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Then and Now: Roosevelt Hotel Lot Through the Years

I am a 6th generation New Orleans Native and the 3rd great-granddaughter of the hotel's original owner.

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The Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans was originally built in 1893 on Baronne Street by music merchant Louis Grunewald, and called by his own name. Its location, bounded by Canal Street where Grunewald operated his music store, is difficult to imagine being occupied by anything other than the opulent hostelry, which went onto span the entire city block into University Place (now Roosevelt Way); it has become such a fixture in the city's landscape.

Let us remember, however, that the city of New Orleans was founded in 1718, long pre-dating Louis Grunewald's arrival in 1852. For as many landmarks that have remained unchanged throughout much of the city's history, there have been a plethora of incarnations and reincarnations that have taken place through the years. Some of these changes have calamitous origins, while others evoke pure fascination. Destruction and rebirth also prove common themes throughout.

This is the first installment of my "Then and Now" New Orleans series, as we explore the history and transformations of the Roosevelt Hotel lot.

Charity Hospital (1815-1832)

Any New Orleans aficionado will know that Charity Hospital has a storied history in and of itself, but how many have know there is a connection between Charity and the Roosevelt Hotel, even if just in location?

For those unfamiliar with Charity's significance, the hospital was founded by a grant from a French sailor and shipbuilder by the name of Jean Louis in 1736. Louis had been appalled by the plight of the poor who were trying to obtain medical care, and in his last will and testament he proposed the establishment of a hospital for the indigent of the colony of New Orleans, to be financed from his estate.

Charity was a teaching hospital, where students from LSU and Tulane Universities could receive training, and came to be known as the safety net of the city. Its most iconic presence in recent memory stood as an art deco-style tower on Tulane Avenue, which was commissioned in 1934. With more than 2,800 beds encompassing over a million square feet, Charity was the second largest hospital in the country, and served over 100,000 indigent citizens each year before its untimely closing in 2005, following Hurricane Katrina. The building remains abandoned and proposals to revive it have so far been unsuccessful.

Prior to Charity's last and best-known facility, the hospital had - physically - taken many forms through the years.

The first Charity Hospital, way back in the 18th century, was located on the intersection of Chartres and Bienville Streets, in the present-day French Quarter. The hospital quickly outgrew this facility, and two more locations followed. Both were destroyed by fire and hurricane, respectively.

The fourth location was built on the edge of the city, on Canal Street, between Baronne and University Place, and was completed in 1815.

Tourists and locals alike would not have recognized this patch of land between Baronne and University (now Roosevelt Way) back in 1815. It was at the remote and swampy edge of town, close to a ship-turn where the two prior incarnations of Charity had resided.

Grunewald Hall (1873-1892)

Grunewald Hall

Grunewald Hall

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Though today Louis Grunewald is best remembered for his grand hotel, he was not a hotelier by trade... at least not until its erection. He initially made a name for himself as a music merchant, publishing sheet music and selling a variety of musical instruments with pianos being his specialty.

It was a near-twenty-year journey from humble music dealer in Lafayette City to one of the nation's foremost authorities in music trade, and the growth of his business was significantly aided by the fact that the American music industry was then in its infant stages.

By 1873, he was prosperous enough to erect a large opera house on the corner of Canal and Baronne Streets. In addition to the magnificent concert hall, the structure's other facets included: Grunewald's music store (which boasted the world's largest piano showroom), a supper room, and a variety of meeting and rehearsing rooms for the city's various dramatic and singing clubs and benevolent societies.

New Orleans' premiere newspaper, the Times Picayune, proclaimed the Bavarian baroque structure "one of the finest in the country." Its main attraction, the concert hall, was ornately frescoed and adorned in portraits of all the great composers of music. Statues of the nine muses lay in niches about the wall, and magnificent bronze brackets of three or more burners were strategically placed around them. The light from them would blend with an ethereal "sunburst" in the ceiling, giving the room an "almost dazzling brilliancy."

Grunewald Hall was a major part of concert life as well as serving the benevolent societies in New Orleans, until it was destroyed by fire in 1892.

Grunewald/Roosevelt/Fairmont Hotel (1893-present)

Original Grunewald Hall Building

Original Grunewald Hall Building

The destruction of Grunewald Hall left Louis Grunewald to cogitate on what to do with the empty lot. Several possibilities were considered, among which were rebuilding the concert hall or building an office complex. Grunewald ultimately zeroed in his attention on New Orleans' growing population, as well as its emerging role as a major business and tourist attraction, and thus the concept for the Hotel Grunewald was born.

The original structure was six stories high and had 200 rooms. The building was completed in 1893, and just before Christmas of that year, Grunewald announced that he hoped to have it "in full readiness for the Carnival [Mardi Gras] of 1894." He accomplished his goal and his hotel was an immediate success.

The view down University Place (now Roosevelt Way), newly built Grunewald annex in background

The view down University Place (now Roosevelt Way), newly built Grunewald annex in background

By the year 1907, Grunewald added a 14-story annex to his hotel, which he revealed to the public at the flash of midnight of 1908. Its distinctive amenities included a ladies tea room, formal and private dining rooms, private parlors, reception rooms, and large banquet rooms. Each room was equipped with local and long distance phone connections with telegraph services available from the lobby, and the hotel was even connected by arcade with the Tulane and Crescent theatres, two of the foremost playhouses in the city. With the new addition, the lobby, finished in African, Italian, and French marble, spanned an entire city block.

Its most fascinating feature, however, was an underground night club in the hotel's basement aptly named "The Cave." The Cave's interior was inspired by Kentucky's Mammoth Cave, and fused the cavernous ambiance with the folklore of elves and nymphs, which were scattered about the vicinity.

Louis Grunewald owned the hotel until his death in 1915. Afterwards, his youngest son, Theodore, took over ownership until health problems forced him to sell in 1923.

When the new owners took over, they partially demolished the original building, built a new Baronne Street tower to match the larger annex, and renamed the hotel the Roosevelt, in honor of president Theodore Roosvelt for his role in expanding New Orleans' trade with Central and South America through the Panama Canal. In 1964, the property was sold once more and became part of the Fairmont chain, which it remained through Hurricane Katrina, before it was sold again in 2007 after the Fairmont corporation could not cover the cost of the building's hurricane damage. Renovations by the new owners were completed in 2009, and as of that date, the hotel has operated as the Roosevelt-Waldof Astoria.

© 2022 Ehren E Grunewald

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