This week’s successful NCAA Final Four in New Orleans was another signal that the city is back, doing what it does so well, once again hosting big, gauzy American spectacles with elan.
Brought to the edge of apocalypse by the furry of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – some 1500 died and nearly forty percent of its population initially left town (the numbers are now climbing back) – the Crescent City is of course so much more than Super Bowls, Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and plumbing fixture conventions. It’s a raffish, steamy American treasure town with 300 + years of polyglot culture and history. New Orleans has character and mystery and a sense of humor. And great restaurants. In southern terms, New Orleans is to anodyne Atlanta (site of next year’s Final Four), as Brennan’s is to Bennigan’s.
And despite the intoxicated tourists stumbling around Bourbon Street and admittedly no lack of opportunity for moral missteps, even the city’s sinful side has a curious redemptive charm, in contrast to the crass, commercial hedonism of Las Vegas.
For me, two things have always come to mind when I think of New Orleans: the Church, and Huey Long, fabled Louisiana governor and senator. So when I last visited New Orleans a few months back, it was my great good fortune to land at the beautiful Roosevelt Hotel, right off Canal Street and immediately across the street from the Church of the Immaculate Conception, a magnificent Jesuit monument.
Long wasn’t a New Orleans native. He was born in a northern Louisiana parish, but as a child I did a report on the “Kingfish” and for some reason (Yankee geographic cluelessness?), I’ve associated him with New Orleans ever since.
Originally christened the Grunewald when it opened in 1893, The Roosevelt (re-named for Teddy in 1923) is one of those grand old American hotels that transports you into another era, convincingly but comfortably. Comfortably, because The Roosevelt boasts $170 million in renovations since the catastrophe of Katrina. The Roosevelt is home to a gilded, landmark lobby that goes on forever and the famed Sazerac Bar, home to the Sazerac cocktail and the Ramos Gin Fizz.
The hotel’s promotional literature says The Roosevelt was something of a second home to the populist Kingfish, “who spent so much time at The Roosevelt, which served as his headquarters in the 1930’s, that Louisiana legend says he even built a 90-mile highway directly from the state capitol in Baton Rouge to the hotel.”
The reach and influence of the Catholic Church throughout the city is apparent in New Orleans traditions, architecture and politics. There’s a unique spiritual air to New Orleans unlike any other American town, and one I can only ascribe to its mystical Catholic/Caribbean heritage.
The twin Moorish steeple domes of the Church of the Immaculate Conception loom over the Roosevelt providing a compelling vision in this river city a foot-and-a-half under sea level.
*Author to blame for photographs