With 1927’s Pontchartrain Hotel, a son builds his father’s Mile High Pie-in-the sky dream project | Entertainment/Life
Truth be told, New Orleanians weren’t so sure about it.
The Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue would go on to become a cherished — even legendary — place where the New Orleans Saints came into being, where Tennessee Williams toiled over “A Streetcar Named Desire,” where American presidents would slumber.
But it would be a while before that affection took root.
Although opened in February 1927, the hotel’s history really began a decade earlier and a couple of miles from its eventual location just on the Garden District side of Lee Circle.
Originally, it was the brainchild of developer Albert Aschaffenburg, the man behind such projects as the Lafayette Hotel and a number of local apartment buildings, including the once-tony Casa Grande Apartment building in which he lived — and would die — on St. Charles Avenue.
He didn’t envision the Pontchartrain Hotel on the Avenue, though. Rather, he planned to build it opposite the Grunwald Hotel (today the Roosevelt Hotel) on University Place (today Roosevelt Way) just off Canal Street (forever Canal Street).
He even bought land for it there, adjacent to the Orpheum Theater site — the theater was still in planning stages — and even had that land cleared.
Announced in March 1917, Aschaffenburg’s original Pontchartrain Hotel was to cost an estimated $700,000 — the equivalent of $15.2 million in 2022 — and boast 800 guest rooms spread out over 13 stories.
Each room would feature such amenities as a private bathroom, running ice water and hollow, sound-dampening tiles on common walls. On the roof: a glass-enclosed garden. In the basement: a restaurant and bar. In between: a swanky ballroom dubbed “the Crystal Room” and an assortment of meeting rooms.
Alas, 10 months after the Pontchartrain Hotel project was announced, Aschaffenburg was dead, felled at 49 by an apparent heart attack in his apartment at Casa Grande.
For a time, it appeared that the Pontchartrain Hotel project died with him.
But then, a decade later, E. Lysle Aschaffenburg — one of Albert’s two sons — resurrected his father’s vision, albeit with a couple of notable changes.
To start with, the younger Aschaffenburg picked the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Josephine Street as the location for his father’s unfinished final project.
Also, it wouldn’t be any ordinary hotel.
It would become the city’s first “apartment hotel,” a concept then popular in the Northeast in which full-time residents could benefit from traditional hotel amenities, including maid service.
While it might have seemed like a great idea on paper, locals were slow to embrace it. After all, what works in New York City doesn’t always translate to New Orleans.
The lack of success had nothing to do with the building’s beauty. Luxury was a built-in feature of the 12-story, million-dollar structure that opened in 1927, a decade after the death of the elder Aschaffenburg.
Designed by the prominent architectural firm Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth, the exterior of the building’s first two stories was clad in terra cotta with ornate designs — including cartouches and regal coats of arms — with a canopy suspended over the central opening.
The 10 floors above would be brick with decorative but tasteful ornamental flourishes. Faux towers on the building’s eastern and western ends added to the elegance, lending it the feel of something one might spy in some back-east metropolis.
The New York-based Huyler’s candy and restaurant chain was even to run the kitchen of the hotel’s restaurant and tearoom.
The papers gushed about the modern flourishes — elevators, a parking garage, gas cooking — as well as the then-luxurious details in the roomy apartments themselves, each of which included ceiling fans, telephones, Murphy beds and “abundant closet space.”
Also earning ink was the fact that each apartment was entirely furnished, right down to the drapes, silverware and china.
In February 1927, the Pontchartrain’s first resident — Argentinian consul Carlos Villa de Mores — moved in.
“Tenancy is in excess of expectations,” the Picayune wrote, “and the entire house will be taken much earlier than anticipated, proving that the city’s need and taste were accurately gauged.”
The newspaper ads that ran for months soliciting new tenants told a slightly different story. By the early 1940s, although it still maintained a handful of apartments, it stopped calling itself the Pontchartrain Apartment Hotel in advertising, opting instead for just the Pontchartrain Hotel.
In 1948, Aschaffenburg announced it would become a traditional hotel. At the same time, he announced a major remodeling that would add the nautical-themed Caribbean Room restaurant, with a Creole-inspired menu more reflective of local tastes. The Bayou Bar would soon be added.
It was a home-run decision. With it, the hotel was on its way to winning the hearts of locals for good.
Nonlocals were pretty fond of it, too. Frank Sinatra slept at the Pontchartrain. So did Rita Hayworth, Truman Capote, Luciano Pavarotti, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.
The news conference announcing the formation of the New Orleans Saints was held at the hotel on All Saints Day 1966. The agreement creating the team was signed at the Bayou Bar.
The building at 826 Lafayette St. is easy to overlook, tucked away as it is on the unusually narrow, one-way street about three blocks down fr…
Four years after that, in a light rain on the sidewalk out front — and after a notoriously disastrous concert at The Warehouse music venue — the three members of The Doors not named Jim Morrison agreed that the band’s touring days were over.
Over the decades, innumerable New Orleanians marked equally innumerable personal milestones at the Pontchartrain, often over a plate of its trademark Mile High Pie.
The magic slowly dwindled to the point that around 2013, it became an assisted living facility. Many wondered if the 80-year-old hotel was living out its last days, too.
For Alexander Botsay, the American dream came in a cigar box.
But in November 2015, a twist: The Chicago-based AJ Capital Partners bought the grand old hotel and breathed new life into it in the form of a $10 million renovation.
On June 17, 2016, the Pontchartrain Hotel reopened — as did the Caribbean Room (since rebranded Jack Rose), the Bayou Bar and the hotel’s Silver Whistle Cafe.
Added to them was the Hot Tin rooftop bar, providing New Orleanians with a panoramic view of the city’s skyline — and one more venue in which to forge another century’s worth of memories.
Sources: The Times-Picayune; “Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and The Doors,” by John Densmore; ThePontchartrainHotel.com.
Know of a New Orleans building worth profiling in this column, or just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at [email protected].
Then, as now, outdoor entertainment was New Orleans’ general preference.