Home on the Huey

Well, it’s April and usually Gretna’s glance is on the upcoming GHS Spring Tour of Homes, which unfortunately is not happening again this year due to the pandemic. Gretna Historical Society had no choice but to cancel. I mean, really, would you want to own a host house and have hundreds of people going through your house in this uncertain time?

The next best thing to do is to write a series about some of Gretna’s most interesting historic homes. The best place to start, of course, is with Gretna’s most recognized mansion on Huey P. Long Avenue. It is the home of Ronnie Constant Jr. and Mayor Belinda Constant, a contributing element in Gretna’s National Historic District.

Back in May 2011 the history of the house, written by yours truly, was the cover story for “Inside Out,” the weekly Times Picayune real estate magazine. The following interviews are from that article.

“Born” in 1924, the white stucco house with its red tile roof was built with the Mediterranean or mission-­style flair and represents other various influences. Its numerous doors and palladium windows look out over approximately three-quarters of an acre in the middle of historic downtown Gretna.

“The vision of a prominent businessman known only to us as Mr. Snyder, the house was built because Mr. Snyder thought that he was building this beautiful house as a wedding gift for his daughter, Clementine. She married Mr. Samuel, a relative of Gretna native, the late Judge Julian Samuel of the 24th Judicial District Court and the 4th & 5th Circuit Courts of Appeal,” Belinda Constant said.

“It passed through the hands of several owners until, as fate would have it, this wonderful gift ultimately went to Ronnie and I, who purchased the house in May of 2000 from the Bernardi Estate,” she said. 

“I told Belinda before the purchase that we would not move into the house until all of the restorations were finished.  It took three years of every bit of my spare time to finally be able to move in.  Thankfully friends helped or it would have taken a lot longer,” Ronnie Constant said of his restoration project.      

At the time of its purchase the house had been vacant for about a year. The building, though structurally sound, with very little termite damage to the foundation, did have considerable damage to the dining room floor. The entire house cried out for a loving restoration.

The restoration project included complete wiring, re-plumbing, and repairing of plaster walls. All woodwork was stripped and refinished, including 53 doors and numerous windows.  All 60 windows were re-glazed.  Central air and heat was also installed.

“The windows needed more than re-glazing. I removed each window from its frame and replaced the sashes so all of the windows could go up and down properly,” Ronnie Constant said. 

The bathrooms, though totally renovated, still maintain their original tile on the walls and on the floors.

While the kitchen also still has its original tile floors, it too, had to be completely renovated. Some of the added features today are a reproduction of a 2-bladed ceiling fan that hangs from the faux finished old-style tin ceiling.

“Behind the European style cook-top is an original art mosaic of antique flowers and grapes encircled by custom-made mahogany cabinets. The breakfast nook still has its original built-in seating and hutch which has been redone to display our depression era glass collection,” Belinda Constant said. 

The veranda, as well as the porches and balconies that surround the residence, were re-decked with an upgrade to the wrought iron banisters and railings.

The floors on both staircases were restored to their original hardwood beauty. The fireplace and chimney in the parlor were updated and re-pointed, and a beautiful artistically created plaster mantle now graces the area.              

Columns were installed on the entrance way to the small sitting room which has become the home of Belinda Constant’s doll collection.

The basement, never previously utilized as living space, was renovated into a wonderful family recreation area. The bricks that adorn the wainscoted walls were originally used for the chimneys and flues. The upper walls were finished with natural cypress boards that were trees cut from a nearby piece of property that the Constants once owned. 

Jackie Cambre, Belinda Constant’s mother who died in 2015 lived a few blocks down the street. When interviewed, she said, “From the time Belinda was a little girl, every time we passed the Bernardi house, she would say that she wanted to live there someday.”     

While this project was truly quite an undertaking, the Constants believe that their acquisition of the home was nothing short of destiny.