Julia Street

With Poydras the Parrot

The Mercier building was the original home to Maison Blanche department store.

Dear Julia,

I have been enjoying articles in The Times Picayune regarding the history of the past 175 years in New Orleans. In a recent article it was mentioned that the downtown Maison Blanche building, which now is the Ritz-Carlton, wasn’t the original building for Maison Blanche. My research only showed that the original building was demolished but gave no explanation of why. Could you possible give additional information on the original building and why it was replaced? It appeared to be fabulous. Thank you.

Pam Guerin
Hammond


Shortly after the turn of the century, the Shwartz-Isaacs company, owners of the Maison-Blanche department store, assembled land throughout the block in order to facilitate the building of a massive and modern department store skyscraper. Designed by German-born architect John Henry during his employment in William A. Freret’s office, the Mercier building was less than 20 years old and had been the Maison Blanche store only nine years when construction began on its replacement. Apparently, its owners saw it only as one piece of a land acquisition that would ultimately give them a large enough footprint to build the mega-store they really wanted. From the time it first opened in the late 1890s, Maison Blanche was envisioned as a massive and comprehensive shopping experience that would entice travelers to choose New Orleans, rather than New York, as a shopping destination.

Ironically, the local press had praised the Mercier building’s distinctive beauty when Maison Blanche first opened. The Daily Picayune, in September 1897, commented “...  with the old cutting up of the building into five different stores, with signboards disfiguring its proportions, few people have ever noticed even that it was one building, much less that it is one of the prettiest in New Orleans.” Construction on the new Maison Blanche store and office building began in 1906 and lasted until ’09.

Dear Julia,

In my wanderings around town I have noticed a number of loyal canines crafted out of stone guarding the steps of homes, mainly in Mid-City. Do you know who made these, and is there a story behind them?

Roberta LeGrand
New Orleans


Although I was unable to determine who manufactured and marketed the dogs, I’m quite certain they are not unique to any particular neighborhood. Since I have seen them elsewhere – usually guarding bungalow-style homes – I think it’s a safe guess they were a mass-produced decorative fad from the 1920s, when California-style bungalow houses were all the rage.
As you can see, your dog, above left, is a perfect match for a pair I recently saw guarding a vacant lot near Audubon Park, above right .

Dear Julia,     

As a newcomer to New Orleans, the facsimile of a WPA Guide to New Orleans, which I found at a recent Latter Library sale, has been invaluable. As my husband is a Tulane University graduate, the pages devoted to that have been particularly interesting. But I’m stumped: On pg. 329, the guide refers to the new “Department of Middle American Research” – now the finest in the United States – and “Future plans include a building of its own, an authentic full-color reproduction of an early Mayan building. The university has allotted space on the campus, and there is a favorable prospect for early commencement of construction operations.” I’ve never seen such a building on campus and cannot imagine how odd it would look among the stoic H.H. Richardson buildings. As Poydras most certainly has a Latin American background, perhaps he can fill us in on what happened to the building and why?

Thank you. Your columns have given me a rich base of exploration!

Nehama Jacobs Warner
New Orleans

       
Nehama, what Poydras knows most about from his Latin American background is the consumption of rum; he’s also big on siestas.

In early 1939, Tulane University president Dr. Rufus C. Harris announced a $2 million project to build on Tulane’s campus a reproduction of the Mayan temple El Castillo to serve as headquarters for the Middle American Research Institute (MARI). A nationwide fundraising campaign was begun but, unfortunately, as the project was ramping up, so was World War II. Money and construction materials would be needed for the war effort and many college-aged young men answered the call to military duty. Whether wartime, insufficient funds or a combination of both factors ultimately killed the project is hard to say, but the fate of some of the architectural molds is no mystery. In October ’75, a cache of Mayan molds was discovered under Tulane Stadium, where they had been stashed since the late ’30s. As other institutions had learned of Tulane’s plans for a pre-Columbian museum and new MARI headquarters, they began donating artifacts and architectural molds. Faced with a storage dilemma, the university stowed the materials under the stadium bleachers, where they remained nearly forgotten for more than 35 years.

 Dear Julia,

When I first came to New Orleans in the late-1950s to early ’60s, there was a derelict building where Le Pavillon now stands. Drapes were hanging out of the open windows and I thought I saw Poydras flying in and out. Can you give me some history about the building and the site?

Ralph Ruder
New Orleans


Ralph, Poydras doesn’t like to fly. He says all that wing flapping is exhausting. So, unless he was in a taxi, that wasn’t Poydras that you saw going in and out of the building.

Actually, much of that “derelict building” was incorporated into Le Pavillon. In 1970, when construction began on Le Pavillon, the Baronne Street and the Poydras Street sides of the old Hotel DeSoto were removed so rooms could be added and a new Poydras Street front entrance could be fashioned; most of the original hotel, however, remained intact.

The Hotel De Soto was originally known as New Denechaud Hotel. Designed by architects Toledano and Wogan and built by the New York firm Milliken Brothers, the hotel formally opened in mid-January 1907. Steel-framed, constructed largely of reinforced concrete and cement, the $850,000 New Denechaud Hotel was designed to be fireproof, lavishly decorated and thoroughly modern. Each of its 217 guest rooms boasted an exterior view.

Manager Justin Denechaud’s father, famed hotelier Edward Francis Denechaud, had operated the Hotel Denechaud on Carondelet and Perdido streets from 1884 until his retirement in 1902. Upon the opening of the New Denechaud Hotel, the senior Denechaud’s nearby Carondelet Street property closed its restaurant and became a European plan hotel known as The Inn.

In 1910, La Baronne Hotel Realty Company absorbed the New Hotel Denechaud Company and changed the hotel’s name to Hotel De Soto. Faced with a pay cut and the added insult of the removal of his family’s name from the hotel they had founded, manager Justin Denechaud tendered his resignation.

In January 1963, Danid Inc. purchased the Hotel De Soto for $750,000 with the intent of turning it into an apartment building. The project never materialized and Danid Inc. faced multiple lawsuits in the following years. Controversy also followed the City of New Orleans’ ’64 purchase of a 60-foot-deep section of the hotel’s Poydras Street frontage, including the two-story annex, as part of the Poydras Street widening project. The Times-Picayune reported in its April 2, ’64 edition that the City had paid Danid, Inc. $190,000 for the property – $700 less than the appraised value – leading to questions about whether other Poydras Street properties were being fairly compensated for land the city was expropriating.

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