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Once upon a time, Canal Street in downtown New Orleans bustled with holiday activity come December.

Lynne Owens, who lived in New Orleans all of her life until Hurricane Katrina, remembers going downtown to the Roosevelt Hotel with her mother and father when she was a little girl in the 1940s. “[We] used to get all dressed up,” she said. “My mother would wear gloves and a hat with a veil and I would wear my Mary Janes.”

The hotel lobby’s decorations never failed to amaze a young Owens: “It was enshrouded in cotton to resemble snow…it was like walking into a fairyland.”

Melanie Schilling, who grew up on Jena Street Uptown and currently resides in River Ridge, remembers her grandmother bringing her to the Roosevelt Hotel (then the Fairmont) as part of a Christmastime ritual in the early 1960s. “My grandmother would take me to the Fairmont and then to the Jesuit Church right across [Baronne] street,” she said.

“She always wanted me to light a candle and say a prayer for somebody. The whole day was an event — [something] that you always do at Christmastime. Tradition is so important when you’re a child.”

Department stores along Canal Street, such as Maison Blanche and D.H. Holmes, contributed to the holiday spirit as well, competing with one another for best window display. “You had to go see Mr. Bingle at Maison Blanche,” Schilling said. The locally famous snowman was the host of an afternoon show during the holiday season, she remembers, and his blow up likeness outside the store was a major draw.

The Roosevelt Hotel Lobby, 1938

Entrance to the Sazerac Bar

Early 1920's depiction of Canal Street, courtesy of Wikipedia

D.H. Holmes’ focus was on transforming its store windows into displays of winter wonderlands. “Holmes’ had beautiful window displays — maybe the best,” she recalls. By the late ’80s, however, when Schilling had a child of her own, Canal Street had changed.

“Chains had become the way of America,” she laments, and much of the Christmas fervor that was once so palpable downtown had been lost as Canal Street’s department stores closed down and major clothing retailers relocated to suburban malls.

One establishment that didn’t lose the tradition, however, is the Roosevelt Hotel, which has, for decades, decorated its block-long lobby with elaborate Christmas trees, twinkle lights and fake snow during the holiday season.
“I took [my son] Chris to see the Roosevelt lights every single year in the ’90s,” Schilling said. “We’d see the lights and have hot chocolate in the bistro.” Schilling’s mother, Ms. Owens, says that one of her favorite memories is of dining in the Roosevelt’s Fountain Lounge, a memory that many New Orleanians from past generations share.

Young people now go see the lights in the Roosevelt’s lobby and dine at John Besh’s acclaimed restaurant Domenica, but when Owens was a young girl, the Fountain Lounge was the ultimate end to a winter day with her grandmother. “There were white tablecloths, and the waiters were absolutely beautiful” Owens remembers.

“Elegant, is the word. Vincent was our waiter every time. We ate turkey poulet, ham and bread drenched in cream sauce. For dessert we would have profiteroles.”

[The lobby] was enshrouded in cotton to resemble snow...it was like walking into a fairyland. Lynne Owens

Rhodes Spedale, renowned jazz pianist and author, also recalls the grandeur of the Roosevelt Hotel during the holiday season as a young man at the end of the 1950s.

“It was like walking into a big white fluffy cocoon,” he said. “It was lovely, something that you looked forward to.”

For a time before Hurricane Katrina closed its doors, the Roosevelt Hotel, like so many establishments downtown, had stopped putting up its holiday decorations every year. The holiday tradition began in the 1930s according to the Roosevelt Review, a small magazine that the hotel used to produce, but as Peggy Laborde and John Magill’s book Christmas in New Orleans reports, decoration of the 300-foot-long lobby was scaled back in 1966 due to fire safety regulations.

“With the advent of flame retardant decorations, the popular tradition was revived in 1994,” the book reports.

“The hotel has been a place for the local population to come and celebrate all things social and political since it first opened in 1893,” said

General Manager Tod Chambers. The Roosevelt, which was initially called the Grunewald and also operated for a time as the Fairmont Hotel, was shuttered after Hurricane Katrina for several years due to building damage suffered during the storm. It later sold to new owners and underwent a $145 million renovation.

It reopened in 2009 under the management of the Waldorf Astoria Hotels and Resorts group. The new management, including Chambers, is taking great lengths to reassume the many traditions from the hotel’s long history, and the holidays, Chambers says, “is one of the most important times of the year.”

“During the holidays, every day is a great day,” he said, describing how “school buses will drop kids off on one side of the hotel, allow them to walk through, and then pick them up on the other side.”

The hotel’s two entrances, one on Baronne St. and one on O’Keefe, add to the effect that the hotel is like a “tunnel” of Christmas decorations, as Spedale describes them. The decorations have evolved over time, Chambers said. For example: “[We] used to cover the chandeliers with mesh and lights but now we’ve chosen to emphasize them.”

Interspersed with classic pine, white-flock lit birch trees arc upwards toward the chandeliers. The method the hotel uses to set up the lights has also developed over time. “[We] used to use sprinkler systems and extension cords, because [we] had to bring energy to different parts of the building,” Chambers said.

The holiday decorations are so important to the hotel that, during the renovation, they had the electrical ducts and outlets in the lobby redone specifically to support the lights with ease.

Along with the decor, which takes a week to put up at the end of November, the hotel’s pastry chef makes a gingerbread village in the coffee shop that celebrates different parts of the city, and the famous Teddy Bear Tea remains a favorite event for families. Chambers says that, in decades past, guests were primarily mothers with their children, but now full families all come together. “It’s generations bringing new generations,” he said.

Kids bring their own teddy bears, and each receives a new one to take home before the event ends with a second line around the ballroom. Upon leaving, families may be greeted by one of the local choirs that sing in the lobby at noon every day of December, or see a show at the recently revived Fountain Lounge.

Or, perhaps, they will just meander down the long hall of the hotel, taking in the glow of the lights as they feel the warmth of the holidays.

Images courtesy of the Preservation Resource Center and the Roosevelt hotel, unless otherwise noted. This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Preservation in Print

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