The Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue was once a home-away-from-home for visiting celebrities who prized its discretion, and for New Orleans society figures who counted on the staff’s kindness behind the scenes.
It had the Bayou Bar, where young couples courted around the Steinway, and the Caribbean Room, where, if all went well, those same couples might hold their wedding receptions.
The chefs served dishes that would join the Creole culinary canon, and the waiters were known for their quiet professionalism, even on the night when a guest passed away between courses.
Tennessee Williams wrote while staying in an upper suite at the hotel, and tenor Luciano Pavarotti once belted out an aria in its lobby, barefoot.
The hotel’s proprietor lived in the building, ferried guests around town in his candy-apple-red Rolls-Royce and kept in regular correspondence with actors, politicians and America’s most prominent gourmets.
That was the Pontchartrain Hotel in its heyday, before it was sold by the family that built it. The property later became an assisted-living facility.
Now, a new era is beginning. The Pontchartrain Hotel reopened Friday after an extensive renovation by its new owners, the Chicago-based hotel development firm AJ Capital Partners. Among the project’s investors is Cooper Manning, a member of New Orleans’ first family of football.
In a city now brimming with hotels and restaurants, this particular debut has drawn special interest for the evocative style the property long symbolized and for the different angles of New Orleans life that once intersected under its roof.
‘It resonates still’
Like others conversant in Pontchartrain Hotel history, Jeffrey Schaffer describes the old institution as elegant and enchanting.
“It had an aura about it,” said Schaffer, who was general manager of the hotel through much of the 1970s. “The reason it resonates still has to do with the people who ran it, the people who lived there and stayed there — the celebrities, people from the neighborhood or from across town. It really was unlike anywhere else because of that.”
The Aschaffenburg family developed and operated the hotel, though their history in the business predated the Pontchartrain. Albert Aschaffenburg ran the Lafayette Hotel adjacent to Lafayette Square in the Central Business District.
In 1927, his son E. Lysle Aschaffenburg built the Pontchartrain Hotel about a mile up St. Charles Avenue, on the edge of the Garden District. Lysle’s son, Albert Aschaffenburg, succeeded him as proprietor. In turn, Albert’s son, Honoré Aschaffenburg, grew up working in the hotel and was later its vice president.
“My grandfather and father were classic hoteliers,” said Honoré Aschaffenburg, now a hotel developer himself. “They came up in a time when most cities had a hotel that was the center of civic and social life, and they were passionate about fulfilling that role.”
Gene Bourg, writing as restaurant critic for The Times-Picayune, once described the hotel and its restaurant as “the center of worldly elegance in New Orleans.” In 1966, local leaders and NFL officials met in the Bayou Bar to sign the paperwork formally creating the New Orleans Saints.
The 12-story building was initially designed as a residential hotel, and while it would transition in the late 1930s to a conventional guest hotel, the residential suites would remain part of its DNA. Of its 100 rooms, a dozen or so were always under annual lease, mostly to well-heeled New Orleanians in their later years.
Among them were Edith Stern, heiress of the Sears department store fortune, and Frankie Besthoff, of the Katz & Besthoff drugstores family.
A debonair style
Family ties brought Marion “Manny” Bright to the Pontchartrain on a weekly basis, starting in 1954, the year of her marriage. Her husband’s aunt, Elinor Bright Richardson, was among the permanent residents there, and to Bright she was the embodiment of the hotel’s debonair style.
“She was the grande dame of the Pontchartrain,” Bright said of Richardson, who was born in 1898, reigned as queen of Carnival in 1920 and lived for just shy of a century.
“It was the perfect spot for her — elegant and close to her friends, a place where she could entertain,” Bright said.
Richardson had her own table in the corner of the Caribbean Room, and she held parties at the hotel all the time. She marked her 90th birthday there with a black-tie dinner that saw people dancing on the tables before the night was done.
For everyday visits, though, the hotel felt like an extension of a family home.
“It was intimate. It wasn’t on the scale of these large hotels you see now,” Bright said. “The people who worked there made the difference. They could be quite formal, but charming, professionally charming. Just lovely people.”
One of those people was Nell Carmichael, a Shreveport native who started working at the hotel in 1975 on the reservations desk. She was promoted to catering director and later became director of sales.
For her, the history of the Pontchartrain is full of stories of her guests and her co-workers, like Inez Daigle, the petite, endearing but dictatorial head of housekeeping, and Bird Buffington, the elevator operator.
“There was service everywhere,” Carmichael said. “Guests would see the same people every time. It was like a family of old friends you came back to.”
Often they undertook duties beyond typical hotel service.
“Many of the ladies who were residents there lived by themselves, and they’d still dress for dinner but didn’t have anyone to zip up their dress,” Carmichael said. “There was one who’d put on her dress, walk to the elevator, push the button and turn around. The elevator door would open, Bird would reach through and zip her up and then continue on. I think he did that for quite a few of them on a regular basis.”
Friends and fame
If hotel residents contributed a deeply local seam to the Pontchartrain’s character, there was also the stardust of visiting celebrities. Some were friends with the Aschaffenburgs before they arrived, and many more became friends during their stay.
“They had an innate way of taking care of people but also befriending them,” Honoré Aschaffenburg said of his father and grandfather. “They developed a lot of relationships through the hotel that became lifelong friendships.”
Lysle Aschaffenburg lived in a suite at the hotel. Like a ship’s captain, he would personally host some of his regular guests or visiting stars. He’d invite them to his suite for drinks and then dine with them at the Caribbean Room downstairs.
“You never knew who you’d find when you walked into his suite. One time it was Bob Hope. Another time it was Walt Disney,” his grandson said.
As sales director, Carmichael could take her boss’s Rolls-Royce on sales calls around town, and the head-turning car shuttled VIPs to and from the airport. One was opera superstar Pavarotti, who stayed at the Pontchartrain while in town for a performance. Severe street flooding brought water into the hotel lobby the day he was due to depart, but Carmichael remembers the legendary Italian tenor was unflappable.
“When he came downstairs, he took off his shoes, rolled his pants legs to mid-calf and stood there in the water and started singing, arms outstretched,” she said.
Aschaffenburg said his father was enamored with Broadway, and when he traveled to New York on sales calls he befriended actors, directors and writers there. When they traveled to New Orleans, they would stay at the Pontchartrain.
One of them was actor and director José Ferrer, famous for his roles in “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Moulin Rouge.” In 1948, Ferrer was in a Broadway comedy called “The Silver Whistle,” from which Aschaffenburg drew the name for his hotel’s coffee shop and breakfast nook.
The Creole chefs
The Silver Whistle (later known as Café Pontchartrain) became the spot for power breakfasts and early morning meetings among New Orleans movers and shakers.
“The same people would come literally every day,” Schaffer said. “In the morning it was all men at the round table in the corner. Judges and attorneys would meet there, different groups just rotating through as soon as we opened at 6 a.m.”
Later in the day, the crowd would change.
“All the little old ladies at other apartment buildings nearby would come over,” Carmichael said. “They’d ask for extra muffins and dump them into their purse and take them home.”
It was Lysle Aschaffenburg who created the hotel’s marquee restaurant, the Caribbean Room, though its development through the years was a collaboration of hotel managers, proprietors and chefs. There was no divide between hotel and restaurant. In the view of the Aschaffenburgs, they were one experience.
“What is a hotel, classically? You provide lodging, food and drink, and they understood that,” Honoré Aschaffenburg said.
Albert Aschaffenburg was particularly focused on menu crafting. He traveled widely, and during his visits to New York he often dined with the famous gourmet James Beard and New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne. Aschaffenburg said the historic Chicago restaurant the Pump Room was also an important early influence on his father’s vision for the Caribbean Room.
But the restaurant that would later be lauded by critics was not initially a hit with locals.
“It didn’t take long to realize that New Orleans people wanted their own food,” Honoré Aschaffenburg said.
For this, the restaurant turned to homegrown Creole culinary talent. There was Nathaniel Burton, who started as a dishwasher and became executive chef. He was followed by his one-time sous chef, Louis Evans. Both were African-Americans, and they became early examples of black New Orleans chefs receiving acclaim for their work.
“The hotels of New Orleans evolved with the social history of New Orleans. There was a color line in this city, no doubt about it,” Schaffer said. “But these chefs were recognized for their culinary skill in a way that was unusual back then.”
Both men produced cookbooks, and, in the era before widespread chef worship, Evans was frequently cited by name by national restaurant columnists. Roy Andries de Groot, a blind critic with an aristocratic background, called him brilliant. Evans later cooked crawfish bisque for Julia Child on her TV show “Dinner at Julia’s.”
For much of the restaurant’s history, the front of the house was the domain of Douglas Leman, who started at the Caribbean Room as a busboy in the 1950s and advanced to serve as maitre d’ for decades. He was suave, discreet and always in control of his dining room.
Several people interviewed for this story recalled that a Caribbean Room patron once died in the midst of dinner.
“The waiters picked up his chair and carried him out in it,” Carmichael said. “They didn’t want to interrupt service for the rest of the dining room.”
Many more people would experience the Pontchartrain Hotel through its restaurants and the Bayou Bar than would ever stay at the hotel.
The Caribbean Room was a destination for special outings, holiday meals, private banquets, prom night dinners and receptions, and its Sunday buffet, remembered by some as the first of its kind in New Orleans, was especially grand.
“You could call it a local hotel, which sounds like an oxymoron, but that’s what it was, a hotel full of locals you saw again and again,” said Brad Hollingsworth, a Caribbean Room waiter in the 1970s.
Today, Hollingsworth owns the Uptown restaurant Clancy’s, where several other Caribbean Room alumni are waiters. He first met many of his Clancy’s regulars at the Pontchartrain, too, and he credits his time at the hotel with informing his own approach as a restaurateur.
“Working at the Pontchartrain taught you how to be gracious,” he said.
The defining characteristic of the hotel, as Schaffer sees it, was the role its owner-operators played in its direction, personality and day-to-day functioning.
“Today, hotels are corporate and homogenized. I’m not saying they’re bad, but they’re all the same,” he said. “In the earlier days, they were anything but. They started with local innkeepers who evolved and became successful. That’s what the Pontchartrain Hotel was. It was about the local people who built it.”
The Aschaffenburgs sold the Pontchartrain in 1987. Other owners operated it in later years, as a hotel and later as assisted-living apartments, but it appeared that its gilded days were gone.
Now that new developers have reopened the hotel, it seems to some like a new chapter is opening.
“To me it was just timeless, and it lives on in people’s memories,” Carmichael said. “Everyone’s so excited that it’s coming back.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.
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