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Originally published Tuesday, June 12, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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A building where the walls talk

On Location: In New Orleans, a renovated 19th-century building retained its brick walls, brawny beams and, from the more recent past, a kaleidoscope of graffiti.

The New York Times

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NEW ORLEANS — Lots of Manhattan residents have second homes in the Hamptons or the Hudson Valley. But in an effort to reduce the competitive fervor in their lives, and increase the eccentricity quotient, Cady McClain and Jon Lindstrom, actors who once played embattled divorcees on "As the World Turns," created their getaway in New Orleans.

Specifically, they zeroed in on a five-story rental building called Rice Mill Lofts in a joyous bohemian swath of the city known as Bywater. Like the other 68 units, their two-bedroom apartment has tall windows, sealed concrete floors and stark white walls that contrast beautifully with the brawny beams and brick walls of the original 1892 structure, once home to one of the largest rice processors in North America. It also has a more unusual amenity: graffiti left over from the building's derelict days.

McClain, 42, and Lindstrom, 54, had to sign an addendum to the lease that stipulates that they cannot remove or in any way deface the kaleidoscope of graffiti that spreads throughout the interior and on parts of the exterior of this building, which was heavily vandalized in the years it sat empty. In their case, this includes a sketch of a large birdlike figure on a prominent living room wall, with the sentence "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" spray-painted under it.

"The graffiti was a huge plus — it definitely made us want to live here," said McClain, who was also swayed by the functional art commissioned for the building. Bywater artists crafted forged-steel door handles, zanily deconstructed mailboxes and dangling light fixtures that look as if they were inspired by broken fluorescent tubes.

Such are the unconventional selling points at Rice Mill Lofts, where the developer, Sean Cummings, decided to make the graffiti the focus of his $20 million renovation. The decision hasn't hurt him. For apartments with really big, expressive graffiti, he said, there's usually a waiting list.

The building is now at full occupancy. But if an apartment should open up and you're willing to pay the highest per-unit residential rent in New Orleans (from $1,100 for a 930-square-foot studio to $4,000 for a 2,000-square-foot, three-bedroom apartment), you'll get not only a chic minimal living space, but also membership in a creative community with its own culture — a culture that emanates from the building itself.

It's a realm that in some ways mirrors the relaxed ethos of Bywater. The various parts of the building were created with the goal of bringing people together. Renters from wildly different backgrounds hang out and have cocktails on the roof deck, lured by a good sound system and the thrillingly close embrace of the Mississippi River.

Cummings, 47, bought the building 19 years ago but didn't begin renovations until March 2010 because the neighborhood was "a green banana," he said. (Translation: a dangerous but beguiling area below the French Quarter, on the edge of a slum.) And over the years, all manner of occupants sprayed it with graffiti.

"The funniest story is that we leased some space to some kids in their early 20s who were refinishing furniture," Cummings said. Some months later (he thinks it was around 2000), he picked up an issue of Details magazine and found an article about underground nightlife in New Orleans. "I read that this location was the best rave club in the nation," he said. "They had just flown in RuPaul and hundreds of people for a party. So much for our awesome security."

The arresting mural that reads "Boomlay Boomlay Boomlay Boom," now partly preserved in Lauren Kolb's bathroom, probably reflects the stomping bass rhythms of that era.

"I'm a vivid dreamer," said Kolb, 34, who moved in after a divorce. "I dream about this building and imagine homeless people camping out and setting up little homes for themselves."

After the raves and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the roof fell in, the floors gave way, termites took over and the city condemned the building.

Finally, Cummings decided he had to do something. So he renovated, working with LM Pagano, a Los Angeles interior designer, and Wayne Troyer, a local architect. The renovation makes this one of two large residential buildings in Bywater, and the only one on the river. And the river makes all the difference.

Cory Sanchez said that since he moved in, he has stopped going to bars.

"There are often 15 or 20 people up on the roof," said Sanchez, 36, a hairdresser who lives with his girlfriend in a unit they outfitted with scavenged and reinvented furniture. "If you sat up there for hours, you'd probably see everybody in the building."

Behind the building, near a floodwall, an 8-foot-high resin Buddha guards an exquisitely proportioned lap pool. Bathers can look up and see the words "You Are Beautiful" on a high parapet — rumor has it that the painting was done by Banksy, the British street-art star. Besides being a balm for bikini anxiety, the bannerlike declaration brands the building, Cummings said, because the overarching theme of the project is "inner beauty and the divine spark of creativity."

Cummings, a native-born prince of this city, cuts a curious figure in New Orleans. A graduate of Brown University, he has no training in marketing or design, but he is ferociously talented at both. He lives alone in a French Quarter house he bought from the actor Nicolas Cage, but right now he's leasing a $3,200-a-month two-bedroom unit here because he rented his house to a reality TV show for filming. He grabbed a few odds and ends from the big house to furnish it, including a Christian Liaigre sofa, a Senegalese drum table and a blown-glass bottle with a glass skull inside.

The French and African provenance of his things is no accident: Those were the cultures whose collision produced New Orleans, and Cummings always promotes design with historical resonance in a clean, contemporary way. His company, Ekistics, has so far transformed 16 local buildings into chic hotels and residences.

Even so, he would rather talk spirituality than real estate. "Our motto is great beauty infused with great meaning," he said. "The reason we do that is it touches people on a spiritual level."

Spiritual or not, residents seem to be getting something out of the ordinary from his building.

Anne Messner, 32, was a currency trader in Manhattan before she moved to New Orleans two years ago. She and her husband met Cummings at his hotel bar, Loa, and he eventually hired her as a manager of Rice Mill Lofts. About five months ago, she separated from her husband, moved into the building and plunged into its social whirl. "On my floor, everyone is either separated or just got divorced," she said. "Sometimes we're each other's therapists."

She continued: "The thing is, where do you want to live when you're going through something that brings you down? This place, you're excited about having a big, beautiful space and a sense of community. You can go up on the rooftop, have a drink with everyone and think, 'Oh, this is going to be fun.' "

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