In your column of Oct. 9, 2007, you wrote "The St. Charles Hotel met a different fate. The first one burned in January 1851. A second one replaced it immediately, but in 1894 was also destroyed by fire. A third St. Charles Hotel was built on the same site not long after. This one was demolished in 1974." Is this the present site of Pan-American Life at 601 Poydras St. at the corner of St. Charles Avenue? There is a plaque there regarding this.
The corner of St. Charles Avenue and Poydras Street wasn't the location of the St. Charles Hotel, not a single one of them. It was the location of the St. Charles Theatre, all three of them. It's interesting that the two famous structures have similar histories.
From the time it was built in 1835 in the first block of St. Charles Avenue, the St. Charles Hotel, with its great white dome, was one of the highest points in the city. Designed by architects James Gallier and Charles Dakin, the structure was truly magnificent and could be seen up and down the river for miles. An 1845 guidebook said of it: '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."
The second St. Charles Hotel lacked the large dome, but the interior was even more extravagant and elaborate. In 1885, a British journalist praised the structure, saying no other American hotel 'can equal the architectural magnificence of the exterior of the St. Charles."
The third St. Charles, built in 1896, was a fine hotel, but nothing like its predecessors. But for about 60 years it was a popular place for debutante parties, political meetings and Mardi Gras balls. Then, for no apparent reason, it was demolished.
Further down St. Charles Avenue, the first St. Charles Theatre was built, also in 1835. It opened in November and, with seating for about 4,000 people, was one of the largest theaters in the world. The man responsible was James Caldwell, an English-born entrepreneur who had built a theater in New Orleans on Camp Street in 1823. He also owned the New Orleans Gas-Light Company.
The architect of the first St. Charles Theatre was Antonia Mondelli. The exterior had tiers of Corinthian and Ionic columns. The inside was really something, with damask draperies, mahogany paneling and imitation marble. The boxes were adorned with mirrored panels. In the center was a two-ton chandelier with more than 23,000 cut-glass drops and 250 gaslights. It was the favorite theater of the American population of New Orleans, and they paid $1,000 for a season's subscription to a private box for 12 that had its own reception room.
This glamorous theater burned down in March 1842, but a second theater was built on the same spot, though it was less spectacular than the first. This theater seated about 1,500, and booked performers such as Charles Keane, Edwin Booth and Jenny Lind. When Lind performed at the theater in 1851, she sang for 20 nights and people paid $600 for choice seats on opening night. Many other seats went for $250.
Theaters were especially vulnerable to fires for several reasons: open gas and candle flames, flammable scenery and costumes, and theatergoers who smoked during performances. Fire brought an end to the second St. Charles Theatre in 1899. Some believed it was the result of arson.
The third theater on this spot, designed by the local firm Favrot and Livaudais, opened in 1902 and lasted until 1967, when it " like the St. Charles Hotel " was demolished. This theater became part of the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit, and Sarah Bernhardt made her final local appearance here.
For some time, the site was destined to be a parking lot, but in 1980, the Pan-American Life Insurance building was erected.