June 13, 2011

New hope for a French Quarter grande dame

In its heyday, the Hotel Maison De Ville stood as the paradigm of old New Orleans hospitality. Located between Bourbon and Royal on Toulouse, the Creole townhouse complex was hailed by travel buffs the world over as the creme de la creme of historic hotels.

Having only 14 rooms, all authentically decorated with antique and period furnishings, a visit was like stepping into another place in time. I recall a honeymoon trip that began with a cruise from New Orleans, ending with a stay at the Maison De Ville. (The trip ended, but the honeymoon endures.)

Our tiny room was in the slave quarters overlooking the lush, brick-paved courtyard.  On Sunday morning the music from the neighboring Court of Two Sisters jazz brunch crept over the high brick wall, adding unobtrusively to the ambiance. The requisite fountain centerpiece, replete with swimming turtles, was flanked by a small cannon amidst the gorgeous tropical plants.

It was summertime then, and the courtyard was only tolerable in the mornings and late evenings. The aroma of hot chicory coffee stirred the senses in the cool morning shade. In the afternoon, chilled port and sherry were offered indoors in the salon.

If true, the claim that the slave quarters were built in 1742 would make the hotel 10 years older than the Ursuline Convent, circa 1752, alleged to be the oldest building in Mississippi Valley. Irrespective of the disparity of dates, the slave quarters stand as a testament to the construction of that era, and of man's ability to impart modern convenience without spoiling the character of the environs. Three walls were built of the original barge boards, the joints caulked with horse hair, Spanish moss, and a bit of mud. Exposed bricks comprised the interior exposure of the outer wall over the courtyard, with beamed ceiling and pinewood floors providing traditional finish. Wall hangings appropriate to the period added to the atmosphere. Old, authentic, and beautiful would describe the structure, but the enchantment of it cannot be so easily described.

After Katrina, the hotel closed, and I was reminiscing with a friend who had worked there while attending Tulane in the 1960s. As a night clerk during the time that Tennessee Williams made the Maison De Ville his home, my friend never saw Williams. He did, however, as part of his duty, regularly make arrangements for bottles of bourbon to be delivered to the writer's suite.

Reopening after a protracted closure, the property struggled under the ownership of Judah Hertz, a real estate developer out of his element. After a troubled run, the hotel was put up for sale and finally closed in 2009. Frayed at the edges and falling into disrepair, it had lost much of the luster that had previously defined the iconic hostel.

Now enters a ray of hope for the grand hotel. Entrepreneur Richard C. Poe II, of El Paso, Texas, purchased the property early this year and plans a complete renovation to be complete in October, 2011. Perhaps 727 Toulouse shall again be the destination of choice for the history-intent traveler, and to those wishing tocommune with writer Williams.

Among Poe's other business interests is the ultra-premium Dos Lunas brand tequila, which I pray will not supplant the signature port and sherry in the salon.