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How quaint the notion now seems of going to pay your utility bills in person. That’s indeed just what folks did for generations with their electric bill at the handsome New Orleans Public Service, Inc. building. Today, the nine-story 1927 gem in NOLA’s Central Business District is a shrine of sorts to those days, with the original terrazzo floor and teller counters still in place in the lobby.
Since mid-2017, the former utility administrative office has also been home to the NOPSI Hotel. With New Orleans hopping once again as a destination, you could not find yourself better placed than here on Baronne Street, wedged as you are right between the French Quarter and the Warehouse and Garden Districts.
Perhaps in past city visits you've wondered about the letters N.O.P.S.I. that you've seen imprinted on manhole covers all over town. The utility company, which operated the electricity grid as well as the electrified transportation system, played a rich role in New Orleans social history (its story is well told in this article).
The hotel's adjacent ground-floor bar and restaurant, called appropriately Public Service, has Edison lights hanging from the ceiling, salt shakers that resemble light bulbs and decorative glass insulators on the tables. Its floor-to-ceiling windows facing the street befit what was once a former savings and loan bank.
A Chicago native, Executive Chef Neal Swidler creates popular starters that include his pimento cheese, with house pickles, crystal gastrique and a pistolette roll from the historic local Leidenheimer bakery. Among his main dishes, a double cut pork chop with praline sweet potatoes is worth traveling for alone.
Known for its take on the classic Ramos Gin Fizz, Henry’s Gin Bar in the lobby gives onto a spacious patio that takes up an entire street corner where a music shop once stood and around which the original NOPSI building wrapped snugly.
Until recently, NOLA lacked a real rooftop bar scene. A weekend DJ now draws a big crowd to the Above the Grid pool bar whose view at night of the brightly-lit white cupola of the nearby Hibernia Bank Building is stunning. At any other time, the ATG rooftop is a serene venue and guests can also rent cabanas with curtains up there.
On the room floors, the ample former office spaces lend themselves to an extra sitting area that is just off the elevator landings (notice the vintage intercoms left in place as well). Centered by king beds, the rooms also enjoy spacious bathrooms with vanities just outside their double doors.
Engaging artworks in the rooms and throughout the hotel are all electricity and transportation themed, from images of streetcars that overlay vintage fare tickets to old photos that have electric transmission line motifs splashed over them. A contemporary photo seen in many rooms depicts the exterior of NOPSI's Dryades Ballroom, an old warehouse behind the hotel with an exposed brick interior and which still has its cool vintage Gantry crane in place. The original warehouse entrance also still has a former street name of Dryades etched in the lintel, a street which played a huge role in the Civil Rights movement.
For more New Orleans Public Service, Inc. history, guests need only walk square into the middle of the lobby in front of reception where a standing table has glass slots that once held utility payment slips and forms. In a sort of mini-museum, the slots are now filled with memorabilia, from brochures and tramway tokens and tickets to an employee ID card of a gentleman born a century ago.
In the hallway that leads to Dryades Ballroom, another memorabilia wall displays mid-century annual report covers for the utility company and items such as a 1972 copy of The Gasette public works magazine. There are also 1950s utility brochures and promotional articles on everything from how to use your home freezer to recommended cooking times for various recipes. Photos of 1950s brides and beauty queens and a 1961 photo of the company's Lucky Strikes women's bowling team are a hoot.
The very people in those photos surely ventured often to the French Quarter and most likely to Galatoire’s Restaurant. The famous house's raucous Friday lunch party is hard to get into but so worth it. You can follow up with diner at the equally celebrated Arnaud’s with its old school waiter uniforms and dramatic table side preparations of bananas Foster.
Closer to NOPSI where condo buildings are going up right and left in the Warehouse District, several new restaurants have become fast hits. In his new Otra Vez, sister to his Alta Calidad in Brooklyn, chef Akhtar Nawab produces his own take on Mexican cuisine crossed with Indian influences. Coffee and pastry shop, as well as restaurant, Willa Jean hums with activity and serves a hearty breakfast to help you start exploring the Arts District and some top city galleries on and around Julia Street.
Housed in a former firehouse, the Callan Contemporary is currently showing Wind and Whisper, featuring Korean artist Key-Sook Geum's haute couture gowns and traditional Korean robes that are made with beads, semiprecious stones, silk and other materials and all held together by wire. These gorgeous mobiles of sorts cast dramatic shadows on the wall that enhance their stunning visual affect (through September 22).
Among plenty of artists shown in its vast labrythine spaces, the Arthur Roger Gallery displays Bosnian-born artist Amer Kobaslija's Florida Noir, a painting series as trippy and cool as its title. As Luck Would Have It is an exhibition of stunning beaded artworks by artist Demond Melancon who pays homage to great musical figures with instantly recognizable surnames names, from Neville, Domino, Toussaint and Longhair to Franklin (as in Aretha). (Both shows through September 21).
While LeMieux Galleries presents plenty of small art works, Aron Belka's large format paintings of New Orleans citizens take up an entire wall. Even smaller, the Ariodante Gallery is packed with folk arts, among them artist Stephen Palmer’s delightful fish sculptures that are made out of old rulers and spools.
Across from the the National WWII Museum (see recent Forbes story), the Ogden Museum of Southern Art is a real discovery for those not familiar with art of the region. Presently, the show Piercing the Inner Wall: The Art of Dusti Bongé explores the early-20th-century life and works of a fascinating Mississippi native who started as an actress before becoming a painter in a wide range of styles from figurative and Cubist to Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism (through September 8). Projected in several rooms, gorgeous art videos in the show Courtney Egan: Virtual Idyllsconsist of flora found in New Orleans (through September 1).
When it's time to return from the galleries and museum to NOPSI, you're just a leisurely fifteen-minute walk away. Without doubt, you'll find yourself along the way looking down and smiling as you recognize your hotel name reflected all over the streets.