NOLA Welcomes NOPSI
The new NOPSI Hotel, New Orleans reinvents a historical building, ushering in a new era while paying homage to the past.
By Tiffanie Wen
NOPSI Hotel, New Orleans, opened last summer to much local fanfare, as the luxury hotel is steeped in history and included a $50 million renovation of one of the Central Business District’s most iconic, but until now, neglected, buildings: the Jazz Age headquarters of the New Orleans Public Service Inc. This year, as New Orleans celebrates its tricentennial, the local landmark serves as a particularly relevant reminder of the city’s storied past.
People outside of New Orleans may not recognize the acronym NOPSI, or feel nostalgic about their own local power company. But NOPSI, which ran the city’s electric, gas and public transit systems from 1923 through the 1980s, still conjures up warm recollections among locals, who often have relatives who worked for the company, and who can still see the old acronym on manhole covers located throughout the area. NOPSI was part of New Orleans daily life.
Today locals and tourists alike have plenty of reason to visit the hotel, which features 21-foot-high vaulted ceilings, the original terrazzo floors, three distinct food and beverage venues, a luxury ballroom, nostalgic memorabilia throughout and the luxury amenities and service synonymous with the Salamander Hotels & Resorts brand.
History of NOPSI
New Orleans Public Service Inc. has its roots in 19th century street car electrification. “Transit systems in big cities were the first big consumers of electric power,” says Edward Branley, an author and local historian. “In the 1890s you had streetcars come about. The street car companies set up power plant generation plants in big cities and ran the electric wires for the car lines.”
By 1923, after consolidation of other utilities, NOPSI had become the power company, and in 1926 it began construction of the building on the 300 block of the CBD that would open a year later as NOPSI’s headquarters.
“It had a Romanesque front. Inside, the interior, the visual comparison is that of a bank. Because at the time people would go in to pay their electricity bills in cash. So you have these beautiful vaulted ceilings and terrazzo floors,” Branley says. “The big space also helped show off the NOPSI light fixtures, who of course manufactured them and wanted to sell them to customers.” Part of the original transaction counter has been saved in the new hotel and now serves as a historic display with memorabilia like old ticket stubs and photographs of NOPSI employees.
Not only did patrons head to NOPSI HQ to pay their bills, NOPSI became a part of daily life in New Orleans in other ways. “New Orleans Public Service Inc. created a special bond with the residents of New Orleans by connecting with them on a personal level,” says Ellen LeMaire, general manager of the hotel. “They offered many ‘public services’ free of charge, such as lighting hot water heaters and changing fuses as needed. They offered cooking classes in the utility building’s lobby area and showcased the newest home appliances to educate New Orleanians on the latest technology.”
Many of today’s local residents can still remember visiting the building as a child, or had a relative who worked in the lobby or one of the offices upstairs.
By the 1990s, though, the building had fallen into disuse. “The NOPSI building was a cornerstone of New Orleans’ financial district from 1927 to 1989,” LeMaire says. “When NOPSI was privatized in the mid-1990s, the building became vacant and eventually flooded during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.”
In 2015, Building and Land Technology of Stamford, Connecticut, purchased the building with plans to bring it back to life as a hotel, with the goal of restoring as many original elements as possible. It partnered with Salamander Hotels & Resorts to transform it into the first luxury hotel to open in the city in more than a decade.
Today the hotel includes 217 guestrooms set over nine stories, with custom-designed furnishing. “The bathrooms are quite large, creating a comfortable setting with upgraded amenities such as Mistral products, plush robes and a clean design highlighted by white subway tiles in the shower area,” LeMaire says. The amenity package in the guestroom even includes a Mardi Gras mask.
Adjacent to the NOPSI building is the Dryades building, a former utility repair room that now features crystal chandeliers set against exposed brick walls (made of bricks from the original NOPSI building), arched windows and a restored ceiling crane. The result is a uniquely industrial-elegant 4,000-square-foot space that plays host to formal events.
“The hotel draws a plethora of luxury leisure transient travelers who desire an authentic New Orleans hotel experience in a casually sophisticated atmosphere,” LeMaire says. “It also draws midsize to small corporate groups who enjoy the personalized attention in a smaller, independent property.”
Dining at NOPSI
NOPSI also features three distinct dining venues. “We wanted each space to have its own identity,” says Peter Page, executive chef of the hotel. “We wanted it to be kind of a walking theater or ongoing dialogue. As you walk through the hotel, each space has its own part or scene to play in the story of NOPSI. And we are trying to make the food fit that ongoing scenario.”
Set underneath the vaulted lobby ceilings, underCURRENT features traditional, classic and even vintage-style cocktails. Food options include a charcuterie board with carefully selected cured meats and an artisan cheese board with a rotating variety of four crafted cheeses.
Located poolside on the ninth floor is Above the Grid, the hotel’s popular rooftop bar that opens to the public after 4 p.m. The venue, which boasts beautiful city views, has proved extremely popular among locals and visitors alike, features cabanas, bottle service and music Friday and Saturday nights. “Above the Grid is hot and happening,” Page says. “We’re lucky in New Orleans to have such great weather, and the rooftop is a great way to take advantage of that. It’s comfortable for 20- and 30-somethings but is not a dance club or unapproachable for someone in their 40s and 50s.”
The menu includes several items designed for sharing, like a trio of house-made potato chips with bacon-pimento cheese dip, or the mezze dip display, which includes Mediterranean-style hummus, Moroccan-style curry chicken and artichoke caponata.
But the venue that serves as the ultimate gathering place is Public Service, a regionally inspired restaurant led by Chef de Cuisine Dustin Brien that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and includes a bar of its own.
“The vision was to make Public Service a neighborhood restaurant,” Page says. “We have an interesting opportunity in the CBD with young urban professionals who don’t necessarily cook at home. We wanted to be that second home for them. We especially wanted Public Service to be the ‘Cheers’ of New Orleans—where people could come in, be greeted by name at the door and feel comfortable sitting at the chef counter for dinner.”
The menu, which highlights local New Orleans ingredients and suppliers, includes favorites like tasso hush puppies made with sweet corn, pimento, cheddar cheese and honey cane syrup, whole roasted gulf fish and chef gumbo. Page says one of the most popular dishes is the steak frites.
“The dish has got a fancy name and the French pedigree, but we didn’t want it to be pretentious or step on itself since it’s a bistro dish in France,” he says. We do it with simple baked potatoes that we fry and serve with a cut of beef called spinalis dorsi, or rib-eye cab. It’s an old cut that used to be traditional in the ’40s and ’50s and fell out of favor. People don’t know it as well, but it’s delicious. It’s rich and has a depth of flavor and stays moist and tender. We dress it with arugula and pickled red onions. It’s an elegant dish but very approachable.”
Last November, NOPSI invited community members to attend a celebration in honor of the building’s 90th anniversary. The celebration also included 1,000 complimentary streetcar transfers. Approximately 150 former NOPSI employees attended a roving reception, where they enjoyed refreshments and tours of the building’s restoration. A hundred or so diners enjoyed a special “Then and Now” menu at Public Service, which featured vintage recipes from the NOPSI cookbook, an annual publication produced by the utilities company and highly treasured by its customers.
“NOPSI built a very special community spirit and culture in its 70 years of operation. As we now occupy that very same space this time as a luxury hotel, it is our goal to revive and build upon that very special spirit and connection with those who visit us,” LeMaire says.
Indeed, one of the aspirations of NOPSI Hotel is to transport visitors back in time. “I have two friends whose mother worked at the NOPSI. They took her for a meal at Public Service when the hotel first opened, and she was moved by it. She walked into the lobby and could see herself walking into the lobby and going upstairs to the office,” Branley says. “That’s what happens to everyone who visits. You know when you walk in that you’re somewhere that’s been there longer than you and has its own past story.”