Blighted since Katrina, former N.O. East hotel added to National historic list

(FOX 8)
Updated: Feb. 14, 2019 at 9:22 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - From the front desk of the Family Inns hotel along Chef Menteur in New Orleans East, employee Tshe Salvant has the perfect view of the old Holiday Inn Highrise Hotel across the street, vacant since Hurricane Katrina.

It’s like the first thing you see,” she said.

Like thousands of commuters who drive by it on I-10 every day, she’s intrigued by the graffiti that covers the old building. One side is painted with the words “Caveman Reader” on it.

“I am dying to know what it means,” Salvant said.

This week, the National Park Service confirmed to FOX 8 that the Holiday Inn Highrise East was added to the National Register of Historic Places on January 31, 2019.

“Everybody thinks of historic they think of the French Quarter or they think of the Garden District, but buildings like this are recognized for the architectural value they bring,” Peter Gardner said.

Gardner bought the building in 2017 and applied for the national designation after the building turned 50 last year. While it may be surprising, it’s significant in the area of architecture, specifically Mid-Century Modern architecture in the 1960s. The nomination says “proper preservation of this fading architecture type is important to tell the story of design and advancements of the era.”

Gardner pointed to the concrete blocks that cover the building's exterior as a key feature.

“Those are called breeze blocks, and those were you know a pretty fundamental or important part of Mid-Century Modern architecture kind of allowing breezes to flow through,” he said.

The historic designation means he’ll qualify for federal and state tax incentives he says equal up to 40-percent of the renovation cost.

A year ago, Gardner allowed our camera inside the building as crews cleared the hotel's nine floors of furniture like beds, dressers and other debris. When the renovation begins, Gardner plans to bring it back to the way it looked when it was first built, which includes a big paint job and new patio doors on each level. He envisions some commercial space, but also 144 one bedroom apartments.

“I think the rents that we’re going for are considered 50 percent of the area median income so the working class person, somebody’s who’s working at a hotel or restaurant could actually afford to live in a high quality renovated building,” Gardner said.

“We gotta clean up Chef because I would love to see Chef like Veterans. I would love to see Chef like Magazine Street,” City Council member Cyndi Nguyen said.

Nguyen represents the East and is excited about the possibilities the renovation could mean for the Chef corridor. She’s organizing a committee that will begin meeting next month to evaluate already occupied, blighted and available properties from the Industrial Canal to the East.

“I want to make sure that this economic advisory committee for Chef reflects not just of community members, but individuals with certain skills set, you know urban planning, design, architects,” Nguyen said.

She’d like the committee to go parcel by parcel and look at who’s returned, who hasn’t and what is needed in the area. She plans to look to streets like Oretha Castle Haley in Central City as a model to re-invent the Chef Highway corridor.

The developer isn't ready to announce a renovation start date of the old Holiday Inn, however he says he hopes it's a catalyst for the entire area. Back at the Family Inns hotel across the street, which has seen significant improvements recently, Salvant is also hopeful for the future.

“We’re hoping that our changes will help everyone else make changes,” she said.

But she may never know the meaning behind the graffiti that will soon be cleaned up.

“It’s like a New Orleans secret. It’s like a mystery,” Salvant said.

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