The House That Ezra Built:
An injured firefighter’s historic Treme home is restored
with a little help from his new friends
NEW ORLEANS – When Better Than Ezra takes the stage Friday at Jazzfest, fans will applaud “Good,” “Desperately Wanting,” “Rosealia,” “Extra Ordinary” and other hits from the New Orleans-based modern rock trio’s 15-year career. What they also might want to applaud is band members’ up-close and personal contributions to the local rebuilding effort.
“We talk about New Orleans at every show,” bassist Tom Drummond said. “People around the country still don’t get it. We live in New Orleans, and whatever we can do to get the city back to the way it was, we’ll do.” That includes the aforementioned public service announcements in cities across the country (“Go to New Orleans and have a good time,” drummer Travis McNabb tells the crowds). It includes the $65,000 or so the band raises at its annual charity golf tournament.
And it includes a hands-on, one-home-at-a-time renovation approach: The group’s The House That Ezra Built project already has helped one first responder rebuild and return home, and more are targeted. “They brought me back,” firefighter Terry James said as he stood with Drummond and McNabb recently in front of his trim, newly painted single shotgun in Treme. “I couldn’t do it on my own. I didn’t have the physical or financial means.” James, 45, had bought the 100-year-old house as a blighted property and bank repossession for $16,000 a decade ago. He spent weekends fixing it up, doing much of the work himself.
He restored the original wideplank red pine floors, repainted the walls and installed crown molding along the 12-foot ceilings. He had started enclosing the back side porch when Hurricane Katrina approached. When the storm hit, James reported to duty with the New Orleans Fire Department. When he finally was able to check on his home — by boat — he discovered bad news.
“There was mold all up to the ceilings,” he said. “I got wind damage, too.” Another setback James set to work repairing the house whenever he had a free moment. Then, in December 2005, the fire truck he was riding in was involved in an accident, and his neck was broken. Today, although he can walk, he still has some paralysis on his right side. For four months after the accident he had to sleep upright in a chair.
He needed a helping hand, but didn’t expect it from prominent members of the New Orleans rock community. “What made him a great candidate was that he was obviously helping himself,” McNabb said. The band, he explained, had been sponsoring its golf event for several years, with proceeds going to national charities. After the storm, “it seemed like some kind of help locally made sense.” “We tried to narrow the focus to something seeable and concrete,” McNabb continued. “Habitat (for Humanity) is great, but they build new. Part of our love of New Orleans is its historic architecture. We liked the idea of keeping a house intact.”
So the band partnered with Rebuilding Together, an arm of the Preservation Resource Center that repairs damaged properties for low-income elderly residents and those with disabilities, as well as first responders. “The rebuilding aspect is what attracted us,” McNabb said, but the idea of focusing on firefighters and police was appealing as well.
“If we can get first responders back to their normal routines, it will help the city in the long run,” Drummond said. James was a natural choice for the first House That Ezra Built, PRC spokeswoman Sue Sperry said. “He lives in an area where other work is going on; he’s a hero; he’s disabled; he needed help; and he has a historic house.” He also has an upbeat attitude and a determination to contribute what he can: He refinished the flood-damaged floors of his 1901 house himself in four days, and can perform simple repairs and chores like hanging curtains. “If I get one window painted in a day, that’s fine,” he said with a smile. Still, “this is not just for others, but for us, too,” McNabb is quick to point out. He and his wife, who runs Magazine Street men’s clothing store Style Lab, live Uptown, as do Drummond and his wife, who are expecting their first child this summer.
And although band founder and frontman Kevin Griffin currently operates out of Los Angeles — “he has a son just starting school, and the recording studio is there, but he’d like to come back,” McNabb said — the band has never strayed far from its New Orleans roots. And not just musical ones.
“We’re diehards,” Drummond said. “We travel all over the country, but there is no city like New Orleans. There’s so much culture and history here that it makes it very easy to come back. And if we’re going to stay here, we’re going to help.” Right side up Help is not an abstract term for these guys. “They’ve come to all the meetings, checked on the house’s progress, authorized expenditures, checked the budget,” Sperry said. “They’ve used their connections to get things done. They are very hands-on.” At the suggestion of pro golfer Kelly Gibson, who’s involved with their tournament, band members solicited expert help from Fireline Restoration. The company donated all the construction work on James’s house and also finished the sun porch, turning it into a cozy retreat at the rear of the two-bedroom house.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of stuff, but this is incredibly rewarding,” Gibson said. “To see so many people come together. And there’s a difference between renovating just anyone’s house and doing it for someone whose whole life has been turned upside down.”
The members of Better Than Ezra agree. They’ve raised enough money to tackle more homes, to oversee more renovations for first responders. They envision the Ezralites — the band’s multitude of fans — pitching in to scrape and paint future houses. As Drummond puts it, “we’ll continue to help people who are helping themselves.” So make that project The HouseS That Ezra Built, and give the band an extra round of applause at Jazzfest.
InsideOut editor Rene Peck can be reached at email@example.com, or (504) 826-3431.
About Rebuilding Together
Rebuilding Together, a program of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans and a affiliate of Rebuilding Together in Washington, D.C., already has enabled 35 families to come home. The program brings together volunteers and skilled tradespeople to renovate and repair the homes of low-income elderly and/or disabled homeowners in neighborhoods throughout the city.
For information, contact:
Sue Sperry, Rebuilding Together
504-636-3055 / 504-237-8309