For some 60 years, in the town of Covington, Louisiana, The Southern Hotel on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain was the premier place for vacationers to stay.
In the winter, visitors from the East Coast trying to shake off the snows rented its luxurious rooms; in the summer, the well-to-do of New Orleans society traveled the 41 miles to escape the stifling heat of the Big Easy.
The 34,000-square-foot Mission-style structure, which opened its doors in 1907, is one of the bigger buildings in the tiny town, whose population is only 8,700. What’s more, it occupies a prime piece of real estate on Covington’s iconic Boston Street, which is what the main thoroughfare is called.
But when the tourist trade faded, so did the glory of The Southern Hotel. Through the years, the building was used to house a variety of commercial tenants, including the St. Tammany Parish government, which used it as a courthouse. When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, it had a last hurrah as the headquarters for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
It remained vacant until two couples bought it in 2011 with the intent to restore it and open it as a boutique hotel, a move they hoped would help revive the downtown district.
“Covington didn’t have a nice boutique hotel,” says Peter Trapolin, FAIA, of New Orleans-based Trapolin-Peer Architects, whose team, which was led by project architect Ashley King, AIA, was commissioned to make The Southern Hotel hospitable again. “There were only highway chain hotels.”
The goal of the project was to make the hotel a go-to destination not only for tourists but also for locals who wanted to hold events such as weddings there.
Period-style accuracy was paramount: The project received historic tax credits from Louisiana and federal subsidies, offsetting 45 percent of the construction costs. “We had to adhere to state historic preservation and National Park Service guidelines,” Trapolin says.
The building, which King says was derelict, neglected, and mostly vacant when they began work, had been altered through the years and needed considerable structural shoring up that included a new foundation.
The composition-shingle roof, which was intact and in good shape, had to be brought up to current codes, and the main entrance, which features a loggia, was restored. So were the ground-floor openings, the side façade, and the corner entrance. Two original towers on the façade had been gone so long that the team decided not to reintroduce them.
“During the excavation for the footing for the column supports, we encountered a lot of water that was unexpected,” Trapolin says. “We never determined the origin—it could have been a remnant of the original artesian well that was in the original lobby or it could have been a municipal water leak. Each section had to be poured separately. This was one of the biggest complications of the project because it took more time.”
The U-shaped building, which has guest rooms on each wing, featured a parking lot in the center. Under the new plan, a single-story addition enclosed the space, transforming it into a square, self-contained, central courtyard.
The public-events spaces, including the ballroom and the sunroom, open to it.
King says that the addition, which houses a fitness center, connects the wings’ two sets of stairs and serves as a passageway for housekeeping staff.
“The addition keeps the workings of the hotel behind the scenes, by connecting the spaces on the ground floor and providing access to both upper-floor guest wings,” she says. “Since the main lobby and bar are in the front of the hotel, it also allows for a slight separation of the public, private, and back-of-house spaces but still have them interact. That was the challenge—the other piece of the puzzle to the design.”
A restaurant and bar, which have become quite popular with townspeople, were added in the original building footprint, and a sunroom was sited to the lobby side. It, too, opens to the courtyard, which features an antique fountain.
“To add the sunroom, we tore down a masonry room that had been added during one of the renovations,” Trapolin says. “We had originally envisioned steel-framed windows for the sunroom, but we could not get them delivered in time, so we went with wood-framed ones instead.”
The team studied period photos and used fragments of original elements to recreate the building’s distinctive details. The windows and doors, which are made of Spanish cedar, are replicas of the originals.
The 36-inch-high turned-wood balcony balusters on the exterior are the same design as the originals, but they are topped with a 6-inch-high supplement, simple in design, to comply with current code heights. The owners painted the brick exterior of the building in an Arts and Crafts/Mediterranean color scheme of tan, red, and olive.
The interior presented its own challenges. Only one period photo of the lobby exists, and it doesn’t show the focal-point fireplace. The team determined its original location and created a double-sided masonry replacement that opens to the newly created sunroom and outdoor courtyard.
Columns connected by arches divide the lobby space into cozy nooks, and antique pine ceiling beams impart an air of antiquity.
“The decorative lobby columns conceal the steel ones, and the arches cover the steel beams,” King says. For the placement of the 42 rooms and two suites, the team let the locations of the bathrooms be the guide.
“The guest rooms are not large by today’s standards,” Trapolin says, “but they have high-end finishes and amenities.”
The suites, for example, feature double vanities, a soaking tub, a private water closet, and a glassed-in walk-in shower. The walls and floors are paneled in Carrara marble. Above each tub is a custom mural. And the furnishings include pencil-post beds made from heart pine by a local artisan.
The interior is decorated in a period style and features the owners’ art collection as well as works by local artists. “Covington has a large and active art community,” Trapolin says, “and the owners wanted to include their work.”
The project, winner of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana-2014 Phoenix Award and the 2015 Louisiana Culture Award for Preservation Heritage from the Louisiana Office of Cultural Development, has helped spur the rebirth of Covington.
“We are still getting positive feedback five years after it opened,” King says. “People who live in Covington love to visit the bar and restaurant, and many of them have attended weddings there.”