The Origins of New Orleans' Roosevelt Hotel
In The Family
I've always considered myself to be in a rather unique position to speak on this subject. Not only am I of the sixth generation of one of New Orleans' first families, but Louis Grunewald was my great-great-great grandfather. Louis was the merchant who built what is now the Roosevelt Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New Orleans.
Through the years, I have seen that many have been misinformed when speaking of the history of this grand hostelry. These misconceptions have done everything from refer to Louis Grunewald as an architect by trade to declaring that the Roosevelt was the hotel's original name.
I am not here to set the record straight so much as I am to tell the story of the hotel's origins from the perspective of an actual descendant of its original owners who refuses to even go back home to New Orleans if she can't afford to stay at the special place her ancestor built (no, I don't get to stay for free, unfortunately). This is simply because it has always been and always will be uniquely "mine" in such a way that no other guest there (unless they're part of my family, of course) can claim.
Moreover, I have been an amateur scholar in both my family's genealogy and the hotel's history for years and am therefore left with an impression a little more intimate than that of your typical hotel employee or tourist.
Since I am writing a book all about the subject, I am loath to give too much away at once, but this should give you a basic rundown of the hotel's storied past.
With that in mind, let's start at the beginning.
The FounderClick thumbnail to view full-size
Louis Grunewald was born Peter Ludwig on August 30, 1827 in the tiny village of Hanhofen, in the Rhineland Palatinate region of Germany, which was at that time part of the Kingdom of Bavaria. He displayed an early talent for music, prompting his father, the town schoolmaster, to send him to seminary at Speyer on the Rhine. Louis studied there for two years before returning to his native town to pursue a career of teaching music. Before too long, however, his attention was called to America as the place where his prowess would receive the highest reward, and left for the New World in 1852.
He arrived in New Orleans in October of that year, and continued his teaching career as well as establishing himself as a well-known church organist. With the commercial music industry in America just taking foot, Louis saw an increased need for musical instruments, and opened a small store on Magazine Street in 1856.
His new business grew rapidly, and Louis eventually became prosperous enough to build Grunewald Hall on Baronne Street in 1974. The hall was a palatial and multi-faceted complex that for many years served as the premiere theater for New Orleans' ever-growing entertainment scene. Meanwhile Louis's music firm earned itself the slogan of "Everything In Music," as he continued to operate his stores, a publishing company, as well as the world's largest piano showroom.
Grunewald Hall, sadly, was destroyed by fire in 1892, leaving Louis to contemplate what to do with the empty lot. Rebuilding the theater was considered, as was an erecting an office building of some sort.
Ever the visionary, though, Louis instead keyed in on New Orleans' growing population and tourism, and decided the concert hall's old space would be best put to use as a new hotel.
The Hotel Grunewald's Beginnings
Plans for the hotel's erection began in January of 1893. The original building was six stories in height, and had 250 rooms. Louis Grunewald opened it just before Christmas of that year, as he'd made it a special priority to have it in "full readiness for the Carnival of 1984" (meaning Mardi Gras festivities).
The hotel was an immediate success.
Its exterior was made of buff brick with red stone trimmings, with a massive arched entrance of marble. Its interior featured a spacious lobby, intricately tiled floors, and finely finished paneling. On either side of the lobby were parlors, dining halls, and two elevators constantly running. A roof garden sat on top of the building, where bands played and refreshments were served, with a mesmerizing panoramic view of the city.
In 1907, a 14-story annex was built on University Place (now Roosevelt Way), which ran parallel to Baronne Street, where the original site stood. Its massive frame was of steel concrete and hollow tile, with an exterior facade of white terra cotta. It was unveiled at the flash of midnight in 1908.
The addition meant the lobby had taken on its still-present (and iconic) expanse, covering an entire city block. It was lined with French, African, and Italian marble, and featured a grand Venetian marble stairway, leading up to a mezzanine floor. This floor contained an Italian tea garden, a ladies' writing room and private parlors, reception rooms, and banquet halls. One such banquet room, named the "Gold Room," was the scene for many exclusive social gatherings, not only locally, but also for the entire state of Louisiana.
Several restaurants, also earning highest of praise, could be found in the hotel. The main dining room was noted for its massive pillars, beautifully-paneled ceilings, and artistic decorations. There was also the Grunewald Cafe, serving up such spirits as the famous Sazerac, or gin fizz. The most fascinating of all, however, is reputed to have been America's first night club and was situated in the hotel's basement. It was - simply, but appropriately - named "The Cave."
The Cave was, exactly as it sounds: a cavernous underground supper club. Inspired by Kentucky's Mammoth Cave, endless amounts of plaster and cement were molded to resemble stalactites and stalagmites, with myriad multi-color lights throughout giving the ambiance a distinct glow. Lifelike stucco nymphs were displayed about a beautiful waterfall, and elves dotted the grotto-like ceiling. The Cave was a hot spot for entertainment, frequently hosting dixieland bands and beautifully dressed showgirls.
With regards to guest accommodation, the 400+ rooms were adorned with large ceilings, lots of windows, and solid mahogany furniture, and were equipped with local and long distance telephone lines. A wireless telegraph station also kept constant touch through the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic, and the Caribbean Sea from the top of the hotel. There was a fully-equipped electric plant in the basement, boasting the capacity of 20,000 lights. No noise could be heard from the machinery, ensuring utmost comfort on all levels.
A laundry service and catering company also operated out of the hotel. These side business ventures accommodated both the hotel's routine workings, as well as outside clientele.
The massive twelfth floor banquet hall paid host to then-President Taft in 1909, and went onto host President Theodore Roosevelt and other luminaries.
End of the Grunewald Era
Louis Grunewald died in 1915. His youngest son, Theodore, who had for years served as the hotel's manager, took owner ownership thereafter. Like his father before him, Theodore was a visionary whose attention to detail set him apart. He added a number unique amenities to the hotel, including a the "New Little Theater" on the twelfth floor, featuring the Grunewald symphony playing free morning musicals -- perhaps a nod to his family's roots.
Theodore grew the family's hotel enterprise by building an apartment hotel outside of Lee Circle, had planned to even further expand the original Grunewald Hotel with 23-story addition.
The latter, a $7 million investment (as of 1921), was a dream never realized. Theodore suffered an array of health problems in the following years, and in 1923 was advised by his physicians to sell all of his business assets. A New Orleans syndicate headed by Joseph, Felix, and Luca Vaccaro purchased the properties. The Vaccaro brothers owned and operated a fruit and steamship company. The new owners, in light of the anti-German movement that swept the nation during the first world war, re-named the hotel the "Roosevelt" after president Theodore because of his achievement of the Panama Canal during his administration which helped extend New Orleans trade with Central and South America.
Theodore Grunewald retired to Mascot Farms in St. Bernard Parish. In 1925, he had recovered his health enough to return to public life, taking on several managerial roles for such functions as the Port of New Orleans, as well as the city's public markets. The year before his death, in 1948, he even came full circle, as he returned to the hotel to work as director of services.
Since then, the hotel has undergone many incarnations under several different owners. In 1964, it was purchased by Benjamin and Richard Swig, and became part of the Fairmont chain, which it remained until the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It is now part of Hilton's Waldorf Astoria line, under the name Roosevelt-Waldorf Astoria.