For designer Matthew Edmonds of Baton Rouge, it meant the opportunity to develop a color palette and furnishing scheme that would reflect the style of his favorite era, the mid-20th century.
For the development team of Chris Bellone, Greg Ensslen, Woodward Design+Build and Mike Valentino, it offered the prospect of renovating an architecturally significant building that would further the renaissance of the Freret corridor.
And for neighborhood residents, it provided a chance at job training and employment that could help build a brighter future.
“It” is the brand-new Alder Hotel on Magnolia Street, housed in a mid-20th century era building designed by the architects of Mathes Bergman (now Mathes Brierre) as “Bristow Tower,” a dormitory for nurses and other hospital workers employed by Southern Baptist Hospital.
Today, Southern Baptist is Ochsner Baptist, and the former International Style dormitory has regained its architectural elegance as a sleek addition to New Orleans’ lodging options.
Bellone and Ensslen devised the idea for the project in 2013 after Ensslen told his future business partner about his dream of renovating the place, abandoned since Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago.
“I used to say to people in the neighborhood that I thought it would be exciting to renovate the 10-story building, and they’d always say, ‘What 10-story building?’ That’s how overlooked it was,” said Ensslen, a resident of the neighborhood and an early developer of mixed-use buildings on Freret Street.
Woodward Design+Build signed on in 2014, bringing with it the know-how to tackle a project far larger than any Bellone (of Property South) or Ensslen (of Go Mango) had done before. Woodward’s project manager, Bill Hoffman, saw the beauty of the hotel concept right away.
“It’s on Ochsner’s campus, so there is a built-in pool of prospective guests. It’s close to Tulane and Loyola, so it’s ideal for parents coming to visit their students. And it’s Uptown in a great location for out-of-towners who want a more personal experience than what they might find downtown,” Hoffman said. “From a construction perspective, another plus was that the building was concrete, so we didn’t run into problems with moldy wood, even though water had been pouring in through holes in the roof since 2005.”
A hotel requires an operator. Enter Valentino New Orleans Hotels, whose other properties include the French Market Inn and Prince Conti in the Vieux Carré and the Lafayette Hotel near Gallier Hall. It took almost a year after the development team was assembled and Iberia Bank agreed to finance the project to craft the lease, but in mid-2015, the group signed a 99-year lease with Ochsner for the property. Construction began in 2016 and was complete about six weeks ago.
“It might have seemed as though the construction went fast, but when you are living it day by day, it feels like it’s taking forever,” said Ensslen.
The group worked with Donna and Jonathan Fricker to have the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places so that it would be eligible for historic rehab tax credits, the federal program that incentivizes the preservation of historic buildings.
Application materials for “Bristow Tower” describe it as “a particularly accomplished example of the International Style ... embodying the classic trademarks of what was considered a revolutionary aesthetic.”
It goes on to say that it is among just four important International Style buildings in the city, and praises the building’s “crisp angular design with a profound lack of ornamentation” and its “white neutral smooth surface walls that define and envelop space.”
It can be tricky to create a hotel interior that reflects the midcentury modern aesthetic, but Edmonds, an LSU interior design professor, and members of the CDI Solutions team worked to do so without straying into pastiche or kitsch.
From window treatments to light fixtures, the design elements in the 90 guest rooms are toned down — not punched up — versions of 1950s and '60s furnishings.
The color palette, which is neutral with chartreuse accents, roots the spaces both in the past and in the contemporary era. Black-and-white photographs gleaned from the archives of the Historic New Orleans Collection serve as a leitmotif throughout the building, whether they are writ large as murals on walls, medium as artwork in guest rooms, or small as way-finding signs and room numbers.
On the ground level, terrazzo floors — recreated in a contemporary palette but inspired by the original — extend throughout the reception area, business center and breakfast areas. A glass wall opens to a rear courtyard and, up a short ramp, to the restored, original pool.
Ahead of the grand opening of the Alder earlier this week, Floridians and others fleeing Hurricane Irma discovered the hotel online and filled a number of rooms, attracted in part by its pet-friendly policy.
“It was a wonderful way to introduce our staff to guests and help them learn how to make those in traumatic circumstances feel at home,” Ensslen said. “We got to know them — and their pets — very well over the days they were here with us.”