The expansive home and gardens of Ariana Bigner and Dr. Jay Howell incorporate all the requisite amenities and style a modern family could desire enveloped in iconic English Tudor architecture.
ARTICLE BY Maré Brennan
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Kelly Moore Clark
When dentist, restaurateur, and entrepreneur Jay Howell was growing up in West Monroe, he always felt drawn to the Tudor style house that he would make his own in December 2006. Says the gregarious Howell, “This house has always caught my eye. It may have been the distinct Tudor style architecture that is so different that most of the styles used in this area. In addition, that style has always struck me as masculine, and I’m sure there was some emotional draw because of the ‘castle’ feel of an English house. English Tudor, to me, always speaks to the fairy tale seeker in us all.”
Because my childhood was spent playing sports or roaming the woods, streams and rivers, I was able to mainly create my own worlds, I suppose. Looking back, the ability to be bored on all that land spurred some creative spirit in me, and I guess has always been a part of who I am. It certainly has always made me romanticize that lifestyle – the proverbial open range – the king of my own kingdom. Lots of the things we had on the farm where I grew up in West Monroe were so well made – the materials stood the test of time. I think that is something that finds its way into your core.”
Built in the late 1920s by Bill Riley, Howell’s home was one of the first homes built on Forsythe Avenue. The home is characterized by its stately limewashed brick exterior and features a steeply pitched gabled roofline, steel windows, and embellished doorways, including an arched front door with its original stained glass and a stepped stone door surround.
When Howell bought the property, he began renovations right away to restore the home to its rightful glory. Fig ivy had completely covered the whole back of the home, including the doors and windows. Some of the first changes included removing overgrown landscaping, a circle drive, and a dilapidated garage. With a house and gardens this special, Howell says that he took on small projects at a time. “I think in a house like this, it’s the best way. It feels less contrived that way.”
“I believe a house and architecture have something they are always trying to communicate – an energy, a balance. I believe there is a lot of balance when things are right and a loss of it when it is not. For years, I would sit in the yard at all hours of the night and day and visualize the final concept. This,” says Howell, “is years and years of mental iterations of how the house wants to be lived in…of how I wanted to live.”
Over the years, Howell added the carport, patio, brick columned fences, pool and cabana, but the footprint of the main house has remained. Interior floors are still mainly the original oak or tile. Adds Howell, “Most of the architectural additions I rough sketched myself and had a trained person draft it.”
When designing the garden rooms surrounding their home, Howell would sketch areas “like a reading garden here… the pool here… pavers here… cabana here…and then work with talented people who can give me the plants that will work for the space. The back yard is dominated by the landscaping and the outside ‘rooms’ that were set up. I wanted each area to be a completely designed space with its on point of view and purpose.” Calling on the intimacy found in French Quarter courtyards as inspiration for the scale and emotion of the spaces, Howell employed some of the materials and graphic inspiration of Alys Beach, but stayed true to the English garden form in the plants. “I think that’s what makes the place feel historic and timeless, yet current and modern,” adds Howell.
Adds Howell, “The Tudor cased arches downstairs were used as guides for the carport and exterior fireplace brick surround, matching the exact proportions to keep the cohesion for the additions.”
Early on, Howell collaborated with interior designer Tish Miller, who has also helped Jay create his refined and soulful restaurant and gathering spaces, Cotton, The Eli, and Planters. Says Jay, “Tish is such a talented designer and an amazing human. She really taught me some things about color, visual weight, and sourcing things. I certainly have a design opinion and a direction that I want to go in, so it was great to be able to work with someone like her.
Inside the home antiques rub shoulders with modern art canvases and comfortable tufted leather seating. Howell and Bigner have curated a home alive with their personal style. Jokes Howell, “Antiques shops, flea markets, consignment stores… that’s my therapy. Introspectively I’ve always wondered why I love going to these places so much, and I think it’s because of the absolute unknown of what you are about to see, you know. In almost all other stores or retail experiences you almost can predict what you are about to come across. But in those environments, you have no idea. It’s like Christmas as a kid around every corner, and honestly, these places are more like museums of the lived-in world.”
Howell loves objects and furnishings with a purpose, that have stood the test of time and tell stories. Adds Howell, “Take for instance some of the objects I have in the study/den. If you look around on the table you may see a beautiful threaded nut and bolt. At first you’re like, ‘What the hell is that on the table for?’ But after observation, you really start to appreciate what your looking at. The bolt, with its perfect threading of a steel rod, turns it into one of the greatest inventions of man. Its head perfectly designed for retention of a tool. And the hexagonal nut, engineered to fit the threads down to the micron, is really something to look at, something to talk about. I am always drawn to those kind of things – the art and beauty of things that are utilitarian, not just for arts’ sake.”
A self-proclaimed fanatic for handmade objects, Howell points to cowboy boots he bought at a vintage shop on Sunset Boulevard when he first got out of dental school to illustrate the point further. “When I bought them, they had already been resoled at least 2-3 times. I wore those things until my feet literally started busting out the leather. Now they are the centerpiece in a beautiful glass cloche. Others may have thrown something else in that cloche, but to me there’s nothing more beautiful than those old boots. There is a story there…and it’s not my story…it’s the boots’ story.”
A collector’s philosophy begins to emerge as one experiences rooms throughout the Howell home. Both Jay and Ariana are drawn to timeless, well made items, like custom hats and 18th century antiques. Regarding antiques, Howell and Bigner are captivated by rich patinas and warm color palettes. “For the last several years I have been into furniture from the 1700s and the early 1800s as far as my personal use in my home. I love the Japanese concept ‘wabi sabi’ of finding beauty in the imperfect, worn, weathered, and seasoned.” Flaws are integral in the personality of a piece and should be highlighted rather than covered up, according to Howell. “I generally don’t like to buy a piece for a certain wall or a certain room. I generally purchase a piece, because I’m drawn to it… the lines…the emotion…my perception of its past..and its future.”
Bold original art is also hallmark of the home’s interiors, but a common thread is Howell’s love of portraiture. “I’m always fascinated about how many different versions of the human face there are – from old photograph collections to realistic portraits to surreal ones. I just have a weird liking for them. David Harouni has been one of my favorite living artists for years. There is something so powerful, yet so subtle about David’s works. I’ve commissioned five or six works over the years from him, and every painting is from another realm. He is a great friend and a person whom I trust from a design standpoint. Sometimes he and I can go a bit on the dark side, but we’ve managed to reel it in and collaborate on some great pieces. For instance, the large Andrew Jackson that hangs in Cotton was just such a piece. I had talked with him for quite some time about creating an Andrew Jackson piece for my apartment near Jackson Square in New Orleans. We knew it would be a statement. The general concept for my apartment was that of a younger business man/statesman from France who was new to New Orleans in the mid 1700s, but lived up river on an estate and had a landing spot for French Quarter shananigans. His pied-à-terre was filled with his favorite things: taxidermied trophies on the walls…whiskey on the shelves…music in the air… the whole vibe was a modern day interpretation of that thought. David and I are both researchers and dove in to study Andrew Jackson and how he was represented in art. A 13 foot tall by 8 foot wide canvas was monumental to pull off. We began with figuring out the emotion and power we wanted the painting to convey. Was he on a horse? Or no horse? What was his relationship to his horse? What was the horse’s name? Sometimes it becomes a rabbit hole. David’s first idea that we really entertained was Andrew Jackson holding the severed head of his horse that died in battle, but we ended up landing on something quite different. The outcome you can see in Cotton today is a powerful piece and really captures the essence of Jackson in his younger days.”
Design influences abound for Howell. “I would say there are several people out there that I think Im always interested in what they are doing currently. The Belgian, Axel Vervoordt, from an interior designer and collector point of view would seem to be my favorite. His ability to understand form, patinas, juxtaposition, mood, I believe are second to none. I think Ralph Lauren is an American icon – from fashion, to interiors, to bringing the best out in the people around him – he always keeps me curious about how he is not only designing, but living his life. He truly is a lifestyle brand. Architecturally, I love what Bobby McAlpine and Jeffrey Dungan are doing. As a matter of fact, Jeffrey and I have had great early talks about him designing our upcoming home. He is at the peak of his field and is just a cool cat.”
The kitchen and study are Ariana and Jay’s favorite rooms and where they spend most of their time at home. Says Howell, “The design and renovation of the kitchen was my swan song. I think it’s the most unique room in the house and turned out better than we could have imagined. My inspiration was literally for me to be able to slaughter a pig on the farm table, but have enough femininity for Ariana and her girlfriends to sip wine and gather comfortably in there as well. It’s completely modern but in a historical sense.” The materials, color palette and objects serve to ground the space. The use of honed Calacatta gold quartzite on countertops is visually pleasing when juxtaposed with warm Saltillo tile underfoot. The gothic Tudor forms for the vent hood and for the fireplace surround create a cohesive feel. Adds Howell, “I catch myself cooking in there for hours – not even to eat, just to cook with a mish mash of Mozart and Johnny Cash playing as my soundtrack. There’s not much more that a man can want, right?” Throughout the kitchen, most of the decorations are actual cooking equipment – from antique French bowls to copper pots and pans to the glass bottles of oils and seasonings. Even the couple’s cast irons stay visible on open shelving. According to Howell, having everything open and within reach, makes the kitchen easy to cook in. It truly is a Southern chef’s dream kitchen with a 7-burner Thor dual convection range with flat griddle and pot filler.
The thin kitchen island is a refractory table that Howell found in Texas. “I didn’t buy it for that spot. I bought it, because it is just great looking and such a hard size to find. We used to have a wider, lower farm table there before the renovation. While I was renovating the kitchen, I thought of that piece to replace it with. It was perfect for the space. It is old, but it isn’t an antique,” says Howell. The fireplace in the kitchen is a working woodburning fireplace and gets used probably more than any fireplace in the home, according to the homeowners.
French doors by the kitchen fireplace lead out onto the covered outdoor patio with its own outdoor fireplace and grilling area. Just beyond are a myriad of outdoor rooms, featuring a black bottomed gunite pool with arching water features, an open-air cabana, a secluded hot tub and grand lawn with an antique urn on plinth.
Ariana points out a pair of intricately carved, antique doors that open to an ample pantry. “Jay built the pantry to fit those wooden doors,” she says, “He found them over in Jackson years ago and had them hanging in the old Nonna building as a room divider. The kitchen fridge and wall of incredible storage and counter-space is located where an awkward half bath had been.”
In the breakfast room, original corner cabinets were updated by removing their doors to showcase utilitarian plates, bowls and serving pieces. A black and white photographic portrait of the behatted couple was taken at dear friends’ wedding and captures the couple’s personalities. Upholstered chairs with gracefully curved arms surround a wooden farm table.
Tudor arches, an original and dominant architectural design feature of the home, lead into the large dining room, which is illuminated by a pair of Aidan Gray chandeliers above a long wooden table. The antique table and its barley twist, cane back chairs were sourced online from Pennsylvania and one of Howell’s first purchases specifically for this house. “The guy I was buying the chairs from said he had a table to go with them, but it had some problems with the veneer in a few places. It was the right size to fit the chairs, and it was antique. I was like, ‘Hey, buddy, I can’t afford anything else at this point, much less a ten-foot drop-leaf table. I can barely buy the chairs.’ (I had graduated dental school like 14 seconds earlier.) Needless to say…the ole boy just said, ‘Aww, hell. You can have it for free! I just want someone who cares about this stuff to have it.’ And, by God, I can afford free! Been here ever since,” laughs Howell.
On one of the dining room’s longer walls, a mesmerizing portrait of Napoleon by David Harouni is a commission with deep meaning for the homeowner. “As I mentioned earlier, David is on another level. For years it was the only painting I had in the house, except for some abstracts. The painting is probably one of the dearest to me, because it was a painting that I had always wanted him to do for me. I had first put my eyes on David’s rendition of Napoleon probably in early 2001-2002 as a young kid just out of the master’s program at Louisiana Tech, living and working in New Orleans, and trying to get into dental school. I remember inquiring about the painting and the price. Back then, his paintings were selling for around $3,000. Of course, I didn’t have a pot to piss in at the time, but I remember saying I was going to get him to paint me one of those one day. To finally get to the point to have that commissioned was a personal milestone of sorts. It truly is a breathtaking work of art – his use of subtle brushstrokes to accomplish so much depth is other worldly… the face is haunting…the posture so powerful.”
In the home’s great room that leads to the entryway, a pair of inlaid, ormulu chests under gilded reproduction Italian rococo mirrors set the tone for the home. Like many objects in Howell’s world they come with an incredible story. According to the homeowner, he purchased the mirrors from a consignment store in New Orleans while he was in dental school. “I literally kept them in storage, because I had no real home to put them. But as I mentioned earlier, I buy for the long run. It’s very rare to find a pair of mirrors like that, and they were a steal. I remember thinking, ‘What the heck? Let’s get out of here!’ The mirrors have hung right where they are from the moment I moved into the house. For years, I left nothing under them waiting for the right pair of chests. And for years, I was let down. Around 2009 or 2010, I walked into one of the best and my favorite consignment stores in the country, Renaissance Interiors in Metairie off Veterans. Fresh off the truck, not even a price on them yet, are those two just one of a kind pieces. Larry, the store owner, tells me he just bought them from his broker in Palm Springs, Florida. This was right after the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal, and this furniture was sourced from estate sales from people affected by Madoff’s deception. The inlay and craftsmanship is beautiful; the insides were lined with carpet. I eventually had a furniture maker build custom wine shelves inside them, and now they hold the good juice.”
In the entryway of the home, Howell removed ceramic floor tiles and installed Italian Danby marble. The front door with stained glass is original to the home and was restored. An abstract painting by Robin Hamaker hangs above a gothic console table. Four golden framed prints had been in the collection of the founder of Global Views, an international interior design company focusing on art and furnishings. The gothic pendant light is not original to the home, nor is any ceiling light, says Howell, as there were no chandeliers in the house when he bought it. “That light is a one-of-a-kind in the truest sense. I found that in the back of an antique store in Natchez. It had been recovered from a burned Mississippi plantation. If you look close enough, you can see how it was partially melted from the fire and the black smut was partially covering it. I took it to Mr. Brown over on Antique Alley when he had his shop and he matched the smut patina all over to make it look like it was all that way. The original light didn’t have glass covering the bottom part, but Mr. Brown found some yellow glass from an old lamp and somehow it fit in there damn near perfect. It was the first light I put in the home, and it really set the tone for everything else.”
The entry’s jewel-like powder room is resplendent with hand-poured, gold-leafed terra cotta tile in an arabesque design by Ann Sacks. The gold sink and signature swan faucet fixtures by Sherle Wagner are from a circa 1970’s renovation. Howell had the vanity built to resemble a piece of furniture.
From the living room, a step down reveals a 1950’s era addition of a cozy den with quarry tile floors, hand-hewn pecan arched cabinets, and a coffered beam ceiling. Well-worn, Chesterfield sofas in cognac-hued leather hold court where Ariana and Jay love to relax and entertain friends. The French Art Deco chairs in the den are Howell’s favorite perch for reading and playing his acoustic guitars.
Says Howell, “Right here in this bar is where I studied cocktails for 6 months straight, literally obsessing over learning the craft of bartending before I opened the Eli. My favorite drink right now came out of that immersive experience into historic cocktails – The Southside, with a chilled glass and a honey rim. Ariana’s favorite cocktail is a Ramos Gin Fizz.”
Beyond the kitchen, a laundry room fit for an army is outfitted to the max for storage and convenience for the couple’s busy family. The island, an old industrial workspace, was sourced from the former White Elephant in the Dallas Design District. The island features two metal pull-out hampers, metal drawers, and a butcher block top. The homeowners added new flooring, cabinets, and sinks.
The second floor of the home contains the children’s rooms and the master suite which radiate off a central landing at the top of the staircase. The ceiling of the staircase is covered in a luxe dupioni silk. A large abstract portrait, “Governor of His Own State of Mind” by Louisiana-based artist Steve Martin found its way from Howell’s NOLA Royal Street apartment and takes center stage at the top of the landing.
For Howell and Bigner, children are really the heart of the home. Says Howell of their blended family, “Children are truly a gift. I can’t describe the joy that John Aubrey (Howell’s young son) brings us. Ariana and I were so ready for her to finish pharmacy school this past spring, so that she would be able to finally move home and we could start our family. Little did we know we would be having twins this summer. When we found out we were having twins, it wasn’t a shock, for me at least. It was as if I started reading the first paragraph of our next chapter. On delivery day, we were hoping for at least one of them to be a girl. Having the twins added to our family has been just what we needed. We have adjusted quite easily, mainly because Ariana is superwoman, managing her rotations, graduation, her pharmacy boards, pregnancy, the Covid factors, and taking care of the twins. She’s just the best mom. She’s relentless, and one of the most disciplined people I know.”
The twins’ nursery is a study of form and function meets soothing comfort with late nights and early mornings in mind. A pair of Arts and Crafts-inspired cribs are outfitted in light neutral bedding with monogrammed pillows. A floor to ceiling window is dressed in Prussian blue drapery panels designed to block out bright sun. A generous sized upholstered rocking chair soothes sleepy babies. “The nursery turned out perfect,” says Howell, “Ariana really set the tone for how she wanted the room to feel and the color palette.”
To better fit the needs of his family, Howell redesigned the flow of the second floor which had been a warren of choppy, non-usable rooms and bathrooms that begged for breathing room. The current master bathroom and closet were actually a small sitting room and a small bedroom and bath redesigned for its current configuration. The master bath is bright and open, clad in Italian Carrara marble with his and hers vanities. A Sue Sartor painting hangs in a bright corner near a glass walled, walk-in shower. A free-standing tub offers a Zen-like spa experience. The bedroom is dressed in luxurious velvets, faux fur and soft linen in dark grays and neutrals. An intricately carved dresser with a large Louis Phillippe mirror reflects a portion of Howell and Bigner’s impressive collection of hats.
In the master suite, his and hers closets are styled like eponymous boutiques. Nowhere is the couple’s personal style on display more forthrightly than here. Howell begs the question is it style or more likely an approach or philosophy of life? He adds, “I guess it comes through in not just the design of things…but what I chose to wear, what I chose to listen to, what I try to cook.”
Howell’s advice to those on a style quest? “In summary, it’s best to go with authenticity. Go with handmade. Go with the thing that sparks the visceral emotion. Do your homework. Go with the pure form of it. Like the great American architect Louis Kahn said, ‘A brick wants to be an arch.’ That’s always stuck with me. A brick doesn’t want to be a door. A black pair of jeans wants a cowboy boot, and a t-shirt wants to be white or black. Ariana always makes fun of me, because I wear the same thing so often, but once I find a boot I like, I’ll buy 5 pair. Pants, 10. Socks, 30. It’s less complicated. It works.”
Beyond Jay’s closet, a state of the art media room features comfy leather club chairs and a flat screen television perfect for time spent surfing Netflix or playing video games. The room features a vaulted ceiling that hugs the pitched roofline.
A bonus room on the third floor of the home was reclaimed in 2019 from storage to create a custom workout and sauna space. The sauna was originally a cedar closet. Howell vaulted the ceilings to make the room feel bigger and completely renovated the whole space to include a punching bag and home gym for the fitness-minded couple.
Howell considers himself a creator first and, at a close second, a restorer of things. Those seem to be the common threads in the things he does, whether it is a full mouth restoration and creation of a smile or the full renovation of a historical property and the creation of a business that is best suited in the space. “Being an entrepreneur from idea to inception is so much fun. With buildings you have the architecture, construction, finishes, and the interiors. With restaurants, you must think about what the customer will be looking at in the room, whose eyes will they meet, how does light from the street lamp affect the energy of a table, the tactile sense and weight of the silverware, the scents and tastes, and, of course, the music. My hospitality company is named Five Senses for that very reason. Every sense is important, even if we don’t realize it in the moment,” explains Howell.
Explains Howell, “As you know, our house is up for sale. Hopefully a perfect buyer will come along and enjoy this house as much as we have. Howell and Bigner have plans underway to build their next dream home in the northeast Louisiana countryside, unconstrained by city boundaries.
Some lucky family can make 1301 Forsythe Avenue the next chapter in their own family story. For more information, contact your realtor or Cara Sampognaro or Caroline Scott at John Rea Realty. 318.388.0941