NEW ORLEANS -- It might as well have been Nov. 19, 1927 at 317 Baronne St. on Thursday.
Much like that day nearly 90 years ago, the doors to the opulent lobby with its gleaming terrazzo floor and arcade of 20-foot-wide plaster domes flung open to welcome a curious public.
Back in ’27 it was the grand opening of the new headquarters of New Orleans Public Service, Inc. In ’17 it was the grand opening of the new NOPSI Hotel, named in honor of the utility -- now Entergy -- that called the eight-story structure home for 65 years.
“NOPSI employees … loved working here,” said Ellen LeMaire, the hotel’s general manager, who noted that some of the descendants of those staffers who have taken a peek at the hotel have shared their own reminiscences.
The NOPSI Hotel includes 217 rooms and will bring life back to a block that had become largely desolate when the utility closed the building on Jan. 17, 1992, in favor of a less striking but more accessible and modern customer-service center on Canal Street, just off Broad Street.
SUCCESSFUL PLAN AFTER YEARS OF FALSE STARTS
Since the building’s abandonment 25 years ago, a number of owners proposed opening a hotel but each plan proved a false start. Instead, the building, finished in tan Indiana limestone, became a canvas for graffiti artists and smelled of mildew and mold.
Though some parts of the building were restored, such as the exterior and grand lobby, much of the inside of the building will look different from the days when locals would show up to pay their electric bill or take a cooking class in an upstairs auditorium.
But each change is a nod to the utility that provided the city’s gas and electric service and ran public transportation before handing that off to the Regional Transit Authority in the 1980s.
A bar called underCurrent is in the lobby instead, and it will open to a patio at the corner of Baronne and Union streets.
Above the Grid will be the latest rooftop bar in the Central Business District, and a restaurant called Public Service will operate in an adjoining building.
The Dryades Ballroom will serve as an event space in another connected building at Union Street and O’Keefe Avenue. The centerpiece is a crane that once was used to move storage vaults for repairs which now hangs 24 feet above the floor.
Salamander Hotels & Resorts, which operates the hotel, pays homage to the building’s history with a display of NOPSI memorabilia and paraphernalia offered by locals and other collectors.
A REVOLUTIONARY BUILDING AT ITS OPENING
NOPSI opened its new headquarters just five years into its existence, spurred by a reorganization of the old New Orleans Railway and Light Company.
The completion of the building made headlines in the morning and afternoon papers, all of which printed special sections for the dedication.
Months ahead of the opening, The New Orleans Item, one of the city’s afternoon newspapers, printed an article said the building would “undoubtedly be the best equipped structure in the south devoted exclusively to housing a corporation.”
The article also noted that while the building was eight stories tall, the foundation was designed to hold additional floors.
“We built the foundation so solid so we could build on four more stories, because we expect that the demands of the people will increase,” NOPSI President Herbert Baker Flowers was quoted as saying in The Item the day the building was dedicated.
The first floor was dedicated to public spaces and included a large display window where passers-by could check out the latest in electric and gas appliances. Several ads that ran in newspapers the day of the dedication invited visitors to drop in and check out a novel invention: an electric oven.
The fifth floor included a medical suit with exam rooms, a lab and X-ray room. The eighth floor was home to the executive offices and classrooms for employees.
Thought also was given to muffling the ringing of phones and loud chuck, chuck, chuck of typewriters and adding machines by installing soundproofing material.
Getting from one department to another was easier since the elevators had a new technology that allowed them to start and stop on their own at each floor.
If a quick call would be faster, an internal phone system allowed for private conversations among department and pneumatic tubes could also carry messages.
Though email and computers were still decades away, a precursor of sorts, known as a “telautograph system,” would use electricity to transfers written orders and memoranda instantaneously from one department to another.
Even though the building housed the city’s electric utility and an intricate lighting system was installed, engineers said there were times it wouldn't be necessary.
“(T)his elaborate electric lighting system will be required only at night as the various floors have been laid out so that it is practically a daylight building and a worker at a desk in the center of the building will have ample natural light and ventilation without having to depend on artificial means for these two necessities,” read an article in The New Orleans States, another afternoon paper, the day before the dedication.
CLOSURE FOLLOWED TREND IN CBD
The decision to close the Baronne Street building came as the CBD and Canal Street saw fewer people on the streets thanks to flight from the inner city to the suburbs and other changing habits.
The once-bustling office building had a lonely feel the day before it closed, The Times-Picayune reported.
"It's like a mausoleum in here now," Isabelle Carter told reporter Lynne Jensen, who noted that Carter’s words echoed across the lobby. "There are no people to absorb the sound now - not like back in the '40s, when they even sold and repaired lamps and small appliances here. They had a home economics department where you could get recipes, and an auditorium upstairs where they had cooking lessons and gave out samples. I remember they'd fix peaches and strawberries and figs in the summer."
And much like the closure was part of a larger trend of decline in the area, the NOPSI building reopening is part of another trend: renewed interest in the area in the form of new hotels and housing.
Kurt Weigle, president and CEO of the Downtown Development District, said there are “easily a couple dozen” renovation projects either on the drawing board or already underway in the area.
Around the corner on Union Street, the Catahoula, a boutique hotel, opened in what was another abandoned building. The Aloft Hotel opened in the 200 block of Baronne Street in another formerly abandoned high rise.
Also nearby, the former Rault Center opened as the Troubadour Hotel. Next to that, the historic Pythian Building is being renovated an apartment building with a ground-floor food hall.
Not too far away, construction continues on The Standard, a condo building, the latest building to rise in the South Market District.
Many of those projects are opening in restored buildings, thanks to historic tax credits.
And though Weigle said residential developments might soon max out in regard to the number of people who can fill them, “the jury is still out in terms of hotels.”
New Orleans last year set a new record with 10.45 million visitors, according to the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
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