House Floats Keep Spirits And Artists Afloat In What Organizers Hope Is A Locals-Only Mardi Gras
When Crissy Whalin and her 12-year-old son, Zephyr Cooke, settled in Algiers Point in 2020, the last thing they expected was a front-row seat to New Orleans’s Mardi Gras comeback.
With less than two weeks until Fat Tuesday, their neighborhood has emerged as a house float hotbed. There are more than 140 decorated homes within walking distance and thousands more a short drive away.
“I’m from California, where we would just be complaining,” Whalin said. “People in New Orleans know how to take the crap and make something great with it.”
The house floats movement was born on Nov. 17, 2020, the same day the city announced there would be no parades during the upcoming Carnival season due to the coronavirus.
In response, Megan Boudreaux, a 38-year-old insurance claims manager, took to Twitter and wrote the following:
“Last year I made a bunch of origami flowers that kiddo and I passed out to people while we wandered around the French Quarter. Tempted to continue the theme, turn the whole house into a flower float and pass out flowers to the neighbors while I drink all day.”
Boudreaux lives in Algiers Point and invited her neighbors to decorate their homes as well. Fast forward 11 weeks and she’s now founder and captain of the city’s newest and fastest-growing krewe — the Krewe of House Floats.
“It's a little surreal how we got to this place,” Boudreaux said. “What was meant to be kind of an offhand comment turned into the whole city. It turned into the whole country.”
There are now more than 3,000 house floats, according to the krewe’s map. While the vast majority are in the greater New Orleans area, Mardi Gras enthusiasts have created floats in at least 40 states.
The house float movement has given birth to a mini economy, putting laid-off musicians and artists back to work, saving businesses and fundraising for New Orleanians in need.
Amongst the sea of semi-homemade floats — many quite modest — are more professional endeavors. Art studios tasked with creating traditional Mardi Gras floats were left in the lurch this year. The house float movement has given them an opportunity to keep working and share their creations with a wider audience.
“I've gotten messages from artists and businesses who said, ‘We didn't know how we were going to get through this year,” Boudreaux said. “The fact that house floats exist, they’re keeping the Mardi Gras economy afloat.”
On a recent Sunday, the day before the krewe’s map was set to launch, many of Boudreaux’s neighbors were busy completing their floats.
One woman attempted to reattach the arms of a lifesize LEGO mannequin torn off by the wind, while children sprawled in the sun, painting cardboard cutouts to resemble cartoonish tiki torches and colorful fish.
Whalin and her son Zephyr decorated their home too. It’s modeled after the board game Candyland, complete with inflatable gummy bears, homemade game pieces, and ice cream balloons.
“It’s a play on board games because we’re bored at home,” Whalin said. The house float’s official name is Covidland.
While many neighborhoods and blocks have themes, people are free to decorate their homes as they choose. And while the movement has largely been do-it-yourself, there’s a growing number of vendors selling ready-made and semi-made items and supplies.
“We wanted to make sure that everybody who wanted to would have a piece of Mardi Gras joy,” Boudreaux said. “The folks who have the means have really stepped up to hire local, shop local, and get their throws locally.”
Not A Tourist Attraction
Boudreaux, who until recently worked in marine insurance, is known by her krewe members as Admiral B. From her front porch, decorated to resemble the deck of a ship, you can hear wind chimes and a ferry blowing its horn as it makes its way across the Mississippi River.
She said her home’s design is both punny and practical. Dubbed the USS House Float, it has nautical flags, life preservers and an oversized ship wheel. Cutout waves adorn the railings and there’s even a large clamshell which Boudreaux says is a relic from Mardi Gras past.
As krewe captain, she runs a tight ship. Boudreaux’s been in constant contact with the city to ensure the house float movement complies with coronavirus restrictions and she’s given strict orders to the krewe’s members.
“The focus is making sure everybody understands the city guidelines and the state guidelines and reminding people constantly, ‘Mask up, social distance, keep moving along and don't start a crowd,’” Boudreaux said.
There are no large gatherings or official tours sponsored by the Krewe of House Floats. Instead, locals are encouraged to visit house floats on their own time, either by car or on foot.
For krewe members and house float enthusiasts outside of the city, Boudreaux issued a “parade at home order” asking people not to travel to New Orleans.
She’s called out articles marketing the house floats movement as a tourist attraction and put together a virtual tour for out-of-towners.
“The pandemic is raging throughout the whole country. It would be irresponsible of us to say, ‘Yeah, please come visit New Orleans,’” Boudreaux said. “We want people to be safe.”
For weeks Mayor LaToya Cantrell and other officials have invited tourists to visit for Mardi Gras, as long as they adhere to local restrictions.
Large gatherings in the French Quarter at the end of January led to internet outrage. In response, the city announced new restrictions, including city-wide bar closures not just on Fat Tuesday, but for the four days prior. In the Quarter, the sale of packaged liquor is also banned.
High traffic areas, including Bourbon Street, Frenchmen Street and Decatur Street will be closed to vehicles and pedestrians from 7 p.m. until 3 a.m. The Claiborne Corridor, a more local gathering place, will also be fenced off.
With the city’s party district largely shut-down, there’s fear tourists could congregate at house floats.
If crowds do gather, Boudreaux has trained homeowners and sub-krewe leaders to take responsibility, disperse crowds themselves or call the city for assistance.
“Mardi Gras took a lot of flack in 2020 for being a super-spreader event,” Boudreaux said. “We really don't want to repeat that.”
And while house floats have helped revive the Carnival spirit, Boudreaux said she wants people to know New Orleanians are still struggling.
Many are unemployed and some are afraid to return to work. Beloved restaurants and bars have closed that will never reopen. The city is facing an eviction crisis and widespread hunger. Elderly culture bearers are still waiting to get the vaccine.
House Floats Are Floating Artists In A Crisis
When Coco Darrow of The Stronghold Studios first heard about house floats, she didn’t see it as something that could save the family business.
“I actually thought that it might be a good way to make a little extra money to help cushion the cost of closing the business down,” Darrow said.
Since the 1990s, Stronghold Studios has produced custom commercial artwork. If you’ve gone to New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, you’ve seen their work in the form of food booth facades, stage headers and signs.
Darrow said before the pandemic, business was steady. Between festivals, corporate events and even private parties, their workspace in Mid City stayed pretty busy. Then the pandemic hit.
Jazz Fest was canceled. The other forms of work Stronghold relied on, like building props and backdrops for concert tours and movie sets, were gone too.
Between March and December, Stronghold completed a single paid project. At that point, Darrow said she and her husband Ian decided to pull the plug on the business.
Then, they heard about house floats. Darrow posted Stronghold’s information in a Facebook group created by the Krewe of House Floats. Then, the orders started flooding in.
“As time went on, we thought maybe we won’t have to close,” Darrow said. “And as more time went on, we realized we’re never going to close our doors.”
Back in December, Darrow and her husband Ian were a team of two. Now they’re a team of nine.
“One guy walked off the street and asked if we could use a hand, and we could. He knew how to use a jigsaw, so we put him to work,” Darrow said.
Over the last two months, they’ve crafted some of the city’s most iconic house floats honoring Big Freedia, Dolly Parton, Leah Chase, Stacey Abrams and the Golden Girls. In total, there are more than 25 Stronghold house floats.
In addition to custom floats, Stronghold has been churning out semi-made items for the more budget-conscious. There are parade reveler cutouts painted flat black for $55 and hand-painted lawn signs reading “Krewe of Lagniappe” for $60.
“This is more projects than we’ve ever done at one time,” Darrow said. “At first that seemed challenging and that we were being brave. Now I feel confident.”
Professionally designed house floats aren’t cheap and can cost homeowners thousands of dollars. As a result, many are located in the city’s higher-income areas, like Uptown, Lakeview and the Garden District.
While Devin De Wulf’s team has also designed homes in these neighborhoods, they’ve attempted to spread the love by raffling off house floats.
De Wulf, a 35-year-old stay-at-home dad and parade organizer, has lived in New Orleans since 2007. He’s the founder of the Krewe of Red Beans and has found ways to support the community throughout the pandemic.
When the coronavirus hit the city last year, he mobilized his 300-member krewe to feed health care workers, before shifting his attention to the city’s culture bearers. The meal program partners with local restaurants while employing the city’s struggling musicians.
“We want to help New Orleans get through COVID in any possible way we can,” De Wulf said. “There’s not a big safety net here.”
As the house float began to take off, a friend of De Wulf’s, Mardi Gras artist Caroline Thomas, had an idea: hire laid-off artists to decorate people’s homes.
In two months, they’ve raised $300,000 through crowdfunding and employed 48 artists, and are in the process of transforming 24 homes and businesses.
Almost all of the money they’ve raised has been spent locally, according to De Wulf, and artists are paid at competitive rates. When a project is under budget, the remaining money goes toward feeding New Orleanians.
While some of the floats have been commissioned by businesses, others have been raffled off, like a tiny house float in the city’s 7th Ward.
The float honors Louisiana’s wildlife, complete with giant spoonbills and pelicans. Paper mache flowers blossom from the front porch.
“The house has a back door and a side door as well. We could really take up the whole front door and the front porch and it’s completely full,” De Wulf said. “It’s almost like you can’t see the house anymore. It’s really magical.”
House Floats Could Become Tradition — And A New Revenue Source
Darrow and De Wulf think house floats are here to stay. De Wulf said he also sees the current moment as an opportunity to bring Mardi Gras artists out of the shadows and make sure they’re valued and supported.
“I’ve gotten a crash course in float building, and unfortunately it’s the kind of industry that’s very cutthroat and doesn’t have great working conditions,” De Wulf said.
He plans to launch a nonprofit float-building company that’s focused on celebrating the city’s artists and helping them produce their best work.
“We’re looking at a great opportunity to create a new model for how to make a Mardi Gras float,” De Wulf said.
For Darrow, Mardi Gras is typically a quiet season. Stronghold is normally gearing up for Jazz Fest and doesn’t work on traditional floats.
“We’re more than ready to adopt this into our schedule,” Darrow said. “It would be really perfect for us to do house floats and Jazz Fest at the same time.”
Whalin and her son Zephyr are thinking about next year as well. They don’t know what their house will look like, but they’ve been inspired by De Wulf’s team of artists and other massive displays on St. Charles Avenue.
“Next year we’ll go big because scale is everything,” Walin said. “We’re gonna go big or go home.”