A whimsical French Quarter patio is full of creative features; see it on the Patio Planters tour May 28 | Entertainment/Life
Ralph Mason and Kris Butera left Washington DC five years ago to devote themselves full-time to a Creole cottage in the Faubourg Marigny with a history so rich that it sports a historic bronze plaque. The cottage’s yellow and brick facade is so well known that buggy drivers stop at its door.
Because of its storied past, 200-year-old tiled roof and unique five-sided stucco frame, Mason and Butera consider themselves “stewards of history,” Mason said. “We don’t feel like owners,” Butera added. “It feels like we’re just passing through.”
Few get to see the cottage’s restored interior, with its original half-timbered ceilings and barge board detailing, but the masons will show off their treasured yard on May 28, as part of the tour of the secret gardens of patio planters in the Vieux Carré.
Beloved by several owners over its two centuries of life, including Superdome architect Arthur Q. Davis, there was not much to add to the house itself, so the masons turned their creativity to trapezium-shaped courtyard where the kitchen, stables and toilets once stood.
The swimming pool existed when they bought the house as a second home in 1995, but over the years they have added a pond, waterfall, walking paths and garden rooms dotted with original sculptures and replicas of ancient gods and Greek goddesses.
A variety of greens and flowers fill the three-lot space, including russet lilies, birds of paradise, sweet olives, bromeliads, caladiums, and citrus.
As a reminder of Louisiana’s heritage in space, a giant cypress tree stands in the center, casting a coppery green hue on a statue of the Three Muses of Inspiration, frolicking alongside Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war . Influenced by many ancient cultures, from Greek to Native American, the garden’s eclecticism defies stuffy design rules and feels like one of the muses could wink at any moment.
Its multicultural personality exudes the same broad-minded flexibility that the French colonial period gave to present-day New Orleans. Where else could statues of Buddha cohabit peacefully with a nude of Pocahontas?
Two large bronze works in the style of famed Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero are highlights of the garden and examples of the exaggerated forms for which it is famous. A feminine hourglass figure that defies natural proportions sits alongside a six-pack super male that is one of Mason’s favorite pieces.
He put his arm around the hunk, puffed out his chest and posed, “The sculptor said he needed a model,” he joked.
Another joke centers on a set of square stones recovered during the excavation of the pond. Lined up in mulch like a bed of stone, Mason sometimes sticks a sign in the ground nearby that reads: “Jean Lafitte’s chaise longue”.
On a tour long ago, a visitor pointed out the arrangement to a friend as if he believed the joke. “Somewhere in Paducah,” Mason said rapturously, “that story is being told.”
Another fantasy resides near the winding goldfish pond. A fairy garden of brightly colored glass mushrooms is so small against a backdrop of classic statuary that it’s easy to miss. The shy fairies hiding under the mushrooms are another indicator of Mason and Butera’s enthusiasm for all garden styles.
“You can’t do that in DC,” Mason said of The Fairy Garden. “That’s why I love New Orleans so much.”
Originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, Mason, an aspiring historian who turned to computer engineering and then sales, met Chicago native Kris Butera at NASA’s Rocket Test Center in the Mississippi near Slidell.
the “beauty” of the family, and she’s the “brains” because she’s a “true rocket scientist”.
Butera’s career took them to the Washington, DC area, where she became a director of Science Applications International Corp, which provides science and technology consulting services.
They always loved New Orleans and continued to invest in the city, owning part-time residences. When their current home came on the market, they ripped it off. Mason, now an amateur historian, was particularly thrilled when he discovered that his new home might have a secret and colorful past.
He got the idea for Jean Lafitte’s chaise longue from local lore that Lafitte was a playmate of Bernard de Marigny, the wealthy aristocrat who began developing Faubourg Marigny as a suburb of the Vieux Carré in 1805 Known as the “Gambling House,” Mason said a historian claims craps, the modern dice game, was invented in his own Creole home.
The story goes that Bernard de Marigny’s mistress lived in the house. He and his party friends, including Lafitte and Governor William C. C. Claiborne, gathered there to play a European game called hazard which they modified to their liking. They rolled the dice while dining on fried frog legs dipped in mustard. The French name for frog legs, Crapaud, aligned with the new version of chance and craps was born.
Mason learned about this story from a history book he owns – now misplaced in a large collection – but he admits some historians dispute its veracity. While Bernard de Marigny is credited with inventing craps, there appears to be no historical records linking him to this specific house.
Very old jars of French mustard, tiny antler dice and half bottles of champagne were found during the excavation of the pond, so who knows?
It’s a more entertaining story than the one told by the official plaque affixed to the house. The administration calls Mason and Butera’s home “Dolliole Cottage”, giving it a completion date of 1820, making it one of the oldest Creole cottages in the area.
According to the Parish Landmarks Commission, Dolliole was a free man of color and a veteran of the Battle of New Orleans. Architect and builder, the plaque states that he “kept the house until 1858”, a decade before the death of Bernard de Marigny at 82.
The historical link between the cottage and Marigny may not be certain, but the famous bon vivant of yesteryear would now feel at home in the courtyard of Mason and Butera. Part museum, part aquatic paradise, part party haunt, they have created the kind of voluptuous environment that Marigny would have enjoyed.
When the couple bought the house, a much larger carport took up one side of the yard, but Mason and Butera demolished part of it to create Arthur’s Bar, dedicated in 2014 to five Arthurs, starting with the renovator of home in 1980, the late Arthur Q. Davis. Arthur is also the given name of Ralph Mason, which connects him to his adoptive Native American grandfather Arthur James Mason (1890). His father is Arthur Ralph Mason Sr. and his son, Arthur Ralph Mason III.
With its long bar, multiple seats, and three hollies shrouded in yellow, orange, and blue lights, Arthur’s Bar is so authentic that passers-by during construction asked, “When are you opening?”
It’s the kind of place the historic Bernard de Marigny might have visited, so maybe one of the psychics who’s visited the house and reported “active” spirits will come across his apparition one day and ask if the he Gambling House story is true.
Mason describes Bernard de Marigny as an “arrogant little boy”, so he could confess one way or another.
SECRET GARDENS OF THE OLD SQUARE
WHAT: The Patio Planters of the Vieux Carré offers a glimpse of six private courtyards and French Quarter gardens on the self-guided tour.
WHEN: Noon to 4 p.m., May 28. Good weather, bad weather.
TICKETS: Advance tickets are encouraged on patioplanters.net. $30; daily pickup at 701 Chartres Street, under the Cabildo alcove on Jackson Square from 11:15 a.m. to 3 p.m. Daily tickets will also be offered there for $35 depending on availability. Children under 12 are free.
NOTE: Due to narrow entrances, it may be difficult to maneuver strollers or wheelchairs.