Columns Hotel/Ann Larie Valentine/Creative Commons

The Columns Hotel on St. Charles Avenue once was the home of a tobacco magnate and his family.

Hey Blake,

A news story on the recent Montgomery-Grace mansion fire mentioned the Columns Hotel nearby on St. Charles Avenue as another example of architecture from that time. What is its history?

Dear reader,

The Columns Hotel, at 3811 St. Charles Ave., was built as a private residence in 1883-1884, about the same time as the Montgomery-Grace house, which was built in 1888, according to architect and historian Robert Cangelosi Jr.

The Columns originally was built as a home for Simon Hernsheim, a wealthy tobacco merchant. The Italianate-style, three-story building was designed by architect Thomas Sully, who designed many buildings up and down the avenue and across town. Sully's own family home, which he designed and built in 1886, still stands at 4010 St. Charles Ave.

Two of the Hernsheim home's most striking features are its mahogany stairwell, which rises to meet a square-domed stained glass skylight. Hernsheim and his family lived in the house until 1898, after which it was bought and sold several times. In 1915, it was converted into the Alcion Boarding House. That same year, a hurricane destroyed the building's cupola. In 1953, the property became the Columns Hotel, with a name reflecting its signature architectural feature.

The hotel fell into disrepair by the 1970s. In 1980, Claire and Jacques Creppel purchased the property and restored the building to its original state. They also converted the first floor bedrooms into dining and lounge areas. The present-day Victorian Lounge once was the family dining room.

The hotel has been the setting for several movies, most notably 1978's "Pretty Baby," starring Susan Sarandon and a young Brooke Shields. The Columns' bar serves a pink cocktail, the Pretty Baby, named in Shields' honor.