Roosevelt Returns

This downtown New Orleans hotel has a long and colorful past – and future.

A 1940s view of the entrance of the Roosevelt Hotel shows its elaborate awning, and a neon sign advertises the Blue Room. Vintage postcards from the Roosevelt Hotel.

The great old Roosevelt Hotel in the Central Business District of New Orleans is thoroughly renovated and open for business. Why is that important?
Since the earliest days of luxury travel –– steamboats, ocean steamers and passenger trains with those cozy Pullman cars –– New Orleans has been a favored destination and, as such, a city of “grand hotels.” The legendary St. Charles and St. Louis hotels are long gone, but the tradition of the “new” Royal Orleans on the St. Louis site is already a half-century old, Le Pavillon Hotel is still keeping the 1907 New Hotel Denechaud building alive, and several major historic buildings have been recently transformed into dazzling high-end hotels (particularly along Canal Street, the Ritz-Carlton in the old Maison Blanche and Kress buildings and Chateau Sonesta in the former Holmes Department Store).

Many exquisite little hotels have existed for generations in historic French Quarter structures, and, of the city’s larger and more famous properties, not only is the French Quarter’s 1886 Hotel Monteleone newly renovated but also now the Roosevelt itself –– after four decades of name-changing and the danger of total loss after four years of post-Katrina cobwebs –– has been returned to us as a better-than-ever reincarnation. It opened its doors in June as a distinguished member of Hilton’s prestigious Waldorf Astoria Collection, boasting Louisiana ownership once again and once more bearing the proud name of the Roosevelt.

What all this means is that New Orleans’ blood pressure is fine, with the Roosevelt presenting yet another indicator of a vibrant and desirable city, able to support a true “destination hotel” just as it’s able to merit consideration for Super Bowls and Final Fours; to attract visitors and conventions; to support an orchestra, opera, pro teams, cruise terminals and the arts.

FLASHBACKS
The most effective introduction to the Roosevelt would be a few glimpses into its past, and Scene 1 would take place, oddly enough, on a New York stage in 1919. The boys are back from the trenches of “the” World War, the play is a love quadrangle called Civilian Clothes, and the curtains at Broadway’s handsome Morosco Theatre are rising to reveal long-gowned young ladies and dinner-jacketed suitors performing their lines and postures on an unusually lavish set: props and backdrops that represent the “hotel parlor” of the Grunewald in New Orleans.

Born in 1893 as a six-story hotel facing Baronne Street and enlarged in 1908 with a 14-floor addition facing University Place (the original site of Tulane University), the Grunewald was so desirable a location in playwright Thompson Buchanan’s estimation that some of his characters (late arrivals from a long-delayed train) lament having to settle for rooms nearby –– in the elegant and famous St. Charles Hotel.

Scene 2 is the purchase of the Grunewald in 1923 by two local families (the Moss brothers and the Vaccaro brothers), whereupon the hotel was renamed in honor of President and Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt (thus properly pronounced “RUE-za-velt”). And thereupon the hotel’s “modern” era of stylish lounges and supper clubs, jazz and big-band sounds, was born.

Scene 3 is a story of green silk pajamas –– now on display in the newly restored Old Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge –– that attained infamy during the Carnival season of 1930 when worn by Gov. Huey P. Long in his 12th-floor suite in the Roosevelt as he “entertained” German Consul Rolf Jaegar. The diplomat was paying an official call to introduce Commander von Arnauld of the German cruiser Emden; the consul was not amused, and neither were the national and international media. On the advice of hotel director and principal-owner Seymour Weiss (a crackerjack corporate climber from Bunkie), Huey managed some damage control by arranging an official inspection tour of the German ship, for which he donned a swallowtail coat, striped pants and accouterments borrowed from Weiss and other pals. He earned the goodwill and a 21-gun salute from the battleship, but he grumbled, “I’ll still be ruined back home in Winnfield now that everyone knows I sleep in pajamas.”

Scene 4: two bars and a “cultural exchange.” Although Huey kept a house on Audubon Place in New Orleans and also occupied the Governor’s Mansion and an apartment in Baton Rouge, the Roosevelt suite was his favorite roost. The old Grunewald had boasted what some call America’s first nightclub, the Cave, but by the 1930s the Roosevelt’s beloved Sazerac Bar had become a household name among bon vivants, and its charms had not escaped the governor’s attention.

And so it was that in July 1935, never missing an opportunity to dazzle the press, Huey staged a spectacle in the barroom of the New Yorker Hotel that became a publicity coup for himself, the Roosevelt, the Sazerac Bar and the famous New Orleans drink called the Ramos Gin Fizz. “Taking over the barroom,” as his Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer T. Harry Williams put it, Huey announced to the assembled press corps that since the huddled masses of New York had been thus far deprived of the frothy delights of the Ramos, he had brought Sazerac bartender Sam Guarino along with him to demonstrate its preparation. “And this is, gentlemen,” he proclaimed after personally imbibing a number of “sample” glasses, “my gift to New York.”

Scene 5: Huey checks out –– and spawns a Roosevelt legend. It is not disputed that regular deductions from the salaries of state employees were used to fund Huey’s campaign chest, and his cash-on-hand container, affectionately called his “Deduct Box,” was kept for a time in the Roosevelt (in his own suite, in the hotel vault or conceivably in the mezzanine-level offices of Seymour Weiss). Most believe the box moved with Huey to Washington when he was elected to the U.S. Senate (stashed in the Mayflower Hotel or Riggs National Bank), but others are confident it remained in or soon returned to the Roosevelt.

Visiting New Orleans on Sept. 7, 1935, Huey played golf with Weiss and, back at the hotel, briefly mentioned moving the box. As Weiss remembered it, however, the conversation was interrupted by a call from Baton Rouge, after which the senator returned to his suite and departed early the next morning. He was bound for a special session of the Legislature and, of course, death in the corridors of the Capitol he had built, and to this day treasure hunters and other dreamers salivate at the mention of two Louisiana stories: the buried treasures of Jean Lafitte and the lost Deduct Box of Huey Long.
Scene 6 is all about the glory days of the Blue Room, the Roosevelt’s supper club, which opened in 1935 and featured nationally famed entertainers, to the delight of the local press and the room’s dining/dancing visitors from around town and around America. The parade of stars continued well into the early ‘70s –– such names as Jimmy Durante, Sophie Tucker, Ethel Merman, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, the Andrews Sisters, Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, the Platters, Peggy Lee, Lou Rawls, Fats Domino, Sonny and Cher –– all accompanied by such Roosevelt dance bands as the Leon Kelner Orchestra and broadcast around the nation on “clear-channel” WWL-AM radio and the CBS network. Kelner was the room’s principal bandleader from 1945 to 1971, and he returned for his own, and a millennium’s, final bow on the night of Dec. 31, 1999.

Scene 7: The final glimpse would of course be the purchase, restoration and “un-renaming” of the Roosevelt by Sam Friedman of Natchitoches, son of the late State Sen. Sylvan Friedman and president of the Dimension Development Co., which has resurrected significant hotel properties throughout the United States.

A LOOK AROUND
The restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling was no more meticulously performed than the accomplishment of Friedman’s team of chandelier crystal cleaners, mural restorers, plasterwork repairers, terrazzo polishers, woodwork refinishers ––  all-in-all, an effort said to represent the largest private investment in downtown New Orleans since Katrina.

The great lobby stretches an entire city block, taking the form of a very wide and high-ceilinged promenade connecting the Baronne Street and University Place entrance, with the University doorway ornamented with the small, jolly faces of Teddy Roosevelt and other notables of the era. Lining the incredible gilt-and-crystal-canopied corridor are more pleasant gathering places than you could find in some towns, beginning at the Baronne end with the newest of celebrity chef John Besh’s local restaurants. Called Domenica, it soon will be the talk of the culinary crowd, with Besh’s executive chef Alon Shaya bringing his extensive training and experience in the age-old technique of meat curing and other wonders that he learned in rural Italy.

Although never recognized as anything other than “the Roosevelt” by Louisianians, the hotel had been officially named the “Fairmont-Roosevelt” and “New Orleans Fairmont” for years before the Sam Friedman purchase, but the last vestige of the Fairmont era disappeared with the conversion of the hotel’s former Fairmont Court to today’s upscale coffee shop, with its irresistible chocolates, gelato, desserts and evening cordials.

Although “stripped to the studs,” the venerable Blue Room, with the rich blues and golds of its walls, floors and rows of columns, conveys the same spirit of lavish pleasures and gaiety that made it famous 75 years ago. Its pleasant and casual buffet lunches have returned on Sundays, and it is once more the home of regular entertainment featuring visiting names and nationally known locals.

The spirit and spirits of the Sazerac Bar, of course, pay homage to New Orleans’ reputation as the birthplace of the cocktail, with its old African walnut bar burnished to beautiful perfection, its Depression-era (but lighthearted) modernist murals by Paul Ninas brilliantly restored and its vintage curved-wall-hugging banquette sofas (possibly due to the early and persistent pleas of our Editor-in-Chief Errol Laborde) back from their mysterious pre-K exile.

Also graciously returned to us by the reborn Roosevelt is the Sazerac Restaurant, which was the site, in the way-pre-K days, of my two young sons’ first encounter with the between-course palate-cleansing ceremony involving lemon sorbet. The little ritual was rendered doubly exotic (in true Sazerac style) by the presentation of those icy morsels on ice-carved swans, and rest assured that the haute cuisine New Orleans and international courses are as famous as their “in-betweens.”

The strategic reconfiguration of many floors of the hotel has resulted in far more spacious guest rooms, with the décor and furnishing of every room and suite paying equal regard to historic appropriateness and human comfort.

Banquet, convention and wedding venues come in all forms and sizes, and here and there around the Roosevelt will be found such monuments to decadence as the Guerlain Spa (one of only three U.S. locations of that time-honored name) and the expansive pool terrace, with its own Pool Cafe and open-air bar.

Just think of the old-new Roosevelt as what it truly is: a world-class “destination hotel” in Louisiana –– so we’re already there! –– a very manageable road trip from even the farthest corners of the state.

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