Bayou Home | Stately Restoration
article by VANELIS RIVERA
photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK
interior design KIKI WARDLAW
In December 2020, the home went through its latest purchase and renovation with Trott Hunt, great-grandson of TL James, and his wife Karen Hunt.
William Faulkner said it best, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Here, there is consideration of things remaining intact yet transforming over time. Such is the story of a structure that currently oversees North Vienna Street in Ruston, Louisiana. Part remnant, part silent force, this turn-of-the-century home is characterized by its crisp white exterior and massive columns. Named after a former owner and one of Ruston’s greatest benefactors, the TL James House has recently undergone a few renovations. All areas of the monumental home are ready to be shared and enjoyed by the Northeast Louisiana community.
The house owes its conception to Colonel Thomas Cunningham Standifer, who served in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War and had a general merchandise store in what is now Antique Alley, located in the Cotton Port Historic District of Downtown West Monroe.
On January 3, 1884, Standifer purchased the entire block from Robert E. Russ for $450 cash. It was built with square nails, and its trim was made with white pine from Michigan. Originally, the house was framed by a pitch pine picket fence. The home remained in the Standifer family until the death of his daughter in 1913. It was then purchased by Mr. G. A. Adams who sold it, and the entire block, to Mr. Thomas Lewis James in 1921. By 1926, James had significantly renovated the then 42-year-old home, adding the present front porch, including the grand columns. Since then, it has stayed in the family after James and his wife passed, serving as a place of family gatherings for the next twenty years. In 1984 it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places and, in 1990, George William “Billy” James, Jr. purchased the home. He and his wife dispersed family heirlooms and furnished the space with Victorian period pieces, which still grace many of its rooms. In December 2020, the home went through its latest purchase and renovation with Trott Hunt, great-grandson of TL James, and his wife Karen Hunt.
“Restoring and decorating the ‘Big House’ was really a pleasure. I wanted to keep everything simple, yet stately and elegant,” says Karen, who particularly enjoyed curating the library with family history. Trott adds, “It has been an interesting journey as the house was renovated, finding clues to its past.” He considers one of the most unique architectural features of the home to be the internal gutter system around the roof line of the house. “That water was originally designed to flow back from the roof’s edge in an internal gutter system that then came down along the wall of the house.” Additionally, the couple found the “bones” of the house to be very solid structurally speaking with only minor patchwork needed here and there. The most recent updates include new bathrooms, new wiring and lighting, a sound system, and a new fireplace. “We have tried hard to retain the historical feel of the house while bringing her into the 20th century,” he says. Currently, the renovated space is under the management of Melissa Bullock Watson, great-granddaughter of TL James, who is eager to welcome the community into a space that holds such fond memories for her.
The home’s history may surpass the TL James ownership, but its halls arguably witnessed more life under his family’s residence. The sixth child of Benjamin and Elizabeth James, Thomas was born at Shawnee, Perry County, Ohio on March 12, 1879. After attending business school in Birmingham, Alabama he began working for the Summit Lumber Company in Randolph, Louisiana, moving on to manager of a sawmill at Junction City. By his 21st birthday, he owned a small portable sawmill in Blackman, Louisiana, which is where he met his future wife, Maggie Hodges. When the mill at Blackman “cut out” Thomas moved his wife and six children to Dubach. As his children grew older, Thomas began considering their future, consequently moving his family to the booming college town of Ruston. There, his interest in oil and gas increased, which led him to organize TL James & Company, Inc., a company that is still engaged in highway and heavy construction, oil and gas production, and forestry.
Not only was James a successful businessman, he was known as an outstanding civic leader and churchman. An article printed in The Ruston Leader expounded on such traits describing him as, “a man of exceptional character, endowed with a strong will, a keen mind and a profound sense of obligation to his church, his community and his company.” A great emphasis is placed on Thomas’ character, further illustrating him as having a stoic nature: “Mr. James treats everyone, regardless of creed or station in life, with a marked degree of kindly politeness.” So clearly marked was his lifestyle that the article goes as far as to highlight the minor details that spoke volumes at the time. One, in particular, informs that Thomas did not smoke, “neither nickel stogie nor dollar havana.” In 1930, he was awarded the American Legion Lincoln Parish Citizen trophy, just one more testament to his legendary reputation.
Story and structure are always at play at the TL James House, especially after its latest transformation by the Hunts, whose efforts did not go unnoticed, particularly by the Ruston Garden Club which awarded the house Garden of the Month for December 2022 to January 2023. The carefully curated landscape that surrounds the house is just the beginning. Not only is it one of the only homes in the area featuring a colossal pedimented portico, but its downstairs ceilings are approximately 13 feet high. The main floor of the “Big House” is styled for entertainment. It features a large dining room marked by two vintage, brass crystal chandeliers, a cherry-wood dining table and chairs, an antique gilt mirror, and an alcove corner cabinet displaying porcelain dishware. Two parlors showcase full surround fireplace mantles, each displaying a painted portrait of Maggie James and TL James, respectively. The decor, compliments of interior designer Kiki Wardlaw, is classic, elegant, and minimal—cream-colored furniture with pops of color from throw pillows and large, patterned wool rugs. The light fixtures in each room are glimmering tiers of sparkling crystals. The TL James parlor features an outstanding piece of history in the form of a Kilgen Organ. The custom instrument was commissioned by James as a gift for his wife.
Twenty-four steps lead to the upstairs rooms—three bedrooms (each with a private bath), a library, and a “morning room.” While the bedrooms are similarly styled, each is characterized by a particular color scheme and furniture accents. For instance, one of the larger bedrooms is punctuated by hues of muted greens from throw pillows and table lamps; meanwhile, a mahogany bedframe compliments a painted dresser illustrating tropical birds and flowers. The “morning room” is brightly lit and is complete with reed yellow curtains, a blue brass wheel chandelier, and flat weave, vintage chairs. Adjacent is the library, which displays a wide array of family history by way of photographs, newspaper clippings, a collection of books, and even a buffalo leather document holder with gilded, engraved initials “T.L.J.” The wet bar is located in a snug nook and stands out thanks to the ocean-blue cabinets, brass sink, pearlescent, textured wallpaper, and mid-century style lamp. “I am so glad that the Hunts have used this room to preserve the family history of TL James and the impact he had on the community,” says Watson who has always been drawn to the room.
Back downstairs, another of Watson’s favorite rooms makes a statement. The sunroom, with floor-to-ceiling paneled glass windows, is bright, and jaw-dropping. “ It welcomes you to the house and gives you a foretelling glimpse of the grandeur of the house,” she says. Just outside its doors is the carriage house. This stunning rustic venue once had room for five carriages, and currently is etched in style. Exposed brick walls elicit an intimate cozy feel alongside an old wooden ceiling, concrete floors, and three luxurious crystal chandeliers which elevate the space, providing a soft glow. French doors reveal a private outdoor area with a manicured lawn and seating.
“The house has always been a stately home. But now with the extra TLC that she has received from the Hunt family, she stands a little taller, a little prouder than she was before,” says Watson, who was glad to hear when the Hunts bought the house, as it would stay in the family and be taken care of accordingly. “Her fresh paint and new landscaping make her a proud focal point of downtown Ruston.” She remembers her grandmother reminiscing about her childhood in that house and cherishes her experiences in the rooms her grandmother occupied with glee. “It made this house a special place for me, a place that she and I got to share,” she says. As part of the house’s lineage, Watson considers it an honor to be part of the “Big House’s” renewal and a privilege to be entrusted with introducing the space to a new generation.
This once-family home, this towering witness of eras gone by, finds itself in another life cycle, one that is sure to accentuate some of life’s fondest memories. Currently, the house and carriage room are available as venue spaces for wedding receptions, rehearsal dinners, parties, or even business meetings. Celebrate moments, big or small, by stepping into the TL James House, a space that intersects the profound nature of the past with the promise of living life in the present moment.