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New Orleans Piano Legend's Home Finally Restored After Katrina


Professor Longhair's house has been saved. Now, last year we brought you a story about the piano legend and the nationwide effort to rebuild his home following Hurricane Katrina. Henry Roeland Byrd, better known as Professor Longhair, is widely considered to be the father of modern New Orleans music. He died in 1980, but at carnival time especially, it's evident that Professor Longhair's influence endures. Now, his house will too. Gwen Thompkins brings us this story of music and more.


GWEN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: In New Orleans, news often travels with a brass band. So, for the people standing at a construction site in Central City, the music told them that something big was underway.


THOMPKINS: That's "Go to the Mardi Gras," a Professor Longhair classic, which prompted everybody to start dancing in front of Longhair's house. Architect Rick Fifield is inside. He designed the renovation of the 19th century structure to look the way it did when Longhair lived here, circa 1979.

RICK FIFIELD: The idea was that he would be able to recognize the house if he came back to visit it, down to, like, the mantle in the living room and the pocket doors and the appearance on the outside. We were able to kind of capture that 'cause the house was so damaged following Hurricane Katrina. We used photographs that were in the New Orleans archives as a guide to tell us how the building should look.

THOMPKINS: Fifield then added a few 21st century ideas. The wood-framed, two-story building now features a storefront museum that will focus on Longhair's legacy. Longhair is a hero to nearly every modern-day New Orleans piano player - Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John. Even the Beatles and the Rolling Stones have cited Longhair's influence.


THOMPKINS: But Longhair never made much money. So, for the family, the crowning achievement of the renovation is a rental unit that could help keep this entire property solvent.


THOMPKINS: For a man who's been dead more than 30 years, Longhair got a nice turn-out.


THOMPKINS: The street crowd at the opening was seven-people deep. And project sponsors invited all of them to look inside the caramel-colored duplex with the bright blue doors. Mary von Kurnatowski co-heads the Tipitina's Foundation, which is named after one of longhair's most popular songs and the club that became his professional home.

MARY VON KURNATOWSKI: We've lost far too many homes of some of our best and most creative talent in the town and not just to Katrina. Long before Katrina, we were losing homes of wonderful musicians. I think Professor Longhair is in the big green room in the sky right now looking down on us.

THOMPKINS: The Tipitina's Foundation, Project Homecoming, the city of New Orleans, and the United Way pulled off the renovation with a $180,000 budget.


THOMPKINS: Project Homecoming managed the construction site, relying on nearly 150 volunteers from across the nation, like Tony Mancini from Connecticut.

TONY MANCINI: I've been kind of tinkering around over the years with my own house. And last year I decided to take three months off from work and come down here. So, I did it last year and it was pretty good. So, I did it again this year.

THOMPKINS: Back home, Mancini co-manages his own computer hardware sales company. But in New Orleans, he makes thresholds from vintage hard pine.


THOMPKINS: Days after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, he's still sanding.

MANCINI: So, every doorway you walk through that you see a threshold, it's got my signature on it.

THOMPKINS: Hannah Sagen is working the table saw.


THOMPKINS: She came down from Grinnell College in Iowa last year and stayed. Sagen plays piano, but seems to prefer Longhair's house to his music.

HANNAH SAGEN: Music-wise, I listen to mostly female artists, a lot of eighties stuff.

THOMPKINS: Who did you listen to last night?

SAGEN: Madonna.


THOMPKINS: At this point, Longhair's daughter, Pat Byrd, just wants the keys to the front door. No one has waited longer than she has to see the project completed. Byrd and her son have lived in more than a dozen temporary homes since 2005 - hotels, apartments, spare rooms, sofas. Now, she says, she wants to move in by Mardi Gras day and enjoy the beauty of it all.

PAT BYRD: The lights in the ceiling, the brick mantle, the hardwood floors. I don't believe my eyes. Nobody could ever imagine the house looking like it's looking.

THOMPKINS: Standing in what will be her dining room, Byrd has only one clarification for the architect. The house doesn't look like it did in the 1970s, she said. It looks better. For NPR News, I'm Gwen Thompkins.


SIMON: Our pal Gwen Thompkins is the host of WWNO's Music Inside Out.


SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gwen Thompkins is a New Orleans native, NPR veteran and host of WWNO's Music Inside Out, where she brings to bear the knowledge and experience she amassed as senior editor of Weekend Edition, an East Africa correspondent, the holder of Nieman and Watson Fellowships, and as a longtime student of music from around the world.

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