Southern Hotel Set to Open in June

15 April 2014

The historic restoration of Covington’s Southern Hotel was covered by the Advocate.

Historic hotel’s return seen as boon for Covington

The Advocate

Southern Hotel to reopen June 1

April 15, 2014

Several distinctive features help give downtown Covington a pedestrian-friendly, throwback feeling: its grid layout, its streets named for New England locales, its so-called ox lots — small lots for livestock, dotted throughout the oldest part of the town, that were part of the original layout drawn up by town founder John Wharton Collins more than 200 years ago that are now used mostly for car parking.

The section’s historic appeal should get another boost later this spring with the reopening of the Southern Hotel, a century-old building, empty for about a decade, that still recalls Covington’s days as a vacation destination, especially for visitors from the south shore.

The hotel is set to reopen June 1, the 107th anniversary of its original opening.

In Covington, where the city’s historical character is at times a source of pride and at other times a source of conflict, anticipation for the reborn landmark is high, especially among public officials such as Mayor Mike Cooper.

The building wasn’t always treated as a grande dame.

“When I was in grade school, it was partially occupied with a bar and a coffee shop,” said Cooper, 60. “At some point, a Rexall drugstore was put in one corner.”

Even as such tenants came and went, though, locals always called the building the Southern Hotel, he said.

The hotel, which will have 42 rooms, is sorely needed, Cooper said. Downtown Covington has just a few bed-and-breakfasts, and when those are full, people seeking the downtown experience are forced instead to stay closer to Interstate 12 and U.S. 190, an area lined with strip malls and chain restaurants.

“It will help keep people in downtown longer,” Cooper said of the hotel.

The extra revenue for the city in the form of sales and property taxes also will be welcome, he said.

The Mission-style hotel, at Boston and New Hampshire streets, first opened in 1907. It was an oasis of early 20th-century luxury, featuring electric lights and hot water. Covington’s piney air and springs were thought to have restorative properties, and the town could count on a steady stream of visitors from the south shore.

Just five years after it opened, the hotel was bought by a local physician, who turned it into a sanitarium and a place to treat people with respiratory illnesses. Over most of the next five decades, the hotel continued to host overnight guests.

One of the most colorful and oft-repeated bits of Southern Hotel lore — that Gov. Earl Long stayed at the hotel during a 1959 court hearing to determine whether he was sane — is, unfortunately, untrue.

The hearing took place just across the street in what was then the courthouse, but apparently Long never stayed a night in the Southern Hotel.

“I wish it was true,” co-owner Lisa Condrey Ward said with a laugh.

By the 1960s, overnight guests were no longer being taken at the hotel, and the façade was altered to make room for the drugstore. There also was a bar called Tugy’s, recalled fondly by Cooper and Councilman Lee Alexius.

By the 1980s, many of the businesses had left, and the building was bought by the parish and used as a courthouse and for offices. But in 2003, with the completion of a new justice center a few blocks away, the property became surplus and was sold at auction.

It sat vacant for several years, until it became available again in 2011.

It was then that Ward, along with her husband, Joseph, and her brother and sister-in-law, bought it for $1.75 million. The four immediately made plans to turn it into a boutique hotel.

Since the purchase, they have poured an estimated $9 million into renovating the building to give it a historical feel with a modern touch, Lisa Condrey Ward said.

Ward hopes the new hotel will help restore Covington to what it was when the original Southern Hotel opened: a destination that will bring in visitors not just from New Orleans but from a three-hour radius around Covington.

“We have to get the word out in Baton Rouge,” for example, she said.

Ward has worked hard to re-create the atmosphere of the hotel’s early days.

Guests will be able to dip their feet in the hotel’s plunging pool, a shallow pool that will serve more as a place for cooling off and having a cocktail than for getting in laps. For those looking to work off the previous night’s seafood platter, there will be a fitness room.

The centerpiece of the hotel will be its fountained courtyard, which will open on two sides to the hotel’s sun room and 225-person ballroom.

A restaurant, appropriately named Ox-Lot 9, is set to open in early July. Chef Jeffrey Hansell, who worked at Commander’s Palace and was most recently at the Veranda on Highland restaurant in Birmingham, Ala., will run the kitchen.

The hotel will host its first major event, a wedding, on June 14, Ward said, and much work remains to be done before then.

Late last week, construction workers were still hanging doors and installing fixtures. A rugged platform capped the main staircase, and exposed wiring dotted the walls. A shipment of travertine from Turkey arrived late in the week after a customs delay.

In the spa rooms near the rear of the hotel, several different paints were dabbed on the walls. “We’re still testing colors,” Ward said.

Nevertheless, she remains determined to hit the June 1 opening date.

Alexius, like Cooper a lifelong Covington resident, said he has a reservation for the first night the hotel is open — whenever that is.

The hotel “is Covington,” Alexius said. “It’s tying into Covington’s history and preserving it.”

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