Resurrection of Historic Southern Hotel will be Centerpiece of Covington’s Downtown District
24 January 2014
NOLA.com highlights the historic renovation underway at the Southern Hotel and the role it will play in bringing renewed activity to downtown Covington. Woodward Design+Build is conducting the renovation, which is expected to be complete in the Spring of 2014.
Covington Sees Resurrection of Historic Southern Hotel as Centerpiece for Downtown District
NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
24 January 2014
By Kim Chatelain, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
With a high-profile chef for its restaurant under contract and its ballroom booked for wedding receptions this summer, the rebirth of the Southern Hotel in Covington has entered its final phase under a full head of steam. Owners have spent about $8 million to bring the vintage 1907 hotel back to life, an investment city officials say could reinvigorate the city’s downtown area and create a cultural centerpiece for its historic district.
Lisa Condrey Ward, one of the owners, said she is now eyeing a grand opening event in May, almost 107 years to the day that the hotel first opened its doors. Wedding receptions are booked for early June at the hotel, located at the corner of Boston and New Hampshire streets. The 2,400-square-foot ballroom, which will feature chandeliers imported from Venice, will accommodate between 225-250 guests.
The owners have signed a contract with a chef to operate the hotel’s upscale restaurant, which will be named Ox Lot 9, a tribute to the unique off street ox lots that were built into the city’s grid in the 1800s. The hotel’s western wing was built on 1,925 square feet of the original Ox Lot 9. Ox lots, located in the center of of city blocks throughout the downtown area, were originally used to tie up horses and oxen and are now primarily vehicle parking lots.
Ward said she could not disclose the name of the chef because of his current position, but said he is from out of state and is very well regarded in culinary circles. “We are super excited about him,” Ward said of the chef, who will operate the upscale restaurant. “We took a long time before making a decision because we wanted to be really solid about the restaurant aspect of it. It’s going to be amazing.”
The menu is still being designed, but Ward said the chef will employ a “farm-to-table” concept that will utilize fresh local products. The restaurant, which will have a corner entrance at Boston and New Hampshire, will likely not open its doors until later this year, after the hotel’s opening. But Ward said the she hopes to introduce the chef before Covington’s annual chef’s soiree, which is scheduled for March 16 at Bogue Falaya Park. She hopes that Ox Lot 9 will participate in the food-tasting fundraiser.
In addition to the restaurant and ballroom, the hotel will have on its first floor a full service bar, a spa and fitness room and the Olympia Room, a smaller meeting room that could facilitate business meetings, rehearsal dinners and other gatherings. Five of the hotel’s 40 guest rooms will be on the first level. The other 35 rooms, plus two suites, will be on the second floor.
The hotel’s courtyard will have a plunge pool, a fountain and areas designated for both visitors and guests, including a patio area that connects to the bar.
Ward said Trapolin-Peer Architects sought to modernize the hotel while preserving its historic and architectural significance. The firm has worked on several New Orleans historic projects, including Emeril’s Delmonico on St. Charles Avenue, the Audubon Hotel and the City Park Carousel. Woodward Construction of New Orleans is the general contractor.
In many cases, additions that were made to the building over the past several decades as it morphed from one use to another were peeled back to reveal original construction features. For instance, developers found the lobby’s original fireplace, which had been covered up.
“We took it down to the bricks,” Ward said.
The mission-style building’s wide archways are being maintained along with original bricks and window frames where possible. But the hotel will include modern furnishings and amenities. “We’re not trying to be a museum,” Ward said.
Walls will be adorned with pictures from the city’s past, as well as with the works of St. Tammany Parish artists, she said.
The Southern Hotel has a rich history. Its construction began in 1905 and the doors opened for the first time with pomp on June 1, 1907. Ward said a chef who had served several American presidents was brought in for the grand opening, which attracted dignitaries from throughout the New Orleans region. Visitors were greeted with amenities that were cutting edge for the early 20th century: hot water, electric lights and carpeting, according to the hotel’s website. The hotel’s fine china and linens were noted in newspaper reports.
The hotel catered to a well-healed crowd, many of them New Orleanians wishing to get away from the city during the heat of the summers. In 1912, the hotel was purchased by a physician who operated it as a sanitarium and resort for patients suffering from respiratory illnesses. It was believed that the area’s clean, piney-woods air, cool breezes and mineral springs were helpful to inhabitants. Folklore had it that former Louisiana Gov. Earl Long frequented the Southern Hotel while he was a patient at the mental hospital near Mandeville.
The Southern Hotel in downtown Covington as it looked shortly after it opened about 1907.
In the 1960s, the hotel closed and its facade was altered slightly to accommodate a discount store tenant. In 1983, the St. Tammany Parish government bought the building and for 20 years used it as office space and courtrooms before selling it at auction for $885,500.
After Hurricane Katrina, it was used as a headquarters for the Red Cross and other federal agencies. For the last few years, the building has been mostly unoccupied.
In 2011, the hotel was sold for $1.75 million to Ward and her family members Joseph Ward, and Ricky and Gayle Condrey, who launched an effort to return the building to its original use. The developers’ application for historic tax credits required them to maintain much of the hotel’s original floor plan and structure. The renovations started in 2012.
LEAVING THE LIGHT ON
Ward said she envisions the hotel becoming a central meeting place for the city and an overnight destination for guests who live within a “three-hour driving radius” of Covington who want to experience the area’s resources.
City officials, meanwhile, see the hotel as a magnet that will draw people to downtown Covington, help local merchants and expand the government’s tax base. While the downtown area bustles during daylight hours, traffic tends to thin out on some evenings. The hotel could help bring more people to the historic district after hours.
Ward said a general manager has been hired and will come on board next month. Until then, she is uncertain exactly how many permanent jobs will be created. In a later phase, the developers are also looking to build a cooking school on a lot directly behind the hotel, she said.
Covington Mayor Mike Cooper said he believes the rebirth of the Southern Hotel has the potential to provide a huge economic boost for the city. He expects that hotel guests will patronize existing businesses and says the added traffic could help draw new businesses to the area and expand the customer base for existing ones.
“To take this historical building and make this kind of an investment in our city…it’s very exciting,” Cooper said. “This will further brand our downtown as a destination and enhance our city.”