Lagniappe: A Little Something Extra About New Orleans

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? Spend any amount of time there, and you might understand those famous lyrics from Louis Armstrong. The live music, the Creole and Cajun cuisine, and history are simply unlike anything else. Filled with homes that date back hundreds of years, a coastal climate, and being below sea level, there are unique considerations for working with wood flooring in the Big Easy.

As you and your krewe prepare to attend the 2024 NWFA Expo, we are introducing you to NWFA members who live in the area. Read on to learn about their experiences with moisture control and restoration projects and tips on how to enjoy New Orleans like a local.

History

Founded in the 1700s, New Orleans has a rich history and stunning architecture. Home to 26 National Register Historic Districts, a stroll through the French Quarter or Garden District can feel like touring a museum. Wood floors are found in many of these homes, and NWFA members have played a role in some of the most well-known buildings around town.

Ronald Steele and Louis Delacroix opened Ron-Del Floor Service in 1959. In the late 1970s, Steele’s sons, Ronald Steele, Jr. and Mark Steele, joined him in the business. Steele, Jr. retired in 2022, but the second and third generations continue the tradition today, with his daughter, Elizabeth Caldarera, and her husband, Michael Caldarera, as partners in the business with Mark.

Mark Steele shares an impressive list of places where Ron-Del has completed projects including Preservation Hall, the National World War II Museum, St. Elizabeth’s Orphanage (built in the 1860s), the Cornstalk Fence House (built in 1859), and the Rosegate House (built in 1857), to name a few.

One of Ron-Del Floor Service’s high-profile projects was Gallier Hall, the former cityhall of New Orleans, built in the 1850s. The building is now a historical landmark and remains centric to the city’s culture. Pictured here are Michael Caldarera, Elizabeth Caldarera, Ronald Steele, Jr. (who retired in 2022), and Mark Steele, the owners of Ron-Del Floor Service. | RON-DEL PHOTOS COURTESY OF SWANSON PHOTOGRAPHY

One of Ron-Del’s high-profile projects was Gallier Hall, the former city hall of New Orleans, built in the 1850s. While city hall offices moved out of the building in 1957, Gallier Hall has been designated a historical landmark and remains centric to the city’s culture. Each Mardi Gras season, a viewing stand is installed in front of the building, and as the parades roll by, Mardi Gras royalty toast the mayor there. The tradition dates back nearly 170 years. Ron-Del’s work on the floors, which was part of New Orleans’ Tricentennial, consisted of repairs and the sand and finish of roughly 14,500 square feet of existing red oak and American walnut.

“We have a big impact on the people in New Orleans just for redoing their homes and restoring the old homes on St. Charles and the Garden District,” says Elizabeth Caldarera. “Our reputation is word of mouth and embodies New Orleans in the wood floor industry. My grandpa started it, my dad and uncle took it over, and my husband started working for the company when he was 16. Now, being on the third generation, we are trying to open the door to new ways of doing floors or even social media to push our business forward.”

Crescent Hardwood Supply was founded in 1918 by John Troendle’s grandfather, George A. Troendle. John and his wife, Lisa, operate the family business today. Left to right: Roy Troendle, Jr., William B. Troendle, Roy Troendle, Sr., and George R. Troendle, Sr. | PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN TROENDLE

Crescent Hardwood Supply, a distributor, has operated in New Orleans for more than 100 years. John Troendle, owner, and president, represents the third generation. His grandfather, George A. Troendle, founded the company after World War I. “He was a machinist by trade, so while he was scraping floors, he thought there had to be an easier way to do this,” he says. “He designed a sanding machine that took sandpaper, and then he could sand floors more efficiently than anyone else.”

The fact that it was hard to get finishes at the time is what Troendle says led to the creation of a supply company that made paint and varnishes. Later, the sand and finish and distribution companies were divided into two different businesses, with Troendle running the distribution side since around 1990. Throughout that time, he has supplied wood floors to notable places, some of which include the Old Ursuline Convent Chapel (said to be the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley, dating back to 1752), the W.P. Brown Mansion, the National World War II Museum, and many celebrity homes.

Moisture Management

Ask anyone who works with wood flooring in the “city beneath the sea,” and they will tell you moisture control is king. Benton Block owns Abita Wood Floors, serving the Northshore area and beyond for more than 25 years. He started working on wood floors 40 years ago and puts it simply: “If you learn how to control the moisture here, you can control moisture anywhere.”

Benton Block has been serving the Northshore area and beyond for more than
25 years. He is pictured here (second to last on the right) with his wife, Bernardita (right), daughter, Bernadette (left), and the rest of the Abita Wood Floors team. | PHOTO COURTESY OF BENTON BLOCK | ABITA WOOD FLOORS

Block explains, “When I get wood here, it usually comes from the manufacturer about 6 or 7 percent moisture content. I know it needs to be 10, 11, or 12 percent moisture content, which is a challenge because all construction these days is fast-tracked. When you tell them it has to acclimate, they freak out.”

Abita Wood Floors worked on the floors in Sunnybrook, which was built in the 1880s near Covington, Louisiana. It has been said that Andrew Jackson took shelter under Sunnybrook’s oak trees while traveling to the Battle of New Orleans. | PHOTOS COURTESY OF BENTON BLOCK | ABITA WOOD FLOORS

At the first National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association (NOFMA) school Troendle attended, he recalls industry legend Mickey Moore saying, “If you live in Denver, Colorado, you get less wood than what you pay for, but if you live in New Orleans, Louisiana, you get more wood than you pay for.” While teaching installers how to do successful floor installations when you are below sea level is a unique challenge, Moore taught Troendle that you can put flooring in any climate; as long as you understand the wood and the mechanics of wood and how it grows.

“About 20 years ago, I built a calculator that I placed on spaceafloor.com. You put in the target EMC, the average MC, and the species. I went to NWFA and manufacturers to include tangential and radial expansion rates. Taking the space size divided by the growth tells you what you should space the boards at. If you don’t put the space in the floor, the nails will pull out to the other side of the room,” he explains. “In New Orleans, you have to put a floor in for July, August, and September because that’s when the floor is going to grow to its widest and not buckle.”

Sources: 1 Source: United States Census Bureau Estimate July 1, 2022. 2 Source: New Orleans & Company via neworleans.com, the official New Orleans tourism industry website. 3 Source: New Orleans, Louisiana in 2100: Effects of Subsidence, Sea-Level Rise, and Erosion. By Elizabeth A. Bloch, 2009. Florida Institute of Technology.

Willie Short, owner of Willie James Quality Flooring and Coastal Inspection Services, has been in the business for 20 years and became an NWFA Certified Wood Flooring Inspector a few years ago to expand his knowledge. He adds that there are some positives to the climate in south Louisiana.

“I used to think high humidity was a bad thing with wood, but over the years, I have developed brotherly relationships with other NWFA members from across the nation, and they have both wet and dry seasons and often within the same week. The southeastern region tends to have high humidity year-round, which gives us the upper hand with overall stability,” says Short.

Justin Russell, owner of Pelican Hardwood Floors, focuses primarily on residential business, and notes that historic homes can bring other interesting considerations. “I see mostly heart pine flooring, which is an interesting sort of niche,” he shares. “Generally speaking, in the older houses, there are no subfloors, so it’s nailed directly to the joists, which brings some unique aspects as far as how weather affects the buildings.”

Pelican Hardwood Floors had the opportunity to sand and finish original heart pine flooring in the Buckner Mansion. A Bona Woodline polyurethane in gloss was used here. The mansion was built in 1856 in the Garden District, and has been featured in shows such as “American Horror Story.” | PHOTO COURTESY OF JUSTIN RUSSELL | PELICAN HARDWOOD FLOORS

“We look forward to the Expo like a big family reunion every year. I enjoy seeing everyone and meeting new people. It’s just a little extra awesome that it’s in New Orleans.”

-Willie Short, Coastal Inspection Services

Restoration

Unfortunately, the New Orleans area is no stranger to devastating hurricanes and flooding. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hurricane Katrina is the costliest storm on record in the United States (2005, $195 billion) and Hurricane Ida (2021, $82.4 billion) ranks sixth on that list.

“One of the biggest challenges following a hurricane is that most of your former customers want you at the same time. We have to create a waiting list based mainly on a first come/first served method – but always taking special needs into consideration,” explains Steele. “Also, obtaining materials after Hurricane Ida, coming on the heels of the pandemic, was a big challenge.”

Short echoes that, adding that stress levels are elevated following a storm. “Often, I have become more like Dr. Phil when I listen to the clients on how they’ve lost everything and their insurance isn’t doing their job, or how another contractor has done them wrong,” he says. “My rules are patience and never going up on the prices during these hard times. Treat the people fair and because of this, we have never gone without.”

Following Hurricane Ida, Russell says tens of thousands of people were without power in August, which meant the humidity spiked in people’s homes. “Sometimes working with insurance is easy and sometimes it’s not. Regardless, the inventory got snapped up, and the prices went through the roof,” he recalls. “After hurricanes, you have a lot of water damage, and people will call you two weeks later, wanting to remediate.

Unfortunately, I tell almost all of them to get an inspection because it’s not feasible to touch water damage two weeks after a storm.”

After Hurricane Katrina, Block did a lot of repair work. He remembers one of those jobs involved a house with seven feet of water, around 2,000 square feet of wood floors on sleepers, and about 25 percent moisture content. The insurance company wasn’t giving the homeowner enough money to replace the floors. However, Block strongly believed he could save the floors.

“He was already out of the house because he had gutted it and replaced the sheetrock. I told him we would sand them sideways against the grain. Since the floors were cupped, I didn’t want to sand off any wood; I just wanted to sand off the finish. Then, with the floors bare, I asked him and his family to simply live in the house for six months, and we’d keep checking the MC. The next day, he called me and said the wood floors were popping. I liked that because it meant the air conditioning could get to the oak and dry it out.”

From there, Block kept checking it once a month. After six months, he patched it some, and the moisture content was back at 12, so they sanded and finished it. Block says it saved the customer from paying more out of pocket.

“He thought I was a hero, and I said, ‘the hero is the air conditioner because that’s what dried up the floors, not me. I just opened it up enough so the air conditioner could get to it.’ I love to save a wood floor, and if it’s an old floor in somebody’s house, and I can find a way to save it, let me try to do that first instead of just tearing it out mindlessly and replacing it,” he says.

Only in New Orleans

Vision Wood has been a retailer in the New Orleans area for more than 40 years. They have a hardwood flooring gallery on the city’s popular Magazine Street.

“The architecture of New Orleans is unique, so every job is a bit different,” says James Berault, director of sales for Vision Wood. “From shotgun houses in the Irish Channel to Antebellum Victorian mansions in the Garden District, we’ve installed everything from antique heart pine to 5/16” rift and quartered top nail.”

Troendle notes New Orleans was built with a lot of wood. One of the most unique ways he’s worked with wood came to be when a customer on Bourbon Street wanted 300-year-old cypress floors removed from his house. The contractor pulled the floor out, and Troendle saved the wood.

The cowl, floorboards, and trunk of John Troendle’s 1928 Model A Speedster were made from 1 1/4” Louisiana swamp cypress that was salvaged from a home on Bourbon Street. The edges were wrapped in African Wenge strip made from wenge flooring giving a black accent. The instrument panel was made from a piece of solid genuine mahogany. The car was dry fitted together then painted and assembled. | PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN TROENDLE

“I collect old cars. A kit to build a Model A speedster came with a birch plywood deck, and because I am a wood guy, I thought, ‘I can’t put this on my car.’ We took the cypress and planed it, cut it up, and made a jig and a deck and installed the wood on the side of the car. It’s a beautiful car today, and it’s made out of Louisiana swamp cypress. As it turns out, you can make a car out of flooring,” says Troendle.

Short explains that working in the French Quarter can be challenging at times because of parking, setting up tool stations, and the fact that there is always so much going on in the area. He recalls a memorable moment from one job.

“I restored a mansion on St. Charles Avenue that once belonged to author Anne Rice. It was a magnificent place, and the job turned out spectacular,” says Short. “One thing that I’ll always remember is while we were there working, the clean-up crews were throwing old typewriters from a third story window into the dumpster. That was heartbreaking because there’s no telling what kind of stories have been typed on them.”

“In New Orleans, you have to put a floor in for July, August, and September because that’s when the floor is going to grow to its widest and not buckle.”

– John Troendle, Crescent Hardwood Supply

Vision Wood has been a retailer in the New Orleans area for more than 40 years. They have a hardwood flooring gallery on the city’s popular Magazine Street.

Raise the Bar at Expo

NWFA members based in the New Orleans area are looking forward to being the host city for this year’s Expo. On the following pages, they’ll share tips on how to experience the city like a local. Caldarera says she’s been hoping that Expo would come to her hometown for years.

“I’m most excited for people who have never been to New Orleans to use this time to bring someone with them, make a small vacation out of it, and get to tour New Orleans,” she shares. “Walking in the French Quarter brings me warmth. I just love my city. I love the richness, the food, and the old buildings.”

Besides attending education sessions at Expo, Block recommends visiting the exhibitors’ booths and learning about their products. He found out about a new machine on the trade show floor last year, bought two, and is using them today.

“I call it a shopping area. I love the new gadgets and vendors showing their products because I’m always learning something new,” he says. “It takes me hours to walk the show. I’m 65 years old, and you’d think I’d say, ‘I’m not going to learn anything else,’ but you can learn so much picking a vendor’s brain.”

Willie Short, left, owner of Willie James Quality Flooring and Coastal Inspection Services, has been in the business for 20 years and is an NWFA Regional Instructor. He feels that having Expo in New Orleans this year is going to be huge for the southeastern region of the hardwood industry and expanding the reach of NWFA in Louisiana. | PHOTO COURTESY OF WILLIE SHORT | WILLIE JAMES QUALITY FLOORING AND COASTAL INSPECTION SERVICES

Short feels it’s an important step to expand the reach of NWFA in Louisiana. “I think this is going to be huge for the southeastern region of the hardwood industry,” he says. “We look forward to the Expo like a big family reunion every year. I enjoy seeing everyone and meeting new people. It’s just a little extra awesome that it’s in New Orleans.”

We’ve established there will be plenty to see and do while Expo attendees are in New Orleans. Another important takeaway is that the city stands as a testament to the durability of wood floors. Block enjoys working on old floors on both sides of Lake Pontchartrain, many of which are well beyond a century old.

“I use that to stress to my customers that a wood floor is a forever floor,” says Block. “I’ve sanded floors that are 150 years old and have lived through hurricanes. So don’t tell me that wood floors don’t survive.”

Take in that history and enjoy the food and revelry you can only find in New Orleans, all while networking and learning with your wood flooring industry peers at Expo. You’re sure to pass a good time.

Libby White Johnston is the publisher of Hardwood Floors magazine. She can be reached at libby.johnston@nwfa.org. Disclaimer: Born and raised in Louisiana, Johnston thinks New Orleans is the greatest city around. She hopes y’all will enjoy the city’s etouffee, gumbo, oysters, crawfish, beignets, live music, architecture, and the fun of wandering in the French Quarter.


Tips for Enjoying New Orleans Like a Local

James Berault | Vision Wood | New Orleans
“I’d recommend strolling through the French Quarter. Check out Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub on Bourbon Street or the Spotted Cat Music Club on Frenchmen Street for jazz music. Try the jambalaya at Coop’s Place on Decatur or the oysters at Acme Oyster House. Also, it will be peak crawfish season in April. There is too much food, too much drinking, and too much fun in New Orleans. My number one tip is to pace yourself. As they say in New Orleans, ‘Laissez les bon temps rouler! Let the good times roll!’”

Benton Block | Abita Wood Floors | Abita Springs
“Try café au lait and beignets (a square donut with lots of powdered sugar). Get a seafood platter because nobody does seafood like New Orleans. Jackson Square is so historic, with the St. Louis Cathedral and the Pontalba buildings, which are 300 years old and have antique heart pine. Ride a streetcar in New Orleans and go down St. Charles Avenue to the uptown part of the city. Take a tour that includes Canal Street and the French Quarter; it’s probably the most interesting part of the United States.”

Justin Russell | Pelican Hardwood Floors | New Orleans
“If you’ve never been to New Orleans, taking a tour is worth it. There’s much to see, whether the French Quarter, Garden District, or a Ghost Tour. There’s everything from walking tours to carriage tours. Try food at Toups’ Meatery and Cochon Butcher, and if you’re into a different view, get on a paddlewheel boat to get a good look at the river.”

Elizabeth Caldarera | Ron-Del Floor Service | Harahan
“The World War II Museum is spectacular. Mardi Gras World is right next to the convention center, where you get to see them making parade floats and learn a lot about the history of New Orleans and Mardi Gras. There are so many good places for food and drinks. Gianna, Meril, Cochon, Lucy’s Bar, Jewel of the South, Fives Bar, the Double Dealer speakeasy bar under the Orpheum, the Sazerac Bar, and Muriel’s Jackson Square right next to the St. Louis Cathedral. Outside patio courtyard bars are hidden gems in alleys, which are fun to stop and have a drink at during the day. People are playing music all the time in the French Quarter, so it is always a party!”

Willie Short | Willie James Quality Flooring/Coastal Inspection Services | Greenwell Springs
“Take advantage of our unique cuisines. We have the best food in the world. Of course, people will frequent Bourbon Street, and the French Quarter is always entertaining. Then there’s the riverboat cruise if you’re into the history. The older-looking buildings probably have the best food when looking for places to eat. Fact: We grade our roast beef po’ boys by the napkin count. If you see advertised a seven-napkin (or greater) roast beef, you better order it! You won’t be disappointed.”

Mark Steele | Ron-Del Floor Service | Harahan
“There is just so much to see and do here. The homes in the Garden District, ride the streetcar down historic St. Charles Avenue. Jackson Square in the French Quarter along with the St. Louis Cathedral right there. The cemeteries are unique, and the National World War II Museum is world-class. And don’t forget to eat, eat, and eat. Just don’t eat at chain restaurants while you are here. We have too many great local eateries.”

John Troendle | Crescent Hardwood Supply | New Orleans
“Visit the D-Day Museum and try the food. Don’t plan to come to New Orleans if you’re on a diet. It’s crawfish season, so you have the chance to have a crawfish experience. It’s unique, it’s good, it’s a small lobster from heaven.”

 


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