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Artistic accommodations

With artist-designed decor and a ground-floor gallery, a new local hotel displays its developer's dedication to highlighting contemporary visual art

Saturday August 16, 2003
By Doug MacCash
Art critic
The Times-Picayune

Like Soho in the '70s, the East Village in the '80s and Santa Fe in the '90s, the Big Easy is becoming a nationally known contemporary destination for art lovers.

An indication of New Orleans' rising arts profile is the new Renaissance Arts Hotel at 700 Tchoupitoulas St., a $40 million project that, when it opens to guests on Monday, may be the only hotel in the country with contemporary visual art as its principal theme. The artist-designed decor blends with the hotel's Warehouse Arts District location.

But art lovers are not the only market targeted by hotel developer Mickey Palmer: The hotel is within walking distance of the expanding Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and lies on a Carnival parade route, to entice the business and tourist crowds as well.

Visitors entering the Renaissance Arts Hotel's lobby will be greeted by a trio of chandeliers glowing in sulfur yellow, orange and indigo, works by world-renowned glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. The cobalt blue tile wall in front of them will dance with a set of oversized ginger flowers by New Orleans master kinetic sculptor Lin Emery, their brass petals filling with water, tipping and pouring slowly into the shallow pool below.

To the left, a translucent wall of 160 Caribbean blue cast glass squares, thickly embossed with the impressions of frying pans, wine bottles and kitchen utensils by Bywater glass maven Mitchell Gaudet, divides the lobby from the hotel restaurant.

The center of the 217-room, four-story former warehouse, renovated by architects Lyons and Hudson, is perforated by a lofty atrium and roofed by broad skylights that allow daylight to stream onto the interior sculpture garden.

There, colorful large-scale works by New Orleans masters John Scott and the late Ida Kohlmeyer stand amid the potted palms. The carpets dressing the floor of the lobby and halls swirl with an aggressive pattern that melds the styles of art legends Alexander Calder with Gustav Klimt.

Each room is replete with computer-generated prints by Louisiana artists Francis X. Pavy, known for his cartoonishly cubist depictions of Cajun life; and Allison Stewart, whose abstract botanical studies express her ecological concerns. And each bathroom includes a small individual Gaudet sculpture hung atop the alligator skin-patterned wallpaper.

To augment the permanent art installations, a 2,020-square-foot ground-floor art gallery will feature rotating exhibitions. The first is a selection of Kohlmeyer's colorful abstractions.

Each receptionist, bell man and concierge will wear a name tag that features both the employee's name and the name of one of the hotel's artists. When asked, these hotel employees-turned-museum docents will illuminate the art work with memorized artists' biographies.

Soap, shampoo and other necessities will be delivered to rooms on artists' palettes, and children will receive a custom art kit.

The spare brick structure housing the new hotel was built in 1910 as the H.T. Cottam and Co. wholesale grocery store warehouse. But it is probably best remembered by New Orleanians as the Hurwitz-Mintz furniture warehouse, which closed in 2000.

Hotel developer Mickey Palmer, who has created niche hotels from threadbare properties across the city (The Astor Crowne Plaza, Alexa Hotel, St. James Hotel, Lafayette Hotel, Hotel LeCirque, Omni Royal Crescent Hotel, Pelham Hotel, Parc St. Charles Hotel, French Market Inn, Chateau Dupre Hotel and the Creole House) saw potential in the old warehouse, especially considering its location within blocks of several museums, chic art galleries, restaurants and boutiques.

Palmer bought the antique building, which appears on the National Register of Historic Places, then signed on as a partner with the investment arm of Kimberly-Clark Corp. to develop the hotel, proposing that it have an arts theme befitting its locale.

The day-to-day operation of the place will be handled by Renaissance Hotels, an upscale subsidiary of Marriott International Inc.

"Hotels can be boring," Palmer said. "We wanted something different."

The folks at Kimberly-Clark agreed.

"You know," Palmer said, "they really did get it. They're a progressive company. Corporations are usually afraid to create waves, to step outside of the formula, but Renaissance has gone after a more trendy, a more sophisticated audience. The art theme really did make sense with the Arts District."

Palmer's wife Diana recalls a bit more resistance from the corporate investors.

"You want something wonderful," she said. "You don't want a New Orleans hotel to look like Nebraska. Corporate America doesn't understand that. That's why it's a good thing to have a local who understands the difference. That was Mickey. He had to do some screaming to get it done. They wanted to do a cookie-cutter design. They wanted to play it safe, but there's no other city like this."

Creating a uniquely New Orleans environment was only part of Palmer's motivation, though. His love of the artsy neighborhood was blended with his love for his oldest daughter, Amy, 28, who has aspired to be an artist since childhood.

Amy Palmer attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, then studied mural painting at Savannah College of Art and Design, where, her mother recalled, "she never saw a wall she didn't want to paint." Her painted collages have shown at Sylvia Schmidt Gallery, within sight of the new hotel.

But Amy's dream of an art career was severely challenged during her senior year at Savannah in 1997, when she was afflicted with a series of illnesses.

"In her junior year she had slight symptoms, tingling in her extremities," her mother recalls. "In her senior year she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She has a very bad case, very progressive. She had to reinvent her art, but her health problems have become quite severe. She's now wheelchair-bound. We've had to readjust her whole life."

The Renaissance Arts Hotel may be a promising dollars-and-cents proposition, but Palmer's insistence on the art theme is also a tribute to a daughter's dreams. He speaks of his dedication to the project with predictable passion: "I had a vision and you had to do it right. It's going to be an over-the-top hotel. My goodness, when you see all the art. There were budgetary concerns, but we went first class there."

For her part, Amy Palmer is delighted with the prospect of an art-dedicated hotel.

"New Orleans needs more things that have to do with the arts," she said. "There are a lot of artists in the city. There need to be more buildings dedicated to art."

To help bring his vision to fruition, Mickey Palmer enlisted gallery director Arthur Roger, whose quarter-century-old Arthur Roger Gallery is one of the finest contemporary art showplaces in the city.

"Ten years ago people would have made fun of a contemporary art hotel," Roger said. "Now people tend to be more open. There's been a cultural shift. Art is something people want in their lives. "

Of course, other hotels are liberally decorated with contemporary art. The decor of the new 1,081-room Renaissance Grand Hotel in St. Louis is punctuated with $700,000 worth of works by local artists. But Roger considers the tone of New Orleans' Renaissance Arts Hotel to be unique.

"The hotel's whole image is riding on the arts angle," he said. "It's not really about decoration. It's about calling attention to the local arts community. The art is more pronounced than in other hotels."

Hotel officials have yet to arrive at an exact cost of the art, but the figure is expected to run into the hundreds of thousands.

Roger, with interior designers John Chrestia and Sandy Staub, commissioned art works from several of his most senior gallery artists to fit specific design areas. The artists, Roger said, were challenged to create something that would appeal to the art connoisseur as well as the novice.

The selection of Chihuly chandeliers may raise eyebrows in the New Orleans art community, since Chihuly is so identified with Seattle.

"You don't want the hotel to be local," said Roger. "You want some international contact. You want the public awareness of someone like Chihuly. There's a lot of cachet. It was really appropriate. The chandeliers may not be Gene Koss (a renowned New Orleans glass sculptor), but we'll work out ways to expand the artists we're working with."

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