There’s no place like home, and for several Cenla residents, the old saying holds especially true. Eschewing the traditional “cookie-cutter” home, they have each seen great potential living spaces in some unique and unexpected places. These intrepid homeowners find that adapting non-residential structures like churches, barns, warehouses, and even a train caboose can be both challenging and incredibly rewarding. Making a non-residential structure workable as a home can mean hefty renovation expenses and long hours of hard work. But in the end, they all say it is well worth it!
Imagination took flight when Jim and Frances Hurst realized the creative potential of the 14,000-square foot warehouse for sale on Washington Street in Alexandria. The couple bought the warehouse in 2006, which began as McCann’s Hardware in the late 1930s. For more than two years, they worked on renovating the downtown Alexandria warehouse, and transformed it into a beautiful home and entertainment space. “We feel very lucky to have found this place. It’s like we are on vacation all the time,” Jim says with a laugh, adding that their home has been described as an “industrial cottage”.
The upstairs of the hardware store was utilized as a warehouse, and was totally open. The Hursts have converted it into a 5,700-square-foot living space, with an open loft floor plan, except for adding a few walls for two bedrooms, two baths, an office, laundry and storage room. Their home can be assessed by a New Orleans style interior courtyard or by the fully-operational freight elevator. The home retains the original pine wood floors of the warehouse and solid 12-inch thick brick walls, all supported by massive iron beams. “It had no electric or plumbing, so we wired everything from scratch. We put in air-conditioning and all new plumbing. We had to repair leaks and fix the floor in spots. But I like to fix things,” Jim says.
Throughout the home are splashes of the owners’ artistic flair. From the profusion of bright colors, such as the lime-green painted kitchen to the metal sculpture crafted by Jim, the use of natural light adds to the uniqueness of the space. The 12-foot ceilings, glossy reclaimed wood floors and shiny corrugated tin ceilings result in an airy, open, modern space in the repurposed warehouse. The kitchen features stained concrete counter tops and an 800-pound concrete kitchen sink. Cabinet pulls are cast iron from sand molds designed by the Hursts and poured from old sewer pipes. The lighting was custom designed from glass salvaged from old fluorescent fixtures that remained in the building. Bathroom vanities were built from antiques and the kitchen island was an old drafting table, now covered with a stainless steel top.
“It’s home to us. We love it. When we were renovating and putting it altogether, we wanted to make sure it was not sterile. We wanted lots of color and character,” Frances adds. Their home, with its custom cypress doors, handmade moldings and trim and 8 feet tall windows in the master bedroom overlooking the interior courtyard, has character in abundance. Downstairs, the couple has a massive metal and wood workshop, as well as a “glitter station” for Frances, where she can work on her crafts.
A dilapidated, weathered hay barn may not seem a likely place to house a welcome guest, but that is the vision Jeff and Veronique DeKeyzer had in mind when they acquired land that had an old barn situated on it. “The old barn was just about to fall in. But now it is a guesthouse. It’s like our lodge where we entertain,” DeKeyzer says about the hay barn built originally around 1920. The barn-converted-to-home sits on Hot Wells Road in Boyce. The DeKeyzers started renovation on the barn in 2011. “It had a dirt floor and a hay loft. It has the original rafters and the original roof, but the walls had to be re-studded and we insulated the barn,” DeKeyzer says.
The 1,400-square foot one-bedroom converted guest house has 20-foot high ceilings with an open loft. The barn home has a floor-to-ceiling fireplace with full kitchen and bathroom. DeKeyzer, who farms for a living, says he and two farm hands completed about 80 percent of the renovation work themselves. His wife designed the kitchen and bathroom, with no blueprints or plans. The place, with its weathered cypress wood, has a rustic charm, and even the new chandeliers look like they are 100 years old.
Barns similar to his are falling down everywhere, DeKeyzer says, adding he is thankful they were able to renovate and repurpose the barn. In total, he spent about $100,000 on the renovation. “The place is very unique. Every morning, I drink coffee here and think it was all worth preserving. Man caves are a real trendy thing now, and this is mine. It’s our slice of heaven,” he notes.
Not many folks have a camp house as unique as Karlin Bonnegent and his family. The place has become one of his favorite getaway spots. His camp house is a converted train caboose situated on a bluff overlooking Toledo Bend. “The day mom and dad (Kathie and Ray Bonnegent) showed me the caboose, I fell in love with it, just like they already had,” Bonnegent recalls.
The caboose, a Kansas City Southern brand built in the early 1930’s, was acquired from a family who had placed it on the bluff. “The caboose had been abandoned and neglected for years. It was pretty run down. We spent about eight months renovating it. We were able to keep the original beaded board roof. It didn’t have any leaks, but the sides were pretty dilapidated. We had to add metal to the sides and insulation as well,” Bonnegent says.
The restoration of the train caboose became a labor of love for Karlin, working right alongside his parents. They cleared land and created an access road. Bonnegent and his parents re-plumbed and re-wired the entire 9 foot by 33 foot KCS caboose. “We added a shower and put in wood floors, and added a full kitchen with a stainless steel sink,” he explains. The caboose, which the family named Eagle’s Rest, has sleeping quarters which consists of a queen-size sleeper sofa and a set of bunk beds. They also added a sliding door on the lake side, with access to a 50-foot deck, which includes a swing, chiminea and BBQ pit.
“The caboose was the last project with my father, which makes it so special. He passed away after its completion. I hope to someday have the caboose listed on an historical registry, in honor of Dad and my mom,” Bonnegent says. Very few of the Kansas City Southern railroad cabooses are left in existence today. When sitting on the caboose’s deck, Bonnegent says you can see out on the water for miles. “Bald-headed eagles fly by quite often and you see a lot of white pelicans. There is a nostalgic feeling about the place. There is an aura about this caboose. It just draws us to it.”
Nancy Roberts and her daughter, Brooke, embraced a “less is more” attitude when they moved into their new “tiny home” in Alexandria before Christmas. Roberts says she first became interested in tiny homes about 10 years ago. “I became fascinated with tiny homes. I started living a minimalist lifestyle and started getting rid of things I didn’t use or didn’t need. I went through all my clothes and my furniture. I got rid of useless knick-knacks and things I could live without. I had like five skillets, and only needed one. I had a ton of coffee mugs, and really only use two,” Roberts recalls.
She sold her 1,400-square foot house, and recently had a 397-square-foot house built near a lake. The tiny house has beaded boards for the ceiling, a loft bedroom and Ponderosa pine wood floors. An electronic fireplace heats the entire house. Roberts says she spent roughly $50,000 in the tiny house’s construction. The kitchenette is about 6 foot by 5 foot, while the bathroom is 12 foot by 5 foot. “I love living in my tiny house. It’s great not to have a house note. This is my last home. I would never go back to living in a larger home. I have down-sized my life by getting rid of things that were materialistic. People use to ask me, ‘Where is your furniture?’ But we have what we need,” Roberts says, adding they do plan to add a TV to their tiny abode.
Owning a townhouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Front Street in Natchitoches, the oldest city in the state, warms the heart of Rick Nowlin. “It is a real joy to preserve something of how things were nearly 200 years ago,” Nowlin says about the Ducournau Townhouse, which was built about 1835. The townhouse, roughly 3,500-square-feet, is currently a bed and breakfast establishment with four bedrooms and three bathrooms. In 1998, Nowlin acquired the property and made vast improvements to the townhome and completed extensive interior decorating. The townhome occupies the second and third floors above the Hana Sushi Bar & Grill at 752 Front St. At one time, Nowlin owned and operated his own restaurant at the first-floor location. From the foyer of the townhome, a wide-open dining room area with a 25-foot cathedral ceiling can be viewed. A winding stairway leads to third-floor bedrooms.
“It is a structurally sound building. It’s a special and unique home,” Nowlin adds. Time-softened red brick walls make up several of the interior walls and the floors are the original wood. On the north wall in the living room, are two original fireplaces. Four sets of French doors in the living room open onto a long gallery adorned with iron lace. “It is not hard to imagine a bygone lifestyle,” Nowlin says, “when gazing out over the Cane River and Front Street from the gallery.” The townhome is filled with antiques from the mid-1850s. A striking combination of hand-hewn beams and modern features in the dressing and bathing areas in the master bedroom add to its charm. A brick courtyard connects to the townhouse via a brick carriageway, and a building that was originally part of a carriage house stand to the rear of the courtyard.
“I’ve always loved older homes. We have a lot to learn from the past,” Nowlin says, adding he has a great appreciation for the craftsmanship of the architects from yesteryear.
Instead of building a new home from the ground up, Debra Duck Lyles has converted a former church to her home. Lyles, a registered nurse, was working in Texas last year and had no intention of moving back home to Forest Hill until she retired. But then she was notified Good Hope Primitive Baptist Church, built in the early ‘60s, was closing its doors and that the church and its property was for sale. “The church property adjoins my property and my son’s, so I had no choice but to buy it. And I’m thrilled to be back home,” Lyles says, adding she has a lot of memories about the former church.
Some of her relatives were members of the church. She recalls attending some services and going to several dinners-on-the-grounds through the years. The church’s pastor died a few years ago, and the membership of the church had dwindled ever since, so it was decided to sell the property. After carefully examining the church, Lyles saw the potential of the building to become a home. “After months of planning and renovations, I am finally complete with the church transformation. It has been quite adventurous, mostly fun times. We had some bad days and some good days,” Lyles says with joy in her voice after six months of renovation projects.
Her church-turned-home occupies about 3,000 square feet, with about 600 square feet designed as an apartment for her mother. “The church had about 500 square feet for the pastor’s bedroom. He lived in Baton Rouge and would travel to the church once a month. So that is part of the space where my mom lives,” notes Lyles. In addition to the former pastor’s bedroom space, the church featured a women’s and men’s bathroom, complete with two showers each, utilized to service the 20 or so camping spaces on the grounds, which members would utilize during associational meetings. The bathrooms were converted as part of her mother’s living space.
The church had six-inch linoleum tiles which Lyles replaced with wood floors. “I kept the original ceiling, but painted it white, and painted the beams white,” Lyles says. The church walls were cinder block. A 10-foot hall joined the two church buildings, but it had an 8-foot ceiling which Lyles had taken out. “When we took out the 12 by 12 cardboard ceiling tiles, there was this beautiful wood and rafters, which I wanted exposed,” Lyles adds.
The renovated church now boasts three bedrooms and two baths in the main house, a fireplace, stucco and sheet rock and a terra cotta roof. The new kitchen has a 1931 left drain sink in place, and the master bath is complete with a 1911 double-ended refurbished 75-inch pedestal cast iron tub. “It’s home and we are loving it,” Lyles says.
Each of our featured renovators are contributing to preserving history by repurposing a building and giving it new life or by creating their own architectural destiny with something new. Either way, they are living in unique style in Cenla.