The ceremony looked like the setup to any number of old jokes told in the Blue Room: a hotelier, a businessman, scores of tipplers and a priest. The giddy crowd spilled onto Baronne Street, holding up traffic, clinking plastic glasses of bubbly and dancing to the Rebirth Brass Band, performing nearby beneath a large, unlit marquee.
Amid the late-May revelry, hotelier Tod Chambers stood at a raised podium and saluted the players. "Their name is appropriate for tonight's celebration," Chambers began, alluding to the rebirth of an "era of greatness." He welcomed Kurt Weigle, president and CEO of the Downtown Development District, and Father Stephen Sauer, pastor of the neighboring Immaculate Conception Jesuit Church. (In a savvy public-relations decision, none of the drinkers were invited onstage.)
With the pomp finished, it was time for the punch line. "So, what do you think, should we test it out?" Chambers teased his audience. They whooped in approval. He walked to the edge of the stage, where a lever awaited him. "I hope this works," he muttered, only partly for effect, and pulled the switch.
It didn't. Some members of the crowd let out nervous laughter; others began to murmur. Chambers, along with the rest of the gathering, looked skyward, hopeful or perhaps saying a prayer of his own. And after a few anxious moments, for the first time in almost half a century, the sign capitulated, flashing a lone word, sacrosanct in Crescent City lore, above the heads of the hotelier, the businessman, the tipplers and the priest:
"When a priest comes to bless a hotel, we need to thank (developer) Sam (Friedman), too," Ann Tuennerman says two weeks later, ducking into one of the Roosevelt's labyrinthine, back-of-the-house hallways. She laughs, adding, "I went to an opening of a Popeyes one time, and they had a priest there. Classic New Orleans."
It's now the first day of June and Tuennerman, who is helping the hotel with its press and whose Tales of the Cocktail festival will commence here in early July, is part of an advance tour led by Chambers, a Hilton New Orleans transplant. Sales tours, like the ballyhooed sign lighting, are just another part of the process for the Roosevelt's new general manager. On June 25, 22 months after Friedman's Natchitoches-based Dimension Development Company purchased it for $17 million, the latest addition to the Hilton's Waldorf Astoria Collection will open its gilded doors to guests for the first time in nearly four years.
Some would say 44 years. The landmark property — formerly known as the Fairmont (1965-2005), the Fairmont-Roosevelt (for a brief spell in the mid-'60s) and, back when French Quarter residents actually conversed in French, the Grunewald (1893-1923) — has sat shuttered since August 2005, when floodwaters filled its basement, wrecking the 14-story building's mechanical and electrical infrastructures.
"We have the largest economic renovation in New Orleans post-Katrina," Chambers says, leading the group up a narrow stairwell. "I think it's the largest private investment in the city since Katrina — $145 million. Six-hundred-something jobs."
The tour winds through corridor after corridor, under pipe clusters and around construction zones, opening every so often onto another of the hotel's fairytale ballrooms: the Roosevelt, a cavernous, 20,000-square-foot space with newly installed "air walls" for partitioning; the Crescent City, 12,000-plus square feet, whose uniquely sloped ceiling resembles an airport hangar; and the more intimate, 6,700-square-foot Waldorf Astoria, with stately interior columns and ancient statues lining its perimeter. "I'm not aware of anything else like this in the city," Chambers says more than once.
And then, there is the Blue Room, perhaps the hotel's true trump card. The famed supper club hosted everyone from Louis Armstrong to Frank Sinatra to Sonny and Cher in its mid-century heyday — "My mom saw Chubby Checker here," one member of the group marvels — before going into hibernation during the Fairmont's latter years. But the venue is a large part of the vision for a reborn Roosevelt. The plan starts with Friday night dinner shows, Sunday brunches and special events monthly, though Chambers says details have yet to be finalized. Asked about Anais St. John, a rumored house performer, the GM smiles. "There's a few of those (potentials); she's certainly one of them," he says. "They'll all be local artists."
The cobalt-carpeted room received a facelift as well, starting with overhauled lighting and sound. A massive, crowning chandelier is cinched in plastic after being polished by hand. Gone is the paint that has blacked out the northwest-facing windows since the 1940s; evening sunlight now streams through them, giving the buttery walls a golden hue. "We have a nice view of the Orpheum (Theater)," Chambers says, "and assuming we get [it] cleaned up, between the two buildings it'll be a beautiful sightline."
His tour concludes in the Sazerac Bar, longtime incubator of local libations such as the Ramos Gin Fizz and its namesake rye cocktail. At the sign lighting, "The bar got the most applause of all the outlets," Tuennerman notes. She also recalls the bygone tradition of bartenders flinging their glasses into the air: "That's how they would do the Herbsaint rinse. It's more important that you make it properly. ... Before [the Fairmont] closed, it had kind of gotten to where the Sazeracs weren't that good. I think it's definitely going to be back in good hands. I can't wait to create that first new memory and have a Sazerac in the Sazerac Bar."
The curvilinear bar and surrounding walls, all African mahogany sourced from a single tree, have been scraped and sanded, the original art-deco murals by Paul Ninas reinstalled. Regarding a missing section of mahogany, Chambers tells the group, "Fairmont put a 60-inch TV up there in that hole and unfortunately cut the wood; you won't know it was there. We're not going to have a TV. It's just not that kind of lounge."
Exiting onto Baronne Street, Tuennerman frames the Roosevelt's reinvention as a generational bridge. "You have the older people who got married at the hotel, or they met (here)," she says. "Then, there's people in their 20s who want to experience it (for the first time). ... Nobody's been inside here for [four] years."
Not quite nobody. Even during its darkest days, the most famous hotel in this famed hospitality city maintained an occupancy of at least one. Jeff Dennison, director of historic restoration and engineering and the lone holdover from the Fairmont era, stayed on as the property's caretaker after Hurricane Katrina. In effect the Roosevelt's steward, he has been inside the building every day since returning to an emptied New Orleans in fall 2005.
"Right now, we have all kinds of lighting, but for eight months or so after Fairmont left, it was (only) myself and three other people and a couple security guards," Dennison says, riding a freight elevator to his office on the top floor. An industry veteran, he's worked in seven Crescent City hotels since 1981. "And every hotel gets a little bit older," he adds. "So when I got this one, and they said [it dates back to] 1893, I thought, there can't be much after that."
Dennison's twin roles, as post-Katrina guardian and two-time head of engineering, provide him a certain intimacy with the building no one else has. For instance: Not all the Roosevelt's guests check in. "There are definitely people with us within this building," he says. "They talked for years about a lady in red. ... After the storm, we had seven or eight Blackwater staff here, holding down the fort. I heard them tell the story: Walking across the lobby was a very well-dressed lady in a long red dress. The next security team was Independent Security, and they (also) reported seeing it."
She wasn't alone. "During the early days of the cleanup, we were contacted a couple times by construction asking if the maid would mop up," Dennison continues. "They said, 'We've seen her on the second floor with a mop.' And there was no maid."
Of course, the living have provided their own fair share of intrigue within the hotel. Tales of Louisianans taking up semipermanent residence here abound. The most celebrated: the Kingfish, Huey P. Long, whose gubernatorial headquarters were located in a 12th-floor suite, two stories below Dennison's current office.
Once, before a visit by then-President Bill Clinton, Secret Service called Dennison into a similar suite. "I came in and they were in a closet," he says. "Within that closet, long wallpapered over, they found a hollow. They asked us what it was, and we cut it open and found a small metal ladder that went all the way up through the building, with small doors that opened up into the closets of the suites."
The hollow and ladder have long since been removed, Dennison says. "But that always starts the imagination. I couldn't see any mechanical or electrical purpose for it. Was this for political eavesdropping? Was [Long] putting Standard Oil in suites, and was somebody getting information prior to a negotiation?"
Discovering such unknown nooks and crannies are the rewards of two decades of hotel stewardship. A water leak in a basement wall led to the unexpected excavation of "The Cave," an early 20th-century underground club replete with faux stalactites and reputed to be among the country's first speakeasies. "We cut a hole, stuck our flashlights in and said, 'My God, there's a huge space in here,'" Dennison recalls.
And the gifts keep coming. Just three months ago, at the other end of the building, he followed another closet passageway in an elevator equipment room into a long, open space with windows overlooking the Hotel Monteleone and the Mississippi River. "The (hotel's) 46 carpenters and painters used to do a lot of drinking up here," Dennison says. "The old GM told me, 'Back in those days, if you wanted anything out of the carpenters or painters, you had to get to them before noon.' But he said, 'We never could catch where they were drinking ...' The reason was, they had this closet with a hidden doorway. All the way down, they had some of the best views of the city."
Next door to the carpenters' and painters' secret break room, Dennison's office serves as a repository for knickknacks collected throughout the years. An antiquated headset and microphone, thought to have belonged to a Blue Room announcer. A framed restaurant receipt, dated 1911, bearing the name "Grunewald" and pricing horse neck at 40 cents.
"This is my little relics box," he says. "What's left."
With only days left until the opening, Dennison and his fellow managers are on a nonstop treadmill. A Northshore resident, he often leaves home at 4 a.m. and returns after 9 p.m. "I spend a lot more time here than I do at home," he admits.
Same as it ever was for the steward of the Roosevelt, nee Fairmont, Hotel. The difference now: He's no longer the only one. "I'm ready," Dennison says. "I have 10 engineers right now. I honestly had a tear in my eye coming across the Causeway, knowing I have some of my employees back."
The last time he could say that was Aug. 27, 2005. "I was sitting with the executive chef in the Sazerac that Saturday night," he remembers. "I never in my wildest dreams thought it would be just about four years before I sat down and had a drink in the Sazerac. But when I do, somebody's going to have to pull me off that barstool."