Frank’s Steakhouse — a landmark Uptown restaurant that reigned over Freret Street for decades — was unceremoniously knocked to the ground this past week in a dramatic illustration of the changing times in New Orleans.
The Frank’s complex in the 4500 block was the last major undeveloped property on the Freret business corridor since a wave of new business openings began about five years ago.
On July 2, Arnold Kirschman finalized his purchase of the buildings from the Barreca family, who had owned them for the better part of a century, as part of a plan to demolish the steakhouse in the center of the block to rebuild a stretch of buildings matching the old cleaners on the corner of Cadiz Street.
Kirschman said Thursday he still is meeting with architects, contractors, real-estate agents and city officials to hammer out a final timeline for construction of the new buildings, which will be three stories tall with apartments on the upper two floors. He has yet to line up any commercial tenants, he said, though he has decided to limit the project to only one new restaurant so that the businesses will best fit with the neighborhood’s needs.
“One, there are a lot of restaurants on Freret, and two, we want to minimize any cooking odors,” he said.
The old cleaners will not be demolished and instead will anchor the new development, and Kirschman also has no plans to tear down the two free-standing houses he owns on the block. One of them, however, may move to a different lot in the complex — but that idea too is still under consideration, Kirschman said.
“We’re trying to develop the best master plan, while at the same time we are detailing out the front buildings,” he said.
The demolition drew numerous onlookers. Some walked by to watch, while others lounged in chairs outside Rook Coffeehouse, Sarita’s Grill and the Publiq House. Most cheered or applauded, either for the spectacle itself or for the notion of progress that the demolition represented to them.
One onlooker, however, made no attempt to hide her tears. Lisa Barreca Arnoult, daughter of longtime Frank’s proprietor Ignatius “Nash” Barreca, said she had gotten a text message from her brother that the demolition had begun and she needed to see it for herself.
Arnoult worked in the steakhouse, starting as a little girl cleaning underneath the bar, where she would find coins dropped by patrons. Over the years, she did every job in the restaurant, she said, just like her siblings: “We all know all of it.”
By the 1980s, the business had shifted more into catering, and it finally closed its doors altogether in the early ’90s, she said. Her father had taken it over in the 1940s, when he was a Loyola student and his father — Frank Barreca, for whom the restaurant was named — had a sudden heart attack.
The people on Freret Street today, she said, have forgotten or perhaps never knew what her father did for the neighborhood.
“All these people would come to Daddy, and he would help every single one of them,” Arnoult said. “Our employees worked for us for 50 years, every single one.”
The neighborhood’s accusation that the family let the buildings stand empty and blighted stung, Arnoult said, because it all would have deteriorated far faster if Nash Barreca hadn’t bought it. Until his death last year, he still visited his property every day, she said.
“He bought it to keep it alive,” Arnoult said. Since his death, the sale of Frank’s has been difficult to come to grips with, she said. “I didn’t realize it was going to be this hard to let go.”
In an interview after the building came down, Kirschman said that he, too, has fond memories of Freret’s heyday. Bill Long’s bakery was in the same block — at the site where High Hat and Ancora now operate — and Kirschman said his mother or grandmother visited it every weekend to buy challah. The 4600 block at that time looked similar to the 4500 block, with larger buildings closer to the street, and Singer’s hardware store, along with Frank’s and Bill Long’s, made those blocks the center of commercial activity on the street.
“Everyone that talks to us shares all these memories of wedding receptions and birthdays and all these events that went on there,” Kirschman said.
Kirschman said he salvaged a number of mirrored panels emblazoned with the steakhouse logos. As he begins to build, he said, he is actively looking for more memorabilia and photographs so that his buildings can pay tribute to that era.
“The way we’re designing our building, it’s going to look like there are multiple buildings, not just one big single building,” he said. “It’s going to look like a lot of the old Freret feeling, even though it’s going to have all the modern conveniences.”
UptownMessenger.com is an independent online news site serving the Uptown neighborhoods of New Orleans.