Dr. Victor J. Durapau, Jr.
On the night of Friday, August 26, 2005, Dr. Victor J. DuRapau, Jr. had clicked off the news following a report that Hurricane Katrina was a Category 3 storm swirling toward the Florida panhandle. When he woke up Saturday morning and checked the news again, the storm had strengthened to a Category 5 making a direct line for New Orleans.
Dr. DuRapau realized he had no choice. Born and raised in New Orleans, this would mark his first evacuation. He called his sister, Sr. Theresa Mary DuRapau, RSM, to make sure that she and her friend Sr. Michael Mary Gutowski, RSM were preparing to leave. Then DuRapau called an old high school friend in Jackson, Mississippi to make arrangements for a short stay, packed up a travel bag, and set off with his beloved cat Mickey. Left behind at his home in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood were nearly all of his material possessions, including hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photographs, keepsakes, and family documents spanning back across multiple generations.
“I didn’t take much. I figured we’d be back in a few days,” says Dr. DuRapau.
It would not be until October that Dr. DuRapau first came back to New Orleans. Upon his return, however, his initial instinct did not take him to assess the damage at his home at 5100 Elysian Fields Avenue. Instead, seemingly without full realization of what he was doing, Dr. DuRapau found himself in the midst of a remarkable detour.
Before driving to see his own home, Dr. DuRapau went to 2304 St. Roch Avenue to check on his childhood home—a home which the family had sold some 30 years before.
“It’s still mysterious to me exactly why, after all this time, an impulse compelled me to go see my childhood home in St. Roch,” he says.
The double shotgun home had been purchased in 1935 by Dr. DuRapau’s aunt, Leonora Espinosa, a schoolteacher by trade and entrepreneur by nature. Ms. Espinosa purchased three homes in New Orleans during the Great Depression’s wave of foreclosures. An electronic copy of her meticulous ledger report, now in possession of Dr. DuRapau, indicates that 2304/2306 St. Roch Avenue was the first. Ms. Espinosa’s ledger was one of the few family documents that Dr. DuRapau scanned before Katrina’s destruction.
The ledger also shows that the DuRapau family (dad, mom, older sister Leonora, and baby Victor) paid Ms. Espinosa their first full month’s rent in November 1941 for the 2304 side of the property, when Dr. DuRapau was barely a year old. The rent at the time was $17 per month. Dr. DuRapau never knew another home during his youth.
In the months and years after Hurricane Katrina, Dr. DuRapau’s life began to regain some sense of normalcy. He was living in a FEMA trailer in front of his storm-ravaged home in Gentilly and had resumed his job as a mathematics professor at Xavier University. Still, he often found himself returning to his childhood home to feed feral cats and dogs in the vicinity but also to dip into the many joyous childhood memories that flooded his consciousness.
“It was as if the neighborhood and the house were calling me, saying this was home, urging me to come back,” he says.
In his trips to St. Roch, he would encounter Mr. Lucien Peters III and his wife Charlene, a couple who had moved in next door at 2300 St. Roch Avenue in 1962. As Dr. DuRapau recalls, the Peters family was one of the first African-American families to move on to St. Roch Avenue. In heartwarming contrast to much of the racial turmoil which plagued New Orleans at the time, when the DuRapau family decided to sell the house in 1975, they insisted that the Peters family gain ownership of 2304/2306 for their growing family and offered a reduced price to ensure that it happened.
As time passed, it became increasingly clear to Dr. DuRapau that he needed to repurchase his childhood home from the Peters family, that no other house could ever again be a true home.
An emotional obstacle still stood in his way, however. Nearly self-honest to a fault, Dr. DuRapau feared that his older sister Sr. Theresa, who then was still fighting an advanced stage of cancer, would be deeply concerned if she learned that her younger brother was thinking of repurchasing their childhood home.
“I was scared she was going to think I was going off the deep-end,” jokes Dr. DuRapau. “I figured she’d think that I had given up on reality, that the past was all I had to live for,” he says.
Much to the contrary and much to the encouragement of Dr. DuRapau, Sr. Theresa was filled with delight by the plans of her younger brother.
On February 11, 2008, Dr. DuRapau repurchased 2304 St. Roch Avenue from the Peters family. The home was still in the process of being gutted. At the suggestion of Mr. Peters, III, Dr. DuRapau enlisted the help of contractor Michael Reynolds, who shared Dr. DuRapau’s enthusiasm for the project.
Now, 2304 St. Roch Avenue has been restored as a beautiful converted shotgun, with the utmost attention dedicated to preserving the historic detail of the original home, including keeping the exterior of the single family home looking as a shotgun double.
“My decision to rebuild here was about much more than the past. This is where I felt at home, this is where I felt at peace. Taking on the project gave me a hope and purpose that I hadn’t felt since Katrina,” explains Dr. DuRapau.
Since restoring the home, Dr. DuRapau says that a number of neighbors have stopped by to thank him for making such a commitment to the St. Roch neighborhood. He, in turn, tells them that this close-knit community is one of the best kept secrets of New Orleans’ neighborhoods.
“St. Roch is truly a part of me. It’s a part of me and was a part of my sister. Naturally, we wanted to be a part of the rebuilding process. This is home—the city, this neighborhood—it’s all a part of me and my family. And people are going to live in this home long after me. I want this house to have another 100 years of life, so that someone else might enjoy this house and the neighborhood as much as I and my family have,” he says.
*Courtesy of Faubourg St. Roch Project