A sobriquet like the “Belle of New Orleans” invites a curious fascination, especially in a city with notoriously nuanced costume balls and the tongue-in-cheek “royal” fanfare of Mardi Gras. But fortunately, Le Pavillon Hotel puts some classy in the sassy when wearing her everlasting crown as belle of the hotel ball. I knew of Le Pavillon’s moniker long before arriving, but nothing really prepared me for the mysterious mix of elegance and intrigue of this long-loved hotel.
Gliding between towering limestone columns and mounted Italian statues of “Peace” and “Prosperity,” I stepped across the marbled threshold of Le Pavillon. Given the smashing clash of French and Creole culture in this city’s heritage, it’s easy to surmise a faux-riche interior and a slightly cheeky welcome. The world I entered inside Le Pavillon blasted those assumptions to smithereens.
From Europe, With Love
At least 11 crystal chandeliers from Czechoslovakia throw tiny slivers of light across hand-carved sculptures, marble columns, antiques, Spanish ironwork, gilded mirrors and royal-lavender velvet curtains with tasseled ties, all making their way to Le Pavillon during one of several re-imaginings over the decades. Having checked in just after 9 pm on the weekend before Mardi Gras, I expected a bit of rowdiness in the hotel bar, even if cloaked in gentility. Wrong again.
Entry to Le Gallery Lounge, an open-air extension of the lobby, is through an exquisite Siena marble and green onyx balustrade hailing from the Grand Hotel in Paris, once used to reserve space for the titled French aristocracy. Bronze wall insets and Baroque oil paintings frame yet another glittering crystal chandelier, but it’s immediately evident that the decorative star of this drinking hole is the bar itself. The rare triple-arched antique bar was crafted from Brunswick mahogany in 1880 and transported by train from Chicago.
Sugarcane and Cypress Bogs
I soon learn that Le Pavillon has a much more complex heritage than meets the eye. The hotel sits on land once nurturing a vast sugarcane and indigo plantation in the 1700s owned by Jean Gravier, one of the leading members of early New Orleans society. Prior to that, Jean Bienville, the founder of New Orleans, held claim to the land’s title and sold it to an order of Jesuit priests. When they were kicked out of the city (and the entire region), Gravier acquired the land and ran the prosperous slave plantation until his fortunes dwindled.
By the time the United States acquired the area in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase, Gravier’s thriving plantation on the edge of New Orleans was a swampy, fetid place with stagnant bogs, cypress thickets, overgrown cemeteries and tales of despicable crime. Author Henry Castellanos describes the land upon which Le Pavillon now sits as a place of “foul deeds and midnight murders,” where human skeletons lay buried in cavities of rotting overturned trees. It was a land of wild men and beasts, and the air “thick with intrigue and desperate plots … the dismal willow uttering plaintive sounds with every gust of wind.”
Poydras Street, which now runs in front of Le Pavillon, was at that time a murky muckish canal that eventually caught the attention of New Orleans and Carrollton Railroad, who drained it for a depot where horse cars connected up with steam engines. As though the land carried an eternal curse, the train depot was abandoned and fell into disrepair, becoming the site of choice for traveling circus shows and dubious performance spectacles. Even the grandiose fresco-domed National Theater erected in the spot in 1867 lay abandoned and deteriorating by the time it burned to the ground just 20 years later.
A Belle is Born
Fate and fortune would finally shift in 1907 with the spectacular success of the New Hotel Denechaud, renamed the Hotel De Soto in 1913, and finally, Le Pavillon in 1963. The proud new property was a groundbreaker and earthshaker from the very beginning. It was the first to install hydraulic elevators and the first structure in New Orleans to have a basement – which bears tales of an exclusive underground passageway during Prohibition, used “in case of emergency” for political figures and foreign dignitaries.
In 1928, one of New Orlean’s first radio stations, WDSU, operated from the penthouse suite of the hotel, broadcasting America’s first prizefight and first collegiate football game, both in 1920. Flamboyant and provocative Senator Huey P. Long spent many hours giving marathon broadcasts from WDSU. When rumors swirled of an assassination plot being hatched at the Democratic Conference inside the hotel, Long, the intended victim, reportedly set up a surveillance operation in adjacent guest room suites.
As the story goes, the surveillance team used extended poles and recording devices to discover that the planned assassination involved none other than New Orleans Mayor Semmes Walmsley, four prominent politicians, two former governors and Dr. Carl Weiss – who did, in fact, assassinate Huey P. Long in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on September 8, 1935.
Those Who Came Before
With so many stories steeped in the land and structure of Le Pavillon, it’s no wonder that today’s guests report the lingering presence of those who came before. Hotel staff aren’t skittish about relating tales of Ava, a young woman who stepped off the curb in front of the hotel and was immediately hit by a carriage. She subsequently died of her injuries in Room 930, where her spirit dwells to this day. Guests also report seeing a loving older ghost couple who died in the hotel as well as a prankster ghost in room 224 who pulls off bed covers in the middle of the night.
I played it safe and opted to sleep in the relatively benign Frenchman Suite, which celebrates the music of New Orleans with an in-room baby grand piano and saxophone. I surmised that if a ghost were to inhabit one of the luxury suites, it would most likely be the 1800s-themed Napoleon Suite with precious art and antiques, stained glass and a hand-carved fireplace mantel. Why? Because the bathtub, carved out of a single block of pristine Carrera marble, once belonged to French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte himself.
Sweet Dreams and Peanut Butter
After checking into my room on that first night at Le Pavillon, I watched from Le Gallery Lounge as diners spilled out of the hotel’s Bijou Restaurant. It was closing as I tossed back a signature New Orleans Sazerac with other guests brave enough to actually sit at the magnificent antique bar. Suddenly, a rumbling energy descended upon the graceful Le Pavillon lobby and I ventured over to its epicenter: a sumptuous silver-laden buffet table piled high with … peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?
As the story goes, the nightly tradition of complimentary PBJ sandwiches and steaming hot chocolate began on September 10th, 1988, when a guest ordered a glass of milk. He explained that a nightly tradition with his daughter back home is to share a PBJ and milk every evening at 10 pm. Even when traveling, he kept the commitment as best he could. The manager that night quickly rustled up a PBJ sandwich in the hotel’s kitchen – and the rest is history. The spread takes place every single night, adding another quirky element to the multifaceted Belle of New Orleans.
The Perpetual Belle of New Orleans
A few nights later, while dining on lobster bisque with citrus crème fraiche at Bijou restaurant, I finally got a clue as to where Le Pavillon got its enduring and well-earned nickname. Mounted in a hand-carved gold-leaf frame, a spellbinding oil-painted portrait from the mid-1800s hangs alone on the wall, titled “The Belle of New Orleans.” Reigning over the dining room in perpetuity is a young lady whose wealthy New Orleans family lost their fortune and sold the painting to Le Pavillion, with the condition that her identity never be revealed – and that she never leaves her beloved New Orleans.