Elaine Washington Vigne remembers vividly the first time she set foot in the towering building at Baronne and Union streets.
It was 1961 and she was 6, accompanying her grandfather as he paid his utility bill at New Orleans Public Service Inc.
“I was so taken by the lobby and by all this,” said Vigne, pointing to the vaulted dome ceilings, polished terrazzo floors and dangling chandeliers.
“I told him, ‘I want to work here when I grow up.’ And I’ll always remember, he said, ‘You can do it, cookie.’ ”
Vigne did return, working as a data entry specialist and remittance processor from 1975 to 1995.
On Thursday, she was among roughly 100 former NOPSI employees welcomed to their former place of work for the first time in decades to commemorate the building’s 90th anniversary.
The nine-story building at 317 Baronne St., originally designed by the architecture firm of Favrot and Livaudais, opened its doors in 1927 as the headquarters of the city’s public utility company and its streetcar and bus operator. NOPSI supplied the city with its electric, gas and public transit systems through the 1980s.
It was a one-stop shop, where people paid bills, purchased home appliances, bought transit tokens and even took cooking classes.
Eventually, the company became Entergy New Orleans and moved out of the building, which sat vacant for more than 30 years.
In 2011, the building was designated a historic landmark by the Historic District Landmarks Commission, and this past July, following months of renovations, it reopened as the NOPSI Hotel, a 217-room luxury hotel from Salamander Hotels & Resorts.
All through the spring, as the renovations of the new NOPSI Hotel neared completion, New Orl…
As part of the 90th anniversary celebration, former employees were invited to tour the building and view a collection of NOPSI memorabilia displayed in the hotel's lobby.
For Vigne, who is black, a job at NOPSI meant paving the way for future generations of African-American women in her industry.
“There were very few African-Americans working here at the time. I think I was among the first five, and that made it difficult. I had to adjust to a whole new world,” Vigne recalled. “But we had this opportunity to show other people that there was a way for them too — and I remember everyone here treating everyone like family.”
Lifelong friendships were forged and romance blossomed. Leon Smith, 74, remembers the first time he set eyes on his future wife, Jackie, in the lobby of the building one day in 1966.
“I was sitting here in my office,” Smith said, pointing to a corner of the lobby now framed by plush armchairs. “As I saw her walk by, I thought to myself, ‘Who is this beautiful, blue-eyed, blonde girl?' I had to meet her."
A meeting was set up for Jackie, who worked on the seventh floor collecting and processing utility bill payments, to come down to the lobby and look at irons, which were sold among a host of other household appliances.
The next day, Smith, a salesman, found an excuse to head up to the seventh floor, “just you know, to look around,” he recalls now, chuckling.
The couple was married a year later and returned to the NOPSI building last weekend for the first time in almost 45 years. In honor of the occasion Smith wore the same name tag he wore on the day he met Jackie.
The couple stayed the night at the hotel, relishing how familiar and yet how different the place appeared. “But it had the same floors, the same ceiling I loved — it almost brought tears to my eyes,” Jackie Smith said, smiling.
Mingling with other former employees at the hotel on Thursday, Smith ran into his former boss, Richard Hallenus, the man he said paved the way for him as a NOPSI salesman.
“This man taught me everything I know,” Smith bellowed, playfully slapping Hallenus, 98, on the shoulder. Hallenus beamed with pride when recalling his decades-long career at the company.
In 1945, after serving in the Coast Guard during World War II, Hallenus began his first job in sales. He retired more than three decades later as the manager of the residential sales division.
“I was very happy that I was able to do everything that I wanted to do, and I loved my work,” he said.
Hallenus held hands with his wife, Doris, 95, another former NOPSI employee, whose job as a home economist was to help lead nutrition and cooking seminars in an effort to “keep the home front healthy” during the war.
“War had broken out, and that changed things,” she recalled. “Sometimes I remember coming home almost after midnight after hours of (work),” she recalled. “But I enjoyed it very much.”
It’s hard to imagine people today developing warm and fuzzy feelings about a public utility …
Now, with her husband nearing his 99th birthday next month, Doris Hallenus feels thankful that they were able to return to the NOPSI building still in remarkably good health.
“That’s good nutrition right there!” she laughed. “If there’s one thing I learned here, it’s to eat your veggies.”