The first was designed by James Gallier, Sr. and made his reputation. In 1835, he and partner Charles Dakin were asked to build a hotel that would surpass any other in the world. The partnership broke up that same year, but Gallier soldiered on. For three years' work, he earned only $10,000, but the hotel cost the corporation -- including furnishings -- $750,000. The new hotel would be called the St. Charles Hotel for the obvious reason: it faced St. Charles Street just above Canal. When the hotel became a fine place to do business, it was also called "Exchange Hotel."
An 1845 guidebook wrote of the hotel, which at six stories was the tallest building in the city, "The effect of the dome upon the sight of the visitor as he approaches the city is similar to that of St. Paul's, London." Adorning the dome was a cupola, and if you had the energy to climb to the colonnade and porch under the dome, you would get a really great view of the river and the city. All in all, the new American hotel was approved by visitors and locals alike.
Gallier was fond of the Greek Revival style, so he used a portico of Corinthian columns, but raised the main floor above street level. A notable feature of the hotel was an octagonal barroom that was often filled to capacity, a surprising fact when you know that it could easily accommodate 1,000 men.
The marvelous hotel had everything: beautifully appointed public and private rooms of every kind with separate facilities for ladies, as well as shops, auction rooms, and public baths. The bedrooms -- able to accommodate 500 to 1,000 --were located in the space under the white dome and reached by a spiral staircase. The main dining room could seat 400, and the daily printed menu was so extensive that it looked like a small newspaper
The first St. Charles Hotel went down in flames in January 1851. A daytime fire that had started in the kitchen destroyed the hotel in about three hours. Fifteen other neighboring buildings went down as well.
But within two years, another St. Charles Hotel arose from the ashes. This one, designed by Isaiah Rogers and George Purvis, looked much like the first but lacked the dome. However, it was probably even more magnificent than the first. The furnishings were more elaborate and there were more chandeliers. The new hotel featured hot and cold running water, but the water only ran in the basement where the baths were located.
The second hotel was praised by most, but the famous Frederick Law Olmsted -- the landscape architect responsible for Central Park in New York City and father of Audubon Park designer John Charles Olmsted -- called it "stupendous, tasteless, ill-contrived, and inconvenient." Oh, well, there's no accounting for taste.
This hotel stayed open during the final years of the Civil War, and when the war ended, the hotel generously offered free rooms to poor Confederate veterans. The hotel lasted much longer than the first one -- 40 years -- but it also fell victim to a destructive fire, and in April 1894 it was gone.
Once again, however, a third hotel of the same name was built on the same spot and opened in 1896. This building, an Italian Renaissance structure, was designed by Thomas Sully. For about 60 years, it, like its predecessors, was a favorite place to go for Mardi Gras balls, and fetes of every kind, particularly debutante parties.
When it was demolished in 1974, it was operating as the Sheraton-St. Charles and owned by Louis Roussel Jr., the very, very wealthy oilman, banker and politically connected businessman. Roussel, who died in October 2001, said in 1975 that his biggest mistake was razing the St. Charles Hotel in spite of preservationists' pleas. "It's a damn shame," Roussel said. "It was a beautiful hotel."