Seen here in this 1867 stereopticon slide made by New Orleans photographer Theodore Lilienthal is the luxurious old St. Charles Hotel that once dominated the entire 200 block of St. Charles Street (now Avenue). At the time, it ranked among the grandest hotels in the South and an important social and business gathering place for New Orleanians in the old American Sector above Canal Street. Actually, this was the second of three St. Charles Hotels to occupy this site.
The first St. Charles, constructed between 1835 and 1837 and designed by James Gallier and Charles Dakin, appeared complete with a Corinthian columned portico and roof capped by an immense columned dome and cupola. It was known throughout the country for its luxurious ballroom, plush guest rooms, dining rooms, auction exchange (including slaves), and saloon with a spiral staircase that ascended up to the dome where visitors got splendid views of the city and river. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the hotel in January 1851.
The second and larger St. Charles Hotel, seen here, rose from the ashes that same year. Like its predecessor, it continued as a popular gathering place for New Orleanians and visitors to the city. One such traveler, famed American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, was unimpressed by what he saw during his visit in 1853. In his 1856 book “A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States,” Olmstead wrote: “I was landed before the great Grecian portico of the stupendous, tasteless, ill-contrived and inconvenient St. Charles Hotel.” During the Civil War, Union General Benjamin Butler seized hotel for his headquarters. In 1894, it, too, burned to the ground.
As to the third St. Charles Hotel, older New Orleanians will remember the one that opened in early 1896. Unlike the first two, Thomas Sully designed the third and final hotel in what Tulane associate dean of architecture Richard Campanella described as the Italian Renaissance aesthetic style popular in the late 19th century. In 1959, the Sheraton Hotel chain purchased the hotel and renamed it the Sheraton-Charles. Six years later, the company sold it to a local developer who planned to demolish the building, which he did in 1974, and replace it with a high rise office and hotel complex. After his plans failed, Canadian developers built the current 53-story office-retail Place St. Charles on this historic site in the early 1980s.