James Gill: Yesteryear had some ugly buildings, too _lowres

Advocate photo by VERONICA DOMINACH --The HDLC denied the demolition of six buildings on Canal and Tchoupitoulas street to make way for a 21-story Marriott Hotel in New Orleans, La. Wednesday, March 19, 2014.

Any plan to build a huge hotel in the center of New Orleans will bring on an attack of the vapors among preservationists, and the latest one is indeed a depressing prospect.

But, after reading repeatedly about greedy developers who are out to destroy still more of our architectural gems, I went for a closer look.

Surely any fair observer would have to admit that these supposedly historic buildings are plain and ugly. Developers were throwing up eyesores in the 19th century, too. Here they bequeathed us a row of straight-up brick boxes.

The classic objection to new hotels is that they require sacrificing some of the treasures that attract visitors in the first place, but it is inconceivable that any out-of-towners spend time admiring the structures at the corner of Canal and Tchoupitoulas streets.

Any old buildings in that part of town are likely to have some association with important players in the history of New Orleans. Paul Tulane built one of these, and another was acquired and somewhat improved by the architect James Freret. One of the others housed a store where, shortly before the Civil War, a young British immigrant called John Rowalds is said to have worked before assuming the name Henry Morton Stanley in honor of the man who adopted him.

Stanley, after uttering the immortal words, “Dr. Livingston, I presume,” went on to write an autobiography in which he recalled “the slung shots, doctored liquor, Shanghai-ing and wharf ratting” of old New Orleans.

The tourist will know none of this, for there are no plaques on the buildings, which are severely run-down with only the ground floors occupied. They house the kind of tawdry businesses that have made their owner, Mike Motwani, a bête noire in preservationist circles. Motwani, best known for the T-shirt shops he operates throughout the Quarter, here brings us such delights as a massage parlor and a liquor store.

Motwani and the hotel developers he is in cahoots with say the buildings are in such bad shape that knocking them down is the only sensible course. They have a point, but only because Motwani evidently planned demolition by neglect. The city has cited him 30 times in the last 10 years for failing to maintain the buildings he now wants out of the way.

Developers have slightly modified their plans and have agreed to preserve three of the undistinguished façades but still want a hotel three times taller than the 70-foot limit that applies in the area. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, however, is against the hotel, and one of his aides appeared at the last City Planning Commission to aver that the site “deserves something that reflects heritage” and “culture” rather than this monstrosity.

The commission duly rejected the proposal unanimously, but the last word will go to the City Council, which has the authority to ignore such pesky restraints as zoning rules and municipal master plans. Convention, moreover, requires that the council defer to the member for the district where a development is proposed. That is LaToya Cantrell, who has been instrumental in keeping the plan alive over all the vociferous opposition.

The case for the hotel is entirely economic; it would mean 373 more rooms where they are certainly needed and generate a bunch of construction and permanent, albeit largely ill-paid, jobs. The knock against it, according to the city’s planning staff, is that it would be “fundamentally too tall and massive.”

It is certainly impossible to suggest it would do much for the old tout ensemble, but the lower end of Canal Street these days hardly offers a taste of old New Orleans anyway. Other hotels already stretch into the sky, while the Canal Place shopping center and Harrah’s casino are close at hand. All mighty fine, of course, but you don’t get a strong sense of history in this part of town.

The buildings under threat will fall down sooner or later, and Motwani evidently has no desire to make it too much later. Still, if this hotel goes ahead, it will remove any chance of making that corner worthy of its prime location.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.