A fresh take on formal – Hurricane gives homeowners chance to reinvent

Jenny Gray is a visionary. When she and her husband Randy, a channel consultant in the computer industry, purchased the stately Colonial-style house on Old Hammond Highway five years ago, she imagined the way the home would work, with wide case-openings between easily accessible rooms and a good flow for entertaining family and friends. That’s not the abode she faced when the moving vans pulled away. Instead, this 1960s-era house contained formal spaces, outdated fixtures, with small entries between rooms, typical of the time period in which it was built.

“We didn’t change much at first because we wanted to see how it worked for our family,” recalls Jenny, a marketing and media executive as well as a Worth New York wardrobe consultant. “But I had a plan in mind.”

The plan expanded a year later, when Hurricane Gustav blew through Baton Rouge. Four large trees fell on all corners of the house, making the need for extensive renovation immediate. The couple and their two children, Jack and Melinda, moved out the night of the storm.

For Jenny, the timing was perfect. “We could do what we wanted to do … even more than I planned. We took the house down to the studs, opened up rooms and added a master suite.”

Today, the home is only 500 square feet larger than its former footprint, but it lives much grander. Jenny enlisted the help of her brother, Billy Gauthier, an architect, as well as her mother, Nita Gauthier, an interior designer. Together, the trio designed a fresh home with heart-pine flooring reclaimed from a farmhouse in south Louisiana, state-of-the-art lighting and ample room openings, even on load-bearing walls. The major renovation allowed the home to reach its full potential, ideal for the bustling Gray family.

“We entertain very casually,” says Jenny. “Dinners are usually buffet style with trays. People are everywhere. We also love to host crawfish boils on the back patio. Formal rooms don’t work for us.”

In the restructuring, Jenny repurposed rooms so that every part of the home would be used. What once served as a formal study at the front of the house became the dining room, complete with a nook cut out of its original bookshelves to fit Jenny’s antique French walnut buffet. A gentleman’s study, accessed only by a small door to the kitchen, was opened up to the breakfast area and converted to a family room. Now children, friends, and the Grays’ cat and two dogs are welcomed in all areas of the home. Nothing is too precious here.

“Our whole lifestyle is so casual and comfortable, and our home reflects that,” says Jenny. “We don’t freak out if something is spilled.”

Which is why Jenny never succumbed to the all-neutral décor trend of recent years. Her house is chocked full of French and English antiques, Oriental rugs, blue and white china, and richly upholstered furniture. Hues of red, gold and blue weave their way through the home’s furnishings and tie all the rooms together. She may infuse her wardrobe with stylish trends, but Jenny’s home furnishings are classic staples that stand the test of time.

“I’ve stuck with the same style since we got married 20 years ago,” says Jenny, sitting on a sofa she purchased during her college years, since reupholstered. “Everything you see is something we’ve accumulated along the way. Every piece of furniture has a story behind it. That’s what makes a house a home.”

Indeed, Jenny credits her mother with arming her with a sense of style and a love of home from an early age. She recalls her childhood house, filled with antiques and art, when she makes purchases for her own family. Nita Gauthier accompanied her to antique auctions for years—“It was like a treasure hunt”—and still purchases pieces for the Grays’ home when she knows that they will fit the style and the space. The two share the same love of traditional living spaces with just the right injection of flair.

This easy relationship was essential in the nine months it took to complete the home. While living in a rental house with her husband and kids, Jenny would meet her mother and brother at the family home daily to make decisions on everything from space planning to light fixtures. Unlike others who barely survive the renovation process, Jenny thrived.

“Working with my mother and brother on the project was a lot of fun. We truly enjoyed picking out fixtures and watching it all come together,” says Jenny. “I’ve always lived in an older home—I’ve always renovated a bit. You can’t replace the charm of an older home in new construction. That’s why this house is so great. It’s still charming, but it works well for the way we live today.”