praise gospel choir, so friends often gather in the home to make music.
A cypress table seating eight and a china cabinet crowded with decorative wine and aperitif glasses are clear indications that good food and especially wine are integral aspects of their lives.
Several of their friends are local artists, including Kelly Magee, Mimi Stafford and Carey Hero King, whose works are generously displayed. Magee whimsically reupholstered and painted two dining room chairs owned by Sweeney’s parents.
Above the fireplace mantel hangs a favorite painting of French Quarter rooftops rendered by neighbor Don Scott.
Sweeny’s own handiwork is evident. She rescued a curbside buffet table post-Katrina and hand painted it to store dishes. Two small tables have been decoupaged with personal mementos, including a sentimental letter from her dad. Sweeney loves all things French from wine to literature.
In the corner, stands a black walnut grandfather clock Thompson’s father built from a kit, it’s pendulum rhythmically swinging.
The remodeled kitchen features hand-milled cypress cabinets and microwave and oven embedded into the original chimney. The couple spends most of their time in a cozy, book-lined den at the back of the house where they read and watch movies. The den leads out to a patio shaded by crepe myrtle trees and surrounded by lavender and purple flowers, blooming at different times of the year.
Sweeney and Thompson met when both were counselors working at a shelter for runaway teens. She later became a therapist and he changed careers, training to become a research entomologist and the city’s mosquito expert. When they married, the couple committed to share interests, both her inclinations toward music and art and his fascination with nature. They have thus sojourned in Paris and gone on safari in Tanzania.
“We try to combine cities with their museums and food with time in nature on every vacation,” Thompson said. “Both of us feel totally at peace when we are walking in nature, whether that is urban nature or the wonders of a national park.”
One of his prized possessions is a butterfly collection of 50 different species. Growing up in Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C., he caught the butterflies on the front lawn of his boyhood home. His father always taught him a love of nature and, in particular, bugs. Sweeney’s photographs taken in the Amazon and Africa hang in the den. But they find pleasure in beautiful places less wild.
“Today, we walked from here to Loyola to hear the Metropolitan Opera Regional auditions,” he said. “It was a spectacular day with the birds active on the lagoon and rookeries and oak trees resplendent in the sunshine. We both felt in the moment and at peace, hand in hand, feeling lucky to live where we do,” Thompson said.
“I can only say that after Katrina, we got out a map and tried to picture us living somewhere else. We couldn't do it,” he added.