The French Market may be the oldest continuously running public market, but it is only one of many that were once scattered throughout New Orleans’ ethnic neighborhoods. In the mid-1800s, the city had more open-air public markets than any other place in the United States.
Now, one of the public markets built during the Depression by the Works Projects Administration is being reborn as a reception hall in the heart of the Lower Garden District.
The Magazine Street Market at 1911 Magazine St. bears some resemblance to the recently reopened Circle Foods with its open-air semi-circular gallery and archways.
“It is rare to find a building of that size and layout with the ability to create the amenities in a great neighborhood and environment,” said Joel Dondis, a chef and restaurant owner who had searched several years for an appropriate venue for his catering business.
Dondis is president of Joel Catering and Special Events, now based in the Hampton Hotel. He also owns La Petite Grocery, an upscale bistro, and Sucré, a dessert shop, both on Magazine Street; along with the restaurant Grand Isle in the Central Business District.
The original 1930s design by architect Sam Stone outraged local merchants who considered the architecture to be out of character with the neighborhood, and a local business association refused to hold a dedication ceremony until it was remodeled, according to a February story published by “Preservation in Print.” Fortunately, the director of markets prevailed and the building was not modified.
Sam Stone also designed the flagship Maison Blanche department store on Canal Street.
“The WPA played an important role in upgrading the city,” said Michelle Kimball, senior advocate at Preservation Resource Center. The WPA built several markets and renovated the French Market, taking it back to its original conception, she said.
The stucco and tile structure, located at the point where Magazine Street divides, attracted little attention as a print shop over the past few decades. Its exterior walls were marred with graffiti and grounds surrounded by a chain-link fence.
Dondis was immediately charmed by architectural flourishes like metal fish on the gutter spouts and a coat of arms with a pelican at its center, surrounded by garlands of fruit and topped by a pair of kissing pigs. The image has become the business’s logo.
“There are so many small details that make this project interesting,” said Sarah Hall, president of Joel Catering. She couldn’t have been more delighted with the logo design had they hired a graphic designer to create an image for the business.
Dondis acquired the mission style building in October 2013 and began renovating the interior space to accommodate 450 guests inside and up to 700, including the courtyard. He estimates that the space, which he calls Il Mercato, will host between 60 and 80 events annually.
Interior designer Julie Goldman calls the structure, a “sweet little pie-shaped building” on a morsel of land that “embraces the whole world — Uptown and Garden District.”
The plans will make the property an urban oasis with an outdoor fireplace in the courtyard enclosed by beautiful, period gates.
“Everyone in the neighborhood is excited about getting a business that will be a positive influence,” said James McAlister, president of the Coliseum Square Association.
Joel Dondis has had success in business and that area is increasingly vibrant, McAlister pointed out.
Aidan Gill, who owns a nearby barbershop and men’s store, said more and more tourists are venturing out of the French Quarter and into the Lower Garden District.
“This whole area is on fire,” he said.