Back in 1985, when Colonial Williamsburg was still the style source for all but a chosen few, and plopping housing developments onto clearcut timberland was the norm, young architect Ken Tate did something different.
Canebrake, the now-idyllic gated community outside Hattiesburg, was going to be yet another Williamsburg-on-clearcut. But Ken persuaded the owners to carve out home sites within the forest and to try a building style they hadn't thought much about: Louisiana Colonial. His designs for the development won Southern Living's Southern Home Award in 1989, and one of the residences he designed there won the same award in 1991. Since then, planners from Florida to Texas have emulated the community's combination of abundant greenery and splendid architecture. Canebrake's developers have expanded the community, and are still profiting handsomely from their investment in good design.
Today, Ken Tate is regarded as one of the South's leading residential architects. His minimum fee assumes construction costs exceeding one million dollars, and most commissions he accepts dwarf that minimum. When the only unbuilt home site in New Orleans' Audubon Place became available, it was Tate who was chosen to nestle a small palazzo onto that street of treasures. Perhaps no prominent architect today has a greater stylistic range. From the sublime sophistry of French Moderne, to the antique splendors of sixteenth-century Italian, to the energetic precision of American Federal, he applies a rare level of skill and scholarship. His first love, however, is French Colonial.
The variants of that style produced by Tate - or which are currently on his drawing boards - provide a graphic demonstration of the impact that the French have had. Many of his houses take inspiration from substantial stucco examples in the French Caribbean (think Martinique, Guadeloupe, and the Pitot house on Bayou St. John). Others celebrate the fusion of Normandy's hipped-roof with the Caribbean gallery, as interpreted by carpenters along the Mississippi River basin. Such a house can be seen at Homeportfolio.com, under the heading "Southern Retreat with Simple Style" in the section "Great American Homes." Don't be fooled by the country-carpenter details. "Rustic simplicity is not inexpensive. Built today, that house would fall within our minimum," says Tate.
And then there is Acadiana. "The common Celtic thread that runs between the Bretons of Acadiana and the Scots of South Mississippi makes Acadian architecture a perfect fit for South Mississippi and the Florida Parishes. Also, there's that melding of mainline French with African, which forms a basis for much of the South's culture. When Southerners from outside Acadiana go there, it's like seeing alternate versions of ourselves. And we like what we see."
Architect and author Russell Versace definitely liked a Louisiana Creole compound that Ken did in South Mississippi. He and his crew spent days last year shooting it for his new book, "The New Old House," out in early 2003, from Tauton Press. The house is classic Tate: museum-level detailing layered onto a plan that's classically ordered, brilliantly conceived and thought-out, then re-thought, until the entirety and the individual elements flow together seamlessly. Add to that an insistence on authentic materials and colors that are, at once, hyperconservative and edgy (who else employs a graphic designer to do his colors?) and you see why Tate competes only with himself.
"I owe much to Hays Town. Deep in the aesthetic dark ages of the mid-twentieth century, when you were practically forbidden to build anything but saltbox colonial or ranch modern, Hays made it chic to revive and preserve Louisiana's own wonderful architecture. I can't add to his mystique, so I try to make my contribution to the style by taking my design process and construction documents to a new level of detail and completeness. Also, I try to widen the parameters of the style, as far as is plausible. You can only do this, for any style, really, by exhaustively researching what was built, and also by entering the system of thought that produced the style. What was state-of-the-art technology for that culture? What stylebooks did they read? Where did they travel? Just as important is to ignore today's pop design. If you run with the Chihuahuas, they'll just distract you with irrelevancies. Always look up, not sideways," he says.
Looking up is an activity practiced not only by Ken and his wife, the often-published ASID designer Charme Tate, but also by their entire design staff. Exclusive design and real estate magazines (we counted five languages); old, sometimes ancient manuals for builders and architects; and big photo-books on beautiful houses (spanning eight decades) are everywhere. These sit in stacks beside drafting and conference tables throughout the Edwardian mansion that is their office. For most, these materials would occupy the dreamland of the coffee table. Through the genius of the Tates and their staff, however, the dreamland shapes reality. Joinery methods for a door in sixteenth-century Tuscany materialize on new walnut doors in Baton Rouge. An eighteenth-century French engraving of interior details becomes the boiserie in a (many-times published) living room in Jackson. An elliptical arch, from a farmhouse in the French village of Béon, lends grace to a house on Rosemary Beach.
The fact that such a firm (which, with its nationwide client base, could move anywhere) would relocate to the northshore speaks volumes about the way of life our area offers. "Most of my favorite clients were here; my favorite restaurants were here; and everybody is just so gentle and kind. When longtime clients retired, and offered us their office building, on its own city block, we didn't hesitate. We were looking for somewhere we could work, happily, for the rest of our lives, and I think we've found it."
Look for Ken Tate's work on the cover of the May-June issue of Veranda. It's just off the newsstands, but he's also featured in the March-April issue of Southern Accents, in "Masters of the New Old House." Coming soon, from Images Publishing Group, is "15 Houses by Ken Tate," 600 pages, hardbound. The firm's website is currently being crafted by an internationally acclaimed site designer in Boston, and is expected to be launched into cyberspace shortly.
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