Magazine article The New Yorker

222; PITCHING IN; PITCHING IN Series: 2/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

222; PITCHING IN; PITCHING IN Series: 2/5

Article excerpt

It took hundred-and-twenty-five-mile-an-hour winds and a thirty-four-foot storm surge eight hours, last year, to destroy Dot Phillips's house. But putting it back together again is taking computer models, thousand-mile plane trips, and a team of New York City interior-design students. Phillips, a grandmother of two, had lived at 222 North Beach Boulevard in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, for fifty-one years. Her late husband, Bud, bought the place from his great-aunt, Tante Kit. "Bud's Uncle Lucien lived next door," Phillips was saying the other day. "He said to Bud, 'Go to the bank and borrow the money and buy the house. I don't want anybody but family as neighbors!' "

The Phillips House, which is now being restored by the World Monuments Fund, with help from a class at Manhattan's School of Visual Arts, is a raised, center-hall structure with a gallery porch, heart-of-pine floors, and its original plaster walls, made from burned seashells mixed with horsehair and sand. Built around 1840, it is an epitome of the American Cottage, a signature architectural style of the Gulf Coast. Having survived a lifetime of storms without incident, Phillips decided to ride out Katrina at home. "Camille didn't blow this house down," she told anyone who worried. Katrina, however, succeeded in ripping off the porch, much of a second-story addition, and part of the roof. Phillips saw whitecaps in her driveway, "just as if it was in the Gulf," and the house's twenty-two cypress doors, which had slammed open and shut all night long during Camille, were blown off their hinges.

Two months after the hurricane, Phillips's daughter Noel Fell and her husband were sorting through debris (it included a bunch of giant sequinned frog heads, from Mardi Gras, which the winds had strewn across the yard) when they looked down the beach and saw three strangers coming toward No. 222. One of them was Marty Hylton, from the W.M.F. "Noel was all skeptical, like we were from FEMA or something," Hylton said. But when Hylton said he thought that the house could be saved the Fells--who had been told twice that very day that their only option was to bulldoze--came around. "They laughed and talked and cried right there on the beach, filthy dirty," Phillips said later.

Back in New York, Hylton, who teaches at S.V.A., enlisted eight students in his third-year interior-design studio to travel to New Orleans and Bay St. Louis. On site, the class made note not only of the house's historic baseboards and millwork but also of what might be called its emotional blueprint: the spot on the porch where the family liked to sit and play gin rummy; the spool bed that Noel had slept in as a girl; the Mississippi Room, where everybody gathered; the two-seater "tete-a-tete," or "chaperone" chair, inherited from Bud's mother, whose S-curve design was supposed to discourage young couples from getting frisky. …

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