Woodville reborn: New Orleans couple invests in apartments, studios
When Jan Katz and her husband Jim Derbes opened the door to what is now their second-floor apartment in the Woodville Lofts and Studios building, it was hard to envision what it would become — the room didn’t have floors.
“One of the doors you could open and it was a straight fall down to the first floor,” Katz said. “Jim had the vision to look at it and see what it could be, but I couldn’t see it at the time.”
Now, after 27 months of work and $1.1 million in improvements, the couple has their apartment — along with five other living spaces available for long-term lease, a guest apartment, three storefront shops and a café — in the former Woodville Hotel, an 11,000-square foot building located across the street from the Wilkinson County courthouse.
The original building was built in the mid-19th century, and the second-floor hotel rooms were added circa 1905. Through the years parts of it had fallen into disuse, though it was never vacant; the most recent business tenants were a Bible store, a wig shop and a beauty salon.
But when the couple bought the building in 2006, there was a lot to be done. Doors were boarded up, windows were open and vines grew up the back wall and into the building. Floors — as Katz mentioned — were missing, and the supporting joists were rotten. Some of the apartment spaces had tenants, but hadn’t seen any improvements in decades. Restoration work began in 2010.
“We bought it, but we waited a few years while we figured out just what we were going to do with the building,” Derbes said. “It was really a matter of working with the existing floor plan.”
Derbes and Katz, who split their time living in New Orleans and Woodville, bought the building in the first place because after Hurricane Katrina they realized they needed a place to which they could retreat if they needed to evacuate for another storm. The problem was that one member of the family — their dog — wasn’t always welcome.
“We were looking for a place to evacuate and we wanted a place that was on high ground, away from the Gulf Coast and away from south Louisiana,” Derbes said. “Among the problems we found was that if we could find a place to go, people didn’t want our dog to come.”
While they were looking for a hurricane home, one of Derbes’ long-time friends who lives in Woodville repeated an offer that Derbes had never taken him up on — to visit Woodville. While visiting the area, the couple took time to look at the hotel.
A week later, they made an offer on the property.
“The building kind of spoke to me,” Derbes said. “We love small towns, the feeling of small towns. The building was large enough that we felt like we could really transform it and make an impact energywise on the downtown section of town, sort of revitalize that part of downtown where just buying one shop would not have had that impact.”
When the work began in earnest, the downtown shops were reshaped. One was turned into a gallery — Katz uses it to showcase local and regional art — while another was turned into a live-work space. Another is a shop, and the fourth is a business suite with a conference room. Rounding out the bottom floor is a furnished café with a patio that upstairs residents can share.
To make the upstairs apartments large enough for full-time living — and individual bathrooms — renovations meant taking out walls between former hotel rooms, adding bathrooms and installing cabinets, light fixtures and appliances. Katz said the couple intentionally blended the contemporary with the historical to give the apartments a distinct but tasteful flavor, mixing Ikea-products with beadboard-accented walls.
In other places, the old floor joists that could be salvaged were taken, planed down and incorporated into cabinet tops, stair rails and accent pieces. Three of the apartments are one-bedroom units, while two are two-bedroom. One small apartment has a hotel kitchen and will be furnished, and will be available for the general public to rent on a nightly basis, though full-time tenants will have first say if they want to rent the guest apartment for their visitors.
The halls of the apartment area are all decorated with Katz’s collection of folk art, including some pieces that were produced in the Woodville locale.
“There is a lot of talent in the local area,” Katz said.
The couple also added a large back deck onto the second floor of the building, and the back apartments all have private porch areas.
“We turned some of the windows on the second floor into doorways, and we put screens on all of the doors so the people will feel like they’re living in a treehouse,” Katz said.
In the back, on the ground level the couple plans to expand the patio, adding a foutain and music performance space, Derbes said, giving the shop and café area a New Orleans feel. The Town of Woodville also has plans to build a small park abutting the property that will complement the outdoors space, Katz said.
Derbes said the couple was able to complete the work at the hotel in part because federal tax breaks for historic preservation projects allowed them to deduct 26 cents from every dollar spent from their tax obligation on the project. State tax credits also helped, he said.
Derbes has decades of experience in historic preservation projects from his time in New Orleans, and — in addition to giving him a home — the Woodville Lofts project has given him a special satisfaction as Woodville locals have thanked him and his wife for their work restoring the old hotel.
“I have no agenda here, I am not looking for a monument,” he said. “I just enjoy this kind of work.”