Remembering the Dean

Hays Town, the “dean” of Louisiana architecture, produced buildings that have been revered for generations. On the banks of Cane River Lake in Natchitoches is one of his gems, a house that he designed in 1981 for Drs. Reginald and Margaret Wheat.
On first glance, the house might appear to be one of Natchitoches’ many historical homes. Founded in 1714, the city was the first white settlement in the Louisiana Purchase territory. Many homes from its early period still exist. And then there is the Wheat-Carter house – built in a style the architect said honored the 1790-to-1830 period – which is now occupied by Dr. Margaret Wheat-Carter and her husband, Billy Weston Carter, whom she married after the death of her first husband.
“I have always considered this house a treasure,” says Wheat-Carter, an ophthalmologist. “Having a house designed by Mr. Town was quite an experience, and I still cherish every moment we had with him.”
When Town first sat down with the Wheats more than 20 years ago, he simply asked, “How many rooms do you want?”
“He wasn’t interested in me identifying the rooms, just the number,” she recalls. “The only real choice he gave us was whether we wanted the kitchen in the front or the back of the house. We decided on the front.”
The architect drove around while Wheat-Carter pointed out the homes she liked. “I always admired Cherokee Plantation [1830] and the Tauzin-Wells home [1776],” she recalls. “Mr. Town was pleased. He liked both houses.” In time, the architect presented a pastel rendering of the house he envisioned for the couple and their four children. “It was perfect. We were amazed how much he had captured everything we wanted, and we were excited about how the exterior paid homage to both historic houses without being a copy of either.”
Town was involved with every step of the design process. He rescued wide pine boards from an old New Orleans building, and he hand-picked light fixtures from an antique shop in New Orleans. Town even hand-picked the cypress doors and glass doorknobs for the house.
“Judge Richard Ware [of Natchitoches] had purchased all of the bricks from the Atlanta theater where the premiere of ‘Gone With The Wind’ had been held,” Wheat-Carter says. “He had planned to use them when he built a new house. When we heard the bricks may be for sale, we immediately purchased all of them.” Town thought the bricks would be perfect for the front porch, back patio and kitchen floor.
The only problem was that the bricks had to be hauled several miles to the Wheats’ construction site. “The four children” – then mostly teenagers – “spent countless house hauling the bricks in our van. It really kept them busy all summer.”
Town selected cypress for the kitchen cabinets and had it milled and assembled in Baton Rouge. He had Bevolo Gas and Electric Lights of New Orleans make the exterior light fixtures. “It was wonderful to watch Mr. Town go about choosing everything,” Wheat-Carter recalls. “He couldn’t have been more meticulous if it had been his own home.”
Don Hynes was the contractor for the house. “He was a perfectionist and very proud to be building a Town house,” she says. “I was amazed to watch him throw out anything that he didn’t feel was good enough quality to go in the house.”
One day Town arrived and announced that they must paint the cypress mantel he had designed black. “I just gasped,” Wheat-Carter says, smiling. “I wasn’t going to challenge him on anything, and we ended up with a black mantel that I have learned to like over the years.”
After 23 years, the house has taken on a patina. The picket fence that the architect had built is now more weathered and adds to the street appeal, but the homeyness and comfort of the place has never changed. “I simply marvel at the good fortune of owning an A. Hays Town treasure,” Wheat-Carter says. “He was the best.” •