Living on the top
On July 13, 1924, The Times-Picayune described a penthouse as “that odd-looking bandbox perched on the roof of a building.” According to the article, “New York City Becoming the Home of ‘Roof Dwellers,’” the small houses had first been used by caretakers. Around 1915, New York architects had begun transforming them: “Penthouses are being turned into palaces in every section.”
Penthouses are still with us. Just as in 1924 New York, “the wonder of living high above the busy city streets” is still to be prized. And, some lucky New Orleanians are enjoying that lifestyle today.
One of the best known local penthouses belonged to the late Mr. and Mrs. Eberhard Deutsch. “Bouquets of pink, blue and rust colored blossoms trimmed the reception rooms,” in April of 1958 as Mrs. Deutsch entertained at a tea in her home atop the Pontchartrain Hotel. Locals today can still enjoy themselves on top of the Pontchartrain, with stronger refreshment than tea at the new rooftop bar, named in a nod to another former Pontchartrain guest, playwright Tennessee Williams.
Tony Abadie, general manager for the Besh Restaurant Group at the hotel, explained: “The bar is called Hot Tin – as in ‘cat on a’ _____ ‘roof.’” The former penthouse was gutted and remade, enclosing the bar; there’s ample seating on the former terrace; and guests can still enjoy the same views.
Other hotels in town sport penthouses. In fact, you can see the Hotel Monteleone’s penthouse on the skyline; look for the building perched on the roof.
Ron Pincus, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Monteleone, explains that there are actually two penthouses: one can be rented and “there is one that the Monteleone family uses.” The penthouse that can be rented has “two bedrooms, a big parlor and balconies overlooking the Quarter and the city.” There is also a pool, plus the Vieux Carré Room and the River View Room for entertaining on the 16th floor penthouse level. Do famous people stay up there? Ever genial, Pincus admits only that “we can’t drop names. … That’s confidential!”
Penthouses regularly appear in New Orleans real estate ads. Veteran Realtor Dorian Bennett notes that, “in New Orleans, the word penthouse can mean any top floor unit.” His firm is currently marketing a penthouse condominium in the 1300 block of Rampart Street. Is it quiet up there? “There’s a minimal amount of street noise: the sound of the calliope on the Natchez and now the sound of the Rampart streetcar,” Bennett says.
Lynne Goldman has lived in her penthouse on the Mississippi River for 25 years. “The reason for this building is that my husband (the late naval architect Jerome Goldman) loved seeing the ships go by.” When asked what the strangest thing she’s have seen from her window, she laughs: “Watching the sun come up over the West Bank!” With her panoramic view of the skyline, pleasures of Goldman’s penthouse include watching storms moving past, seeing displays of “really wonderful” fireworks, but “I can’t say we have a lot of nature. I’m on the 15th floor and the birds don’t often come that high.”
Kit and Billy Wohl have lived in their Palladian-style penthouse for 40 years. As Kit Wohl says, “Billy’s father built it in 1965.” The penthouse is U-shaped, opening on to a terrace on either side, and there’s ample room for plants (“more garden than I want,” Wohl says.) There is a lot of light. “The light has always challenged me, it’s different at different times of the year; certain plants will bloom happily, others the light doesn’t get to.”
“This house loves a party, it was built for entertaining,” she says. “The way it works is, the two terraces turn into party space. We move sofas and chairs and lamps out there. One side becomes a dining room, and one becomes a larger living room. And, of course, you pray for the weather!”
Wohl, who writes and produces cookbooks, even has her studio there. “We opened a wall and added an atrium; we can prep everything in the kitchen and bring it into the studio and light it and shoot it.”
The real appeal of the penthouse? “Once you get here,” Wohl says, “you don’t know where you are. You’re in the clouds!”