In 1883, the successful tobacco merchant Simon Hernsheim hired Thomas Sully to build a family home for him at 3811 St. Charles Ave. Sully, a well-known and highly sought-after New Orleans architect, built an elegant three-story Italianate mansion with expansive porches, fine detail and a cupola. Interior finishes were of the finest materials, and building costs were $65,000.
The family lived there until Mr. Hernsheim’s death in 1898, after which it was bought and sold a few times. In 1915, a hurricane knocked the cupola off and caused other damages. Repairs were made, and the house was turned into an exclusive boarding house. In ’53, the home was sold again and transformed into a public hotel: The Columns Hotel.
In the 1970s, The Columns fell on some tough times. Heavy use as a boarding house and hotel left it in a state of shabby, faded opulence. Marble pieces were missing from the steps, leaks left stains on ceilings and plaster chunks had fallen from walls. The hotel income was insufficient, and in ’76 the owners closed for a short while and held a series of public auctions to sell off much of the hotel’s furnishings and service paraphernalia: beds, bookcases, china, paintings, clocks and even the bathroom sinks.
That same year, the owner-investors sought permission to have the building torn down, claiming that it was unsellable. Happily, fortune took a turn for the better via Hollywood in 1977, when the movie Pretty Baby was filmed in the hotel. And three years later, in ’80, Jacques and Claire Creppel purchased The Columns and began restoring it to its former mahogany-bedecked elegance.
The Creppels reduced the number of rooms to rent, returned the first floor to its original use as gathering spaces and had the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places. They applied for a liquor license and opened the Victorian Lounge in the space that was once the Hernsheim family dining room. Despite resistance and legal proceedings from neighbors, The Columns’ bar stayed open, and eventually added food service. 1993 saw the debut of live music at The Columns and expanded outdoor seating, both of which remain very popular today.