Apr 26, 2023
A perfect mini St. Louis Cathedral, Circle Food store and colorful shotgun houses... for birds
Standing outside of his Metairie home on a hot Friday afternoon, Gary Ward
Standing outside of his Metairie home on a hot Friday afternoon, Gary Ward considered a conundrum: How can he create a miniature Cafe du Monde replica that accurately depicts the French Quarter locale, but also comfortably accommodates a small bird? After all, determining the right measurements is a key component of a hobby that has blossomed into a small business.
Ward, a retired mechanical engineer, constructs birdhouses that depict architectural and cultural gems found throughout New Orleans and south Louisiana. With help from his wife, Cindy, he has created avian dwellings that resemble colorful shotgun homes, Circle Food Store, the St. Louis Cathedral and The Joy Theater, along with snowball stands — complete with a list of flavors — and seafood markets.
Gary Ward, a retired mechanical engineer, builds birdhouses that are tiny replicas of architectural gems in New Orleans and south Louisiana.
"Sometimes the hobby finds you, or sometimes you find the hobby," said Ward. "I'm not a quilter. I don't sew. I don't take trash and make it into treasure. I've always liked woodworking. And this is a small, manageable project that doesn't require a lot of storage space."
This birdhouse looks like a typical New Orleans shotgun house.
At an early age, Ward learned basic carpentry skills from his father, who built their family's Lakeview home. But he became more serious about designing birdhouses in 2014, after retiring from his 28-year career with Chevron Oronite in Belle Chasse. He was partially inspired by a book about building birdhouses that resembled actual buildings in the author's hometown.
Ward gathers his ideas by driving around New Orleans. He begins the building process in his garage, which he has converted into woodworking studio stocked with power tools, a file cabinet full of illustrations depicting the proper scale and dimensions of each birdhouse, and cans of Benjamin Moore paint.
When assembling a birdhouse, Ward uses new and recycled wood, rather than treated wood; the wood joints are pin-nailed and attached together with waterproof glue. He coats the wood with an oil-based primer and an exterior-grade latex or oil-based paint. The process lasts anywhere from 40 to 80 hours.
Ward notes that each configuration contains removable panels, so that it can be cleaned, and an entry hole designed for several bird species inhabiting the region.
A Bayou Seafood birdhouse
"I mean, it is a birdhouse," Ward said. "It's functional."
Ward's first New Orleans-style birdhouse was a bright yellow shotgun home embellished with green shutters, real roof shingles, a front porch and curvy corbels. He has since made several variations of this design by modifying the roofline, adding porch columns and creating unique color combinations.
"I can make a shotgun 50 different ways and be creative about it," Ward said. "I love the little detail work on it."
Ward didn't intend to turn his hobby into a business. But after the birdhouses began filling his living room, he decided to put them up for sale.
Acting on his sister's advice, he became a vendor at the monthly art market in Palmer Park, and he has also participated in two art markets on the north shore. He displays and sells his products at Le Boulevard, a local consignment and antiques store in Metairie, and on Etsy.com, under the name bigeasybirdhouses.
A St. Louis Cathedral birdhouse
A simple birdhouse costs $75, but the more elaborate designs range from $165 to $700. Ward also creates custom birdhouses.
"It all comes down to what a person wants to pay for it. Several people have asked, ‘Will you build a birdhouse for me?’," Ward said. "I explain to them, I've got to create a drawing and it takes time, and it's probably going to cost X hundred dollars. That's the last I hear from them."
The Circle Food Store and the New Canal Lighthouse were two of the most difficult birdhouses to build, but Ward embraces the challenge.
"I like the creativity part that involves coming up with different designs and such. I like the detail part of it," he said. "I work real hard and push myself to get things to be accurately dimensioned."
Cindy Ward helps her husband, Gary, by painting a birdhouse at their home studio in Metairie.
Ward also appreciates his mornings at the monthly Uptown art market, which is currently closed because of coronavirus.
"When the idea of the art market was originally mentioned to me, I must say I didn't feel like I would enjoy that very much. But once I got out there and saw the people's enthusiasm and willingness to talk about all of this, I really enjoyed it," he said, noting that he isn't building birdhouses for the money.
"Basically, it gives me something meaningful to do during the day. I can only mow so much grass. I used to play golf a lot, but I don't even want to do that every day. This is more relaxing to me."
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