Investing in New Orleans' Past Brightens its Present – and Future

Posted on: September 3rd, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Erica Stewart

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the National Trust’s historic tax credit equity investing business: an endeavor that has brought more than $330 million to the rehabilitation of 60+ commercial buildings nationwide. Support from the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC) has helped revive vacant and abandoned structures that were once lively vaudeville theaters, bustling department stores, revered office buildings, and various others: a Masonic Temple, a brewery, a gas station, a jail, to name a few.

In celebration of the 10th anniversary milestone, PreservationNation will be featuring ten adaptive use projects financed in part by NTCIC. You may be surprised to learn of the amazing transformations that are happening across the county—even in these challenging economic times. They are a testament to the creativity and imagination of the human spirit, the durability of historic buildings, and the strong economic benefit of preserving them. You may even recognize one from a favorite city street near you.

In honor of another anniversary—but hardly grounds for celebration—our first project spotlight takes us to Louisiana five years after Hurricane Katrina. This is a place where, thanks in part to additional federal incentives, NTCIC has invested $60 million in $117 million worth of historic rehabilitation projects that are bringing life and economic development back to the storm-battered areas. These range from a former furniture showroom conversion into a dynamic community center currently ongoing in New Orleans’ gritty Bywater (a project covered here) to the elegant remodel of the bedraggled Hotel Pontchartrain in the fashionable Lower Garden District.

The Pontchartrain Hotel

The Pontchartrain Hotel in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District.

The Pontchartrain Hotel in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District.

The Pontchartrain Hotel stands 14 stories above St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans’ Lower Garden district and was the tallest building in the city when it was constructed in 1927. Its history is a mostly glorious one, as its lush furnishings and one-of-a-kind antiques represented the epitome of luxury travel. Stars such as Richard Burton and Mary Martin stayed there when they came to town, and both had suites named after them. Many prominent New Orleanians such as Edith Stern, the Sears and Roebuck heiress, and Frankie Besthoff, whose family co-founded the K&B drugstore chain, called it home.

"In its heyday, it was considered one of the very best hotels in the country," said Honore Aschaffenburg, grandson of the hotel's founder. "It evoked some of the best qualities of New Orleans -- the wonderful, gregarious nature of the people who live here and how they enjoy entertaining and interacting with one another."

Its beloved high-end restaurant, the Caribbean Room, was equally popular among celebrities—Walt Disney, Ginger Rogers and Tennessee Williams to name a few—and for its extravagant dessert, a gravity-defying combination of ice cream and meringue known as the “mile-high pie.”

The lobby of the restored Pontchartrain Hotel.

The lobby of the restored Pontchartrain Hotel.

The Pontchartrain lost some of its luster in the latter part of the 20th century, as the number of hotels downtown and in the French Quarter expanded. Hurricane Katrina’s rage delivered only a glancing blow in 2005, but the ensuing dampness, utility outages, and vandalism caused extensive interior deterioration. The building closed in 2007 while new building owners David Burrus and George Newton III mounted a campaign to save the Pontchartrain from destruction. In 2008 they launched a $21 million historic rehabilitation effort that converted the property into a grand 84-unit senior housing facility.

The Pontchartrain made its triumphant return to New Orleans’ high society in the summer of 2009. Its former guest rooms have been enlarged and configured to serve as both independent and assisted-living apartments for seniors. The Caribbean Room is back, but reserved for residents only, while its other cherished watering hole, the Bayou Bar, is welcoming patrons new and old alike to step back into the days of Frank Sinatra and gas-powered chandeliers.

In addition to a cognac-flavored taste of the past, the Pontchartrain Hotel rehabilitation is delivering significant economic benefit to the revitalization of New Orleans as well. The project is estimated to generate 387 jobs, $1.1 million in state and local taxes and $11.6 million in household and business income. Now, I’ll drink to that.

Erica Stewart is the outreach coordinator for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s community revitalization department.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Revitalization