Who would have thought that a pair of circa 1830 once-grand townhouses on St. Charles Avenue that had become a flophouse hotel could become a grand mansion? Kevin Kelly is the man that made it all happen. Why would he want a house in the busy Central Business District where the noise of the streetcar and the traffic is ever-constant and the neighborhood was more seedy than classy when he found the property? “It’s simple,” he says. “I wanted to live on the Carnival parade route.”
The dining room becomes the setting for the elaborate buffet prepared by Houmas House Plantation and Garden’s Executive Chef Jeremy Langlois that’s served for each of the parties held by the homeowner.
Today Kelly’s balcony has indeed become one of the best viewing stands for the many parades that pass his door, not to mention the excitement of watching Zulu and Rex march within a few feet of his viewing point on Mardi Gras. “I love to welcome my friends to share my balcony,” he says, and it isn’t an ordinary balcony. It is a sturdy steel-and-concrete structure built over the entire sidewalk. “It was built as large as the law would allow so I could have lots of folks over to share the fun of the parades.”
The salon is always decorated with the gold, purple and green colors of Carnival; the regal stairway was rescued from an historic building that was being demolished.
The original structures, in what was once one of the most fashionable addresses in New Orleans, are located just a block away from Gallier Hall, the stately former City Hall that was designed by renowned architect James Gallier Sr. and built beginning in 1845. It is easy to imagine the pride of having the neoclassical style, three-story, marble structure fronted by two rows of fluted Ionic columns as a neighbor back when it was built. While its City Hall function has long moved from St. Charles Avenue, Gallier Hall is still of major importance during the Carnival season when all of the parades stop there to toast the mayor and other dignitaries.
Owner Kevin Kelly in his Mardi Gras costume
“When I first discovered the shell of bygone grandeur that’s now my home, it had transitioned down to a derelict, cheap hotel,” Kelly says. “It looked like a bombed-out tenement house, but I saw past the cement floors and dilapidated chopped-up spaces.” He definitely got a glimpse of the past glory with the building’s 14-foot ceilings and arches leading onto an overgrown courtyard. “The first time I walked into the building, I immediately knew it was for me,” he says.
A colorful jester is suspended from the ceiling in the library
“We ripped out walls, added steel reinforcing beams, created a grand staircase and a modern kitchen,” he recall. “The large new parlor and library across the front of the building and the large dining room that opens onto the courtyard were all done with entertaining in mind.”
Even the bronze statue of a woman gets a touch of Carnival with a purple-and-gold jester hat.
Little did Kelly realize at the time that he would one day purchase Houmas House Plantation and Gardens in Darrow, La., and have an award-winning chef running the four restaurants that now exist on the plantation grounds. “I knew I wanted to entertain at my St. Charles Avenue home during the Carnival season, but I had no idea that I would have five days of parade-watching parties with a great chef to prepare the food,” he says. Executive Chef Jeremy Langlois, who’s in charge of the Houmas House’s highly rated kitchen, brings much of his operation to Kelly’s home for five days, filling the long antique table in the dining room with a feast for each parade.
Every surface is covered in Carnival decorations, including beads, miniature floats and masks
Kevin spares no expense with his elaborate Mardi Gras decorations to add to the excitement. “The house is transformed each year to make it especially festive for the costumes-only ball that I hold to begin the fun.”
The marble bar at the foot of the stairway is a central gathering spot during the five days of Carnival parties staged in the mansion.
The transformation of a flophouse hotel to a showplace private residence in a city rich with historic homes is amazing. “It’s my version of a Vanderbilt townhouse on Fifth Avenue in New York or a grand mansion in Newport, Rhode Island,” Kelly says. “But most of all it’s my home to share with my family and friends for grand parade-watching.”