An around-the-clock architectural team

AMES Yeates pokes at the bottom of one of the four white pillars supporting the faade of the Greek Revival mansion on Fourth Street, near this city's plush Garden District. Small pieces of wood flake away. ``There's some rot here,'' he says, making a mental note of yet another detail to be attended to before restoration of this rambling 1870s dwelling is complete. A few steps away, Cynthia Yeates points over a fence to a ramshackle shed off to one side of the house. It will soon give way to an addition -- a connected den that will be traditional on the outside, in keeping with the architecture of the rest of the building, and probably very contemporary on the inside.

The Fourth Street house is just one of eight to 10 projects the Yeateses have going at any given time. A team on the job and off, they've spent the last three years in a kind of ``24-hour partnership'' -- building the architectural firm of Yeates & Yeates, finding how their professional strengths can complement each other, and occasionally even throwing on overalls to crawl under old houses for a closer look at just what they're getting themselves into. Historic renovation, a mainstay of architecture in this preservation-conscious city, is one of their specialties.

Ames, a tall, blond fellow who looks and sounds ``all-American,'' is from Memphis; Cynthia is a native New Orleanian. A few years after meeting as architecture students at Tulane University here, they married, settled in this ``Crescent City,'' and for a number of years worked in separate firms.

But architecture involves ``tremendous amounts of one's time,'' says Cynthia, and they frequently found one another ``down in somebody else's office until 10 or 11 at night.'' That, she says, had a lot to do with their decision to join forces in a company of their own.

Their lives changed radically as a result of that decision. ``For us, our business and our private lives are totally intermingled,'' notes Cynthia, with a smile that indicates this is an agreeable state of affairs. Ames nods assent, adding that the positive aspects of such close husband-wife teamwork include simply getting to know each other even better than they would otherwise. ``We know each other intuitively,'' he says, pointing out that this enables them to work as ``a unit'' on projects, while still being aware of their individual talents.

Not that they don't sometimes ``see things somewhat differently,'' says Ames. ``There are definitely tiffs.'' But they manage to talk things out and arrive at an agreed-upon modus operandi for Yeates & Yeates. Above all, declares Ames, it's a full partnership -- not an arrangement where the husband ``works'' and the wife answers the phone. She has her own architect's license, he emphasizes.

That said, Ames acknowledges, however, that ``architecture is a somewhat male-dominated profession.'' ``Very male-dominated,'' Cynthia interjects. She senses this bias at work when clients ask to talk to her husband once the subject touches on money. On the other hand, says Ames, he has noticed that some men are actually more comfortable talking with a woman, possibly because competitive feelings are absent.

In any case, Yeates & Yeates appears to be thriving, with business divided about equally between residential projects and commercial ones. A relatively small example of the latter is their own new headquarters building taking shape in New Orleans's ``warehouse district.'' This part of the city is just beginning to experience a renaissance.

The architects' new office will be in a compact two-story building wedged between larger edifices on South Peters Street. The Yeateses have adhered closely to the city's traditional French-style, balconied architecture, since the building is in an officially designated historic district. Also, says Cynthia, ``we hope to set a precedent for future development in the district.''

For her, historic preservation is something in the blood from a New Orleans upbringing. ``You get an inherent concern for the older fixtures that are important to a city,'' she says. And in this city, whose 1718 founding makes it one of the country's older metropolises, ``tradition plays an important part in everybody's life.''

But for architects, adhering to tradition can mean some special challenges -- for example, finding just the right plaster molding, or locating the contractor who is willing to go the extra mile to do a job right.

By contrast, he says, one of the rewards of his job is contact with some truly masterly artisans. He mentions a local company run by fourth-generation plasterers who specialize in Victorian column caps and ``beautiful'' bas-relief work.

As we poke around the high-ceilinged rooms of the Fourth Street mansion -- the owners of which are moving themselves and their three young children from room to room to accommodate the restoration work -- Cynthia explains that many architects shy away from preservation, since the profits tend to be lower than in new construction. And typically, ``things are out of plumb and out of square,'' notes her husband, which complicates design problems.

But such hurdles don't deter Yeates & Yeates. ``You just have to like to do it,'' concludes Ames, adding that when it comes to architectural conundrums, he and Cynthia are just gluttons for punishment.

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