Covington's historic Southern Hotel is an elegant fixture in the old downtown. But a new annex serves as a fresh counterpoint, with playful decor and a restored WPA-era post office mural celebrating the muscular laborers of Depression-era Louisiana.
The Southern, a 1907 architectural gem, was vacant for years before Lisa Condrey Ward, her husband, Joe, and their business partners resurrected it. The annex opened recently, to much fanfare.
“We had always thought of the building as part of the Southern property despite the fact that we didn’t own it, because it was built on grounds that were originally part of the hotel’s land. It’s where the gardens and tennis courts were,” Ward said.
“In 1937, the post office was built on the site; then in the 1960s, it became a school board property. We were thrilled when the board declared it surplus and put it up for auction.”
What is remarkable about the annex, called the Colonial Revival Garden House, is how much of the original fabric of the post office was intact and how Ward worked it into her inspired interior design of the five rooms (all different) and the public spaces.
“Any place you see wainscoting or terrazzo floors in the building, you can be sure it is original,” she said. “We even kept the walk-in safe. Now it's in the conference room.”
The most original of the suites is the Xavier Gonzales Room, named for the Spanish artist who moved to New Orleans in 1931 and joined the art faculty at Sophie Newcomb College.
Gonzales was a painter and sculptor, but was best known locally as the muralist who painted the stunning works depicting the history of aviation at the New Orleans Lakefront Airport. His work is also enshrined in the room bearing his name.
“One of the most exciting aspects of the project was restoring the Xavier Gonzales mural that was one of the New Deal-era works he painted in post offices, including one in Hammond,” Ward said. “We had to protect it while construction was in progress, but then (art conservator) Elise Grenier came in and restored it.
"She said the worst problem with it was all the cigarette smoke that left deposits on it. I liked it before, but the restoration really brought out the colors and details.”
Gonzalez painted the mural, called “The Tung Oil Industry,” in 1939, depicting laborers planting and pruning the trees that provided the finishing oil used in woodworking. Tung oil and lumber were huge industries in the state in the 1930s.
According to Ward, Ethel Edwards, Gonzalez’s wife and an artist in her own right, is the female figure near the center of the piece. Art journalist John Kemp interviewed Gonzales in 1983 and learned that other characters in the mural were neighbors of the artist.
Even the contractor who worked on the St. Ann Street house where the Gonzalezes lived appears in the piece. The man with the sack slung over his shoulder is none other than Gonzalez.
In the rooms of the Garden House, Ward knew she wanted a bright and playful atmosphere to distinguish them from traditional elegance of the hotel, so she turned to her favorite designer, Dorothy Draper, for inspiration.
“I love the bold colors and big florals in her designs and felt they would work perfectly in the Garden House,” Ward said. “One thing she did that I like was to mix geometric patterns — often black and white — with each other and with florals.”
At the entrance, bright pink gates, set in a dark green fence, and a giant flower nearby mark a playful departure from the serene sophistication of the hotel.
Walls in the public spaces in the Garden House are papered with one of Draper’s bold green-and-white patterns with oversized banana leaves, a look that is both refreshing and tropical.
One of the most inviting spaces is a sitting area that had been a loading dock. Its black-and-white checkerboard floors contrast with the vivid floral upholstery of the cushions on the iron settee and with the green-and-white geometric wall paper. Weathered white iron urns, filled with spheres of preserved boxwood, borrow a page from Draper’s signature playbook.
Ward has an interest in restoring derelict buildings and finding the perfect wallpaper, artwork and furnishings to bring them back to life.
“I have taken so many trips to Round Top (the Texas antiques event) looking for furnishings that I can’t count them,” she said. “For wallpaper, I worked almost exclusively with Spruce in New Orleans; I think my favorite is the dragonfly wallpaper in the Dragonfly room.
"And for art, I relied on locals because they give the spaces just the right look and because it’s a real pleasure being able to display the incredible artwork we have to offer.”