Just a half-block off busy South Causeway Boulevard, four blocks north of Jefferson Highway, the old Morris Motel huddles behind a tall stand of bamboo trees springing up from the worn, black metal fence along Andover Street.
Essentially invisible to the countless cars that speed by every day, the two-story, 1950s-era building is well into its second act among the homes in the surrounding neighborhood.
Once a welcoming beacon for African-Americans visiting a still-segregated city, the motel has been closed for more than a decade and sits blighted behind a padlocked gate.
Next month, after about a year of legal wrangling, a parish contractor is expected to begin tearing it down.
The Morris Motel was owned and operated by Pearl and Percy Morris, who also owned the Stereo Lounge, a now-closed club a block away on Causeway.
Eva Jones, one of the heirs to the Morrises’ estate, said she is not sure exactly when the motel opened but that it dates back to the 1950s.
Jones said Percy Morris built the motel in four sections over the years with his stepfather and brothers, who were master carpenters, electricians, plumbers and brickmasons.
Pearl and Percy, who met and married while living in Hollygrove, in Orleans Parish, ran the motel on nights and weekends and eventually moved into the house next door.
In short order, the Morris Motel became an anchor for the African-American community in Shrewsbury and reliable lodging for black visitors, some of them famous. Muhammad Ali and the musician and bandleader Louis Jordan were among the well-known guests, Jones said.
“It was a place where African-Americans, when they came to town, had a place to stay,” she said. “They couldn’t go to the Marriott or the Howard Johnson, because they were segregated.”
The motel also provided a livelihood to many in the neighborhood through housekeeping and groundskeeping jobs, and the couple ran a respectable operation, Jones said.
“Pearl did not allow her places to be dirty. She didn’t allow loitering. She didn’t allow just anybody to come to her place,” she said. “She was very particular about who came to her place.”
Maurice Winding, who was working on one of the homes in the neighborhood this week, said he used to stay with his aunt nearby during the summers starting in the 1960s.
“It used to be a beautiful place,” he said, noting the property became more blighted after it closed. He said everyone knew and respected the Morrises.
Jones said the Morris Motel closed shortly after Hurricane Katrina, primarily because the couple had gotten ill, Pearl before the storm and Percy shortly after it. Percy died in August 2011; Pearl died in March 2012.
They had no children, and the property, along with a number of residential properties they had purchased along Andover Street and nearby Claiborne Drive, has been tied up in succession and fell into further disrepair.
Still, Jones said the heirs have been working on trying to sell the property. She said one developer expressed interest in the building, some sections of which she said are salvageable.
“My aunt and uncle had a strong commitment to that area, and as a family, we’d have liked to have seen somebody purchase that property and put it back into commerce and keep that area strong,” said Tina Jones, Eva’s daughter. “That’s something they would have wanted.”
The estate battled the parish’s efforts to bring down the building in 24th Judicial District Court, but its request for an appeal was denied in a January hearing.
Aimee Vallot, director of inspection and code enforcement for Jefferson Parish, said the property has been on the department’s radar since the prior parish administration and has been identified by the Sheriff’s Office as a problem property. It was inspected by the parish in April and meets all the criteria of a dangerous building, she said.
Vallot said Parish President Mike Yenni has made it a priority to move as aggressively as possible on blighted properties, which lower property values and can become public safety hazards and act as a magnet for criminal activity.
Eva and Tina Jones declined to get into details about the succession of the estate among the heirs, but they stressed the family did not intend for any of the Morrises’ properties to become a problem in the neighborhood.
“That has never been the desire of the estate,” Tina Jones said. “The purpose of the estate has always been to rectify things as quickly as possible, but there are other things that have been part of that hold-up.”
Vallot said it is a shame to see any once-venerable property fall into disrepair, but once it does, the parish has a responsibility to take it down. She said the parish will continue to move on blighted homes in the neighborhood, including others owned by the Morrises.
The Morris Motel, she said, “is one of a few properties that are going to be coming down in the next six months to a year.”