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Thursday, October 23, 2014
Southwest Louisiana ,
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Billy Baggett added two floors and a pool after he bought this home off of Sale Road in the early 1990s. (Rick Hickman / American Press)

Billy Baggett added two floors and a pool after he bought this home off of Sale Road in the early 1990s. (Rick Hickman / American Press)

Big blue art house

Last Modified: Tuesday, May 27, 2014 11:15 AM

By Rita LeBleu / American Press

Not many people realized that there is an out-of-the ordinary house off Sale Road until Hurricane Rita destroyed the trees between it and the street. Now, passers by can’t help but notice the large, out-of-the-box structure, painted a tri-colored blue.

To Billy and Rae Lee Baggett, a couple that doesn’t appear to aspire to fit any particular mold or stereotype, it’s home.

He purchased the property in the early 90s. Since then, two floors and a stunning pool were added to provide room and entertainment for the children. When neighboring property became available, he purchased it, leaving a strip along Contraband Bayou undeveloped.

But the Baggetts don’t take credit for the original design of the house.

That distinction goes to Julie Ann and Ken Strauss.

The Strauss’ daughter, Susan Battestin of Lake Charles, shared information about the big blue house’s origins: “My parents built and moved into the house in 1980. My mother had read The Place of Houses. She wanted something very different from our home on 9th Street.”

Julie Ann was the granddaughter of her namesake, Julie Kaufman, who founded Mullers Department Store. Battestin’s father was a Princeton graduate and located an alumnus of that school, working in Houston at the time, to design the couple’s dream home.

According to Battestin, her parents wanted to simplify, to take more of a minimalist approach, to accentuate their glass collection and to build a home that was in concert with the beautiful natural setting.

The house became a good distraction for her parents after her brother was diagnosed with cancer, Battestin said.

When it was featured in the September 1984 issue of House & Garden, the writer noted the circumstances under which it was built and called the house “the very representation of the triumph of the human spirit.”

The original exterior color scheme, a surprise to the Strausses who left the decision to the architect, was blue-gray to “anchor the building to the ground.” The central sea-green stripe “would become a nautical metaphor for the displacement line on cargo ships.” The aquamarine at the top of the house would “establish scale for the (then) two-story house.”

Every detail was carefully considered.

“I understand that the architect stayed with the family the final two weeks that the house was being planned. Nothing about it is happenstance. I would have never taken the time to design a house like this, the thought that went into it, the way it faces the west and the south, the way the light streams through the windows at certain times of the day and how that light affects the color on the walls. Even the lot was carefully planned. Susan’s dad had been preparing it for years, Billy said.

“When I first moved in, when I woke up in the morning, it felt like I was waking up in a resort somewhere,” he added.

Many of the interior walls are a shade of blue and more than one shade of blue is used in a single room. “There are like a thousand shades of blue used in here,” Billy said. “And the blues look different at different times of the day.”

On the outside, the home may look boxy and the colors may catch the eye of the passer by, but the interior is equally remarkable.

The ceiling of the living area soars to 20 feet. The “gallery” is open to the second level. Public areas are separate, yet connect other rooms.

Two rooms deviate significantly from the watery blues. The master bedroom is sunburst yellow. “That’s Billy’s favorite color,” Rae said.

The master bath, a room that stretches 25 feet and includes custom tile work, two closets, an oversized bath and large walk-in shower, is painted lime green. There’s a balcony from this room with a view of the pool, the bayou and the landscape. The water heater holds 250 gallons and meticulous thought went into the many nooks and crannies filled with drawers and cabinet space.

At the time of the interview, Billy is headed out to work at the law firm established by his father in the 60s. Dressed in a teal silk shirt that coordinates with the interior and exterior of the house, he declines to be photographed, saying that he’s in need of a haircut. He sits back, relaxed, legs crossed as he talks about the house, using his hands to make a point and to periodically tuck his hair behind his ears.

Rae is a petite redhead, dressed in a crisp white shirt and black and white capris. She sits, poised, on the edge of the sofa. Her face is animated, even when she is listening. She is the daughter of long-time McNeese speech department head and debate team coach, Bill Casey.

They both appreciate their surroundings, but after a few minutes of talking to them about that house’s design, the few changes that have been made and the decorating — which to them is dictated by the style and lines of the house — it’s obvious that what makes this house their home are the paintings, prints, pottery and photographs on display throughout the house.

“If anything, we downplayed the furnishings, so we can accentuate the art. Outside we have the beauty of nature. The first time I saw the house, I thought, wow, that would make a great art gallery,” Rae said.

Whereas the Strausses arranged their house around a central gallery that highlighted nineteeth and early and twentieth century glass, the Baggetts opted for one significant work of hand-blown glass and it’s the perfect marriage of form and function. The custom-designed and hand-made entryway door features multi-colored circular, hand-blown roundels.

Billy started the art tour in the living area. “Not everybody likes them, but I’ll never get rid of these Sandra Jones pieces,” Billy said, pointing out two oversized canvases. There’s a third canvas in the gallery. After he begins to talk about the artist, it’s hard to imagine the living area without them.

He describes Jones as, “a fish out of water.” The paintings have layers and layers of beeswax, applied over Bible scriptures and in one painting, over the hash marks used to keep score or mark down prison time. Jones was a senior art student at McNeese.

“Rae is more the art person, but I’ve kept up with the McNeese art program. I like things that are dense and full of information,” he said.

On the first floor landing is an oversized canvas by Robbie Austin who now teaches theology at St. Louis High School in Lake Charles.

Billy remembers checking on how the commissioned piece was coming along. When he showed up at Austin’s apartment, it was “pouring rain” and Austin’s roommate told Billy that the painting was outside. When he saw the look on Billy’s face, the roommate said, by way of explanation, “Oh that’s OK. Robbie is working on the painting outside in the rain. He’s just run out to get some more paint.”

The painting hangs in a location that can be viewed from several vantage points. It resonates with Billy. “All I do is represent people who worked at the plants who developed cancer,” Billy says of his law practice. To me, there is something industrial about it. There’s an area that looks chipped. He painted over foam in some areas,” Billy said.

The painting is characterized by runs, drips and raised oozing areas up to two inches thick, which are tumor-like in appearance.

A series of Eddie Mormon sunflowers line the west wall of the living area. The canvases are narrow and fit perfectly between the windows. “Eddie comes for coffee sometimes and he brought one of these in and asked me how I liked the size. I told him I loved it and wanted two more.

The Baggett’s bought one of their Mormon paintings out of the back of his Honda before it was dry. There is work by Mormon throughout this house and in other upscale Lake Area homes, but nowhere else will you find a framed, signed Eddie Mormon preliminary sketch but in the Baggett dining room.

Mormon’s work is on display at the Abita Springs Brewery. This month, he is the featured artist for a Colorado Springs gallery and his work is also displayed in The Mining Exchange, a Wyndham Grand Hotel.

A huge thrown Rex Alexander platter with a 24” base makes the perfect centerpiece for the living area’s tiled coffee table and other pieces by the potter can be found throughout the home, including a pantry full of Alexander’s bowls and cups that Rae gives out to people who can appreciate them. (She gives away cookbooks too.)

In the master bedroom are three “pre-fleur de lis” works of art by Candace Alexander. These are shiny, lacquered pieces. The rounded portions were painted as they spun on a pottery wheel, then the two rounded pieces were mounted to another board. There are other Candace Alexander prints and photographs in the house and not one contains her now signature trademark.

Once a political consultant and fundraiser, Rae has funneled the same energy and power of persuasion into her promotion and support of local artists. “Artists are very creative and loving people,” she said. They underestimate their talent sometimes. I tell them that if someone likes something bad enough, they’ll figure out how to have it. Artists aren’t always the best business people,” she said.

Four Marilyn Wheeldon photographs reproduced on infused metal, hang over the raised, inset fireplace, a work of art in itself. These were a birthday gift to Billy from the artist. The white egrets were photographed at Shangri La Nature Center in Orange, Texas, but the Baggett’s see similar birds in their backyard. In fact, the egrets have gotten daring enough to check out the koi pond. So far, they haven’t sampled the fish. They’ve been kept at bay by the Baggett’s Russian wolf hound, (NAME), blue tick hound, Lucy and various cats.

“I always thought that it would be neat to mix a Russian wolfhound and blue tick,” Billy said. The Russian wolfhound, according to Billy, has superior athletic ability, able to jump and run at incredible speeds. The blue tick has the brains.

Billy’s daughter, Catherine Baggett, a Savannah College of Art and Design student, recently won the grand prize in an international design competition for her still life photography series, entitled “New Nature.”

Rae’s daughter, Erin, is also a photographer and helped shoot the pictures for this story. Like any parents – art enthusiasts or not – the Baggetts seem most proud of their children’s work. Some of that “early work” is framed and on display in the kitchen.

Other local artists represented in the Baggett home are Heather Foster, Dawn Chatoney, Heather Foster, Roxanne Guillory, Charlene Kaough and Blake Soto.

It is a home where everywhere you look is something interesting which beckons you to take a closer look.

When the Strausses set out to design their perfect house, Susan Battestin said her mother started the quest by reading The Place of Houses. Here’s an excerpt from the forward of that book: “Anyone who cares enough can create a house of great worth – no anointment is required. If you care enough, you just do it. You bind the goods and trappings of your life together with your dreams to make a place that is uniquely your own…. You have no need to be told whether your taste is good or not.”

The big tri-colored blue house on Sale Road contains more than the goods, trappings and dreams of Billy and Rae.

The inspiration of the Strauss family is still present today. Children for whom extra floors were added are not there often enough. It is home to a morning and a not-so-much morning person. It is not home to the “ideal” or “perfect” mix of Russian wolfhound and blue tick, but it is home to an accidental lab and blue tick combination.

And throughout the home, on the walls, is the work – and stories -- of the individuals who use the bindings and trappings of their lives, together with their dreams, to create art that is uniquely their own.

Like an original work of art that’s “dense with information” and perhaps not even to everyone’s taste, it’s a house like no other – and home to Billy and Rae Baggett.

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