In 2015, we had the great fortune to acquire an extraordinary building adjacent to our gallery in the French Quarter. To be clear, these types of buildings don’t go on the market often around here…much less one right next door. We couldn’t let that opportunity pass us by. So, imagine our good fortune when the sister to that building came on the market in 2016! We knew that something special was in our future!
We were well aware that the massive renovation…and restoration…of these historically important buildings would be challenging. But we only had to walk through their rooms to see the incredible potential. We hired top-notch partners who have helped us navigate the many challenges of undergoing a historic renovation in the heart of the French Quarter. Palmisano worked as the Design-Build partner along with award-winning architecture firm, Office of Jonathan Tate, and retail specialist and branding expert, Scott Truitt.
It’s taken over four years of dreaming and planning, along with careful navigation of numerous regulations and complex logistics, to realize our vision of a true showplace to house our collections. And now, we are counting the days until we can show these French Quarter gems off to the public!
So, with just a few months of finishing touches ahead of us, we thought we would share a few facts that make these buildings extra special.
1. The Great Fire of 1794
These two buildings sit on the very site where the Great Fire of December 8, 1794 broke out just as the city was recovering from another devastating blaze in 1788. The fire was reportedly started by a group of children who were playing with flint. Encouraged by a strong north wind, the fire quickly spread to a neighboring warehouse filled with hay which quickly ignited. In less than 3 hours, 212 buildings in the French Quarter were destroyed. Among the only buildings to survive the fire were the city's iconic St. Louis Cathedral, the Ursuline Convent, the U.S. Customs House and what is now Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop.
A “new” city rose from those ashes and was best described by noted New Orleans historian Lyle Saxon: “The city that fell before the flames was a congested French community of wooden houses, badly arranged and irregular. A stately Spanish city rose in its stead[…].”
2. The Finest in the French Quarter
Built by Dr. Isadore Labatut in 1831, our two identical, three-story brick buildings are quintessential examples of 1800s Creole architecture, making them historically important in the French Quarter. Following a 1964 survey of the property, the local city newspaper, The Times-Picayune, published an article in which these buildings were cited as “among the finest buildings in the Vieux Carre (French Quarter).” We couldn’t agree more!
3. Staying True to the Original
From the very beginning, we knew we wanted to preserve the beautiful and historic features of these wonderful buildings when rehabilitating the properties for their new, modern use. Traditional carriage entrances, stunning arched openings and gorgeous French doors were defining features of these classic Creole cottages and they have been carefully restored to maintain their historic character. The entire façade of each building has been restored to the original state. Doors, stairs, banisters and windows that are original to the buildings have been retained and painstakingly restored. In fact, the buildings features almost a dozen fireplaces with original mantels that have all been restored to their original grandeur.
4. Going Up?
You asked, and we listened! A new elevator has been installed giving all visitors easy access to the 2nd and 3rd-floor galleries. We knew that installing an elevator was essential for the new space, but determining where to put it was one of the biggest design challenges we encountered. We must have drawn it in 20 different spots, with as many different configurations. Ultimately, we placed it in a visible location toward the front of the new building. Our operations team has continued to express their gratitude for this newest “modern” addition!
5. Our Own Master Craftsmen
If you’ve visited our current gallery at 630 Royal Street, you may have seen our beautiful, mahogany-clad library. But, did you know, that our much-beloved library was built by our own talented, in-house restoration team? We’ve enlisted their expertise again to build much of the gorgeous casework and display cabinets found throughout the new buildings. Cabinets and floating pedestals are being constructed to display many of our smaller items such as silver, porcelain, glass and objets d’art.
6. The Main Entrance
After almost 70 years, we’re moving the gallery's main entrance. When renovations are complete, the main entrance to M.S. Rau will move from 630 Royal Street to 616-624 Royal Street, and the expansion will give us a 100-foot linear presence along Royal Street. A beautiful, newly fitted welcome desk will help guests learn more about our galleries and assist with locating pieces of interest.
7. The Classic French Quarter Courtyard
From the street, it’s hard to imagine the lavish courtyards tucked behind the brick and stone walls of almost every French Quarter home and business. They are the hidden treasures of the city, but most, unfortunately, are off limits to the public. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Vieux Carré was dominated by French and Spanish Creoles, these courtyards functioned as practical spaces for loading and unloading carriages, carrying out the domestic duties of the home or just for cooling off from the stifling heat of summer.
Our new buildings house two of these wonderful historic courtyards and we have decided to share this piece of French Quarter charm with our guests. If visitors need to take a break from exploring the gallery’s many treasures, they can find some fresh air and relaxation in one of our lovely, completely restored courtyards.
8. A Facelift for 630 Royal Street
Once the renovation is complete and the new gallery spaces are open, we will turn our attention to our current space. The next phase in our expansion will be to renovate the ground floor of 630 Royal Street. Plans are being drawn to create a new space for our growing staff. This phase II renovation will put our team in closer proximity to each other instead of having them scattered throughout the expansive gallery.
The most exciting change will happen in our Jewelry department. We have plans to almost quadruple the size of our current jewelry footprint, giving us much more space to showcase even more rare and important jewels.
9. When renovations are complete, the addition will nearly double the size of our gallery.
With the addition of the new buildings, we will double our showroom from around 25,000 sq. ft. to nearly 50,000 sq. ft. The most exciting part of this expansion is that we will finally be able to exhibit our paintings, sculpture and antiques in the way they deserve without the spatial limitations of our current space. Everything will have more breathing room, allowing customers to focus on one special piece at a time.
We hope you will make plans to visit us in New Orleans this Fall to help us celebrate this amazing renovation. We will keep you posted on our progress.
Follow along with our renovation journey with pictures documenting every step of the process from excavation to the finishing touches. See our progress.