Although the Americans bought New Orleans in 1803, the Creoles who created it were already experienced at keeping their culture vigorous. Despite the fact that Spain owned the city for years, the Creoles created a French city that was cosmopolitan far ahead of American cities of the time. Tremendous growth in population spurred development.
Then an American built a large hotel with a rotunda dome across Canal Street from the French Quarter in the American Zone. “The important Creoles of the city decided it was obviously time to have one of their own” writes John DeMers in The Tumultuous Life and Times of Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, French Quarter Royalty. The contract was signed in February 1838 and the hotel was called The City Exchange after the popular café and bar already on the site.
There were popular cafes and hotels before, but not “European Grand.” It was to be a “Creole palace, a place for aristocrats to meet and do business, to eat and drink and make love, to buy slaves and sell plots of land on the banks of the Mississippi,” John DeMers writes.
The existing café with a sand floor boasted a popular auction area in which stocks, real estate and other property were bought and sold in French and English from noon until 3:00 p.m. Exchange owner James Hewlett engaged architect Jacques Nicholas Bussiere De Poilly to reproduce the aura of the Rue de Rivoli of Paris. What the Creoles call the “Saint Louis” opened in early summer 1843 to welcome as many as 600 guests to its three floors and ballrooms. The vestibule was 127 feet wide and 40 deep. The rotunda replaced the Exchange as the city's major auction market. It was an immediate and resounding success.
Gumbo, that thick Creole soup of seafood and okra, was supposedly invented there by a Spaniard working at the Exchange. It became a favorite of the crowds at the Saint Louis. The proverbial “free lunch” is reported to have begun here too: soup, ham or beef, a potato, meat pie and oyster patties, were offered to noontime drinkers when their potion was served. It, too, was quickly copied by other cafes and bars of the period; although, alas, there is no longer any such thing as a “free lunch.” Another first for the Saint Louis was the creation of the American “cocktail” a drink served at the Saint Louis in an egg cup, or “coquetier.” This term, easily handled by the Creole patrons, was soon mangled into “cocktail” by the Americans.
Fire destroyed the four-story Saint Louis Exchange hotel in 1841. Using De Poilly's original plans, it was quickly rebuilt to become the site of French New Orleans' most lavish banquets and balls throughout the 1840s and until the War of Northern Aggression (Civil War). In 1837, the first decorated float led the parade down the streets of New Orleans in celebration of the carnival. But with Hewlett's encouragement, Mardi Gras' lushest and most extravagant early observances were in the ballrooms of his Saint Louis hotel.
Thirteen Union warships anchored off the riverbank persuaded the city's defenders to surrender during the Civil War and the Saint Louis became a military hospital for the duration of the war. During Reconstruction following the war, the hotel passed through several hands until it was sold to the state to become the capitol – seat of Louisiana's “Carpetbagger Legislature" and the endless wrangling that reconstruction engendered. Once it survived a proposed attack by White League hold-outs by running up the white flag and surrendering. Its defense force quit before the attack began.
The building lived on another 40 years with various managers trying to make it a success again. In the end, the building was sold back to the state and its doors closed about the turn of the century.
Like the French Quarter around it, the Saint Louis hotel decayed. Tourists hired guides for 25 cents to lead them through crumbling marble walls and down the arched esplanade. Visiting the once proud palace was a “melancholy” saturated experience, Ada Galsworthy wrote in 1912. Then the great hurricane of 1915 blew it into a rubble pile.
A lumber yard and an “Aunt Sally's” praline shop had been using the site when philanthropists Edith and Edgar Stern, then in the cotton business and civic activists, hired attorney Lester Kabacoff to be Stern's assistant.
World War II was over. One of the projects Kabacoff was asked to work on was building another “Saint Louis” hotel as part of an effort to rejuvenate a declining French Quarter. Although recognized as a neighborhood worth preserving, the Quarter had not yet realized its potential and was indeed a veritable slum.
The idea came from Lyle Aschaffenburg, a hotelier who had created the Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue. However, his committee faded as committees do when goals appear too remote. When the lumberyard moved out in 1948, Stern and his son Edgar Jr. moved in to establish WDSU-TV on the site. WDSU remained a neighbor of the hotel until 1996.
But it was a decade of mostly depressing conversations with potential investors before the idea attracted anyone who'd say “yes.” Major hotel companies of the day, knowing that hotels traditionally offer limited returns on high risk, would only promise to operate it if someone else would build it. But contact led to contact, and a small local list of important investors soon grew. Equitable Life Insurance in New York agreed to take a mortgage.
That left $1.5 million still to raise in order to get the project going. The Sterns could have put up all the money, but Mr. Stern grew up in a generation for whom hotels were not good business. He later invested cash after others had first. Eventually the networking worked and Roger Sonnabend of Hotel Corporation of America, now Sonesta, saw the vision Kabacoff saw and agreed with a major condition. The hotel had to be big enough to be profitable. Another struggle began.
Preservationists whose struggles had begun to be successful at saving the charm of the French Quarter for future generations thought the idea was acceptable. But the hotel appeared outsized because it had to have at least 300 rooms instead of the 200 in the old Saint Louis. And it couldn't be much higher than the original structure of the Saint Louis. Repeatedly, architect Arthur Davis' concepts were turned down by the commission which governs the looks of the French Quarter.
Architect Samuel Wilson Jr., more experienced in historic building design, was brought in to design what people would see from the street while Davis continued designing splendor and efficiency inside.
Careful, exacting drawings of the remaining stone arches that graced the original Saint Louis Hotel and exact duplicates of the Spanish wrought-iron railings finally won over the commission. Special treatment of the upper windows and other design effects gave five stories the impression of the three stories of the original Saint Louis. A rooftop garden and pool oasis graced the design.
After arguments were over (one was whether cars should be allowed to be parked on a nearby vacant lot because that would decrease property values according to one protestor), multiple design adjustments had been incorporated. New Orleanians once again had a palace. It was called the Royal Orleans when it opened in 1960 (now Omni Royal Orleans). New Orleans could welcome the world in the traditional high style once again.
Proving the worth of the original central French Quarter location, the new Royal Orleans was again an immediate success, as its predecessor, the Saint Louis hotel had been. Gracing the city's most fashionable corner, the hotel became the haunt of the local social elite, famous entertainers and infamous politicians. To this day, it is known as “the place to see and be seen.”
Surprising “experts,” the hotel was profitable within two years. A remarkable accomplishment when the owner of the Roosevelt, then a leading hotel in town and a consistent opponent to the new hotel, claimed profits eluded him and occupancy was never above 40 percent!
The Royal Orleans was so popular that another battle erupted when the owners wanted to add more rooms on a penthouse floor. A French mansard roof, visible in the original design drawings for the Saint Louis, was the compromise that convinced enough Vieux Carré Commissioners to let the expansion go ahead.
With some of America's top-rated French and Creole style restaurants within a short stroll of the new hotel, there had been heated discussions among the design team about what and how dining should be offered in the new hotel. Scoffers likened the proposed Rib Room to a misplaced British import of some sort, mistakenly dropped into the middle of a city famous for its own special French and seafood cuisine. What's more, like many of those competing street-level restaurants, it also opened onto the street with broad, welcoming arched windows. And it offered an intimate feeling New Orleanians enjoyed as they watched French Quarter street life through the now famous Saint Louis arches.
As for detractors, it's enough to note that the street-level high-class Rib Room was so successful at attracting discriminating local diners that identical Rib Rooms appeared in other hotels in America. To this day in New Orleans, it thrives profitably in its parent hotel while most other fine dining hotel restaurants are gone. Sadly, Edgar Stern, who set in motion the decade-long effort to reestablish a premier hotel in the heart of the French Quarter, did not live to see it built.
Conventions, private parties, weddings, business meetings and tourists attracted to the preserved charm of the French Quarter occupied the hotel so fully at times that one manager recalled fondly that for the first time in his career, he didn't need to worry about sales and could concentrate on making customers happy.
“...The Royal Orleans has been served by a series of entrepreneurial hoteliers entirely capable of giving reality to Edgar Stern's dream: a world-class hotel in the heart of New Orleans,” wrote John DeMers. Most came with world-wide experience in making visitors happy. That tradition continues.
As a world-class hotel, Omni Royal Orleans naturally attracted presidents and leaders from all fields. It's been a gathering place for the famous since inception. A few of those naming the hotel their “favorite” over the years include David Brinkley, Luciano Pavarotti, Muhamad Ali, Arthur Hailey,( who wrote the book Hotel based on his stays at the Royal Orleans), The Rolling Stones, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Charlton Heston, Louis Armstrong (whose last stay in the city was at the Royal Orleans) Richard Nixon, Three Dog Night, Patti LaBelle (who received the key to the city in the Josephine Bonaparte Salon) Bette Davis (while filming the classic Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte) Paul Newman, Mick Jagger, Don King, Lillian Carter, Chita Rivera (Broadway dance star), Aaron Neville, Rueben Stoddard (recent American Idol winner) and even Lassie the dog.
The ideas for the Superdome and later, the Louisiana Jazz and Heritage Festival, were developed in the 12-seat Pipkin Room, a private dining room 15 steps below the Rib Room. It's one of four private dining rooms, three of which have wine bins you can rent for your own special wine collection.
Omni Royal Orleans has been successful, all its managers and many guests declare, because it has so many deeply dedicated employees. Miss Juanell Lane is one. She retired twice from being head of housekeeping but came back because she enjoyed it so much.
Dalton Milton, maitre d' of the Rib Room, has been there 50 years as of 2010. He loves cooking and making people happy, he explains. He does the cooking at home, too. On weekends, he begins preparing his family's dinner at 11:30 a.m. and finishes at 2:00 p.m. Several of the dishes on the menu that became popular over the years have resulted from special requests by regular lunch customers.
These are examples among many you may find when you visit Omni Royal Orleans.