The fire started after midnight, but it was anyone’s guess as to where. It might have been in a kitchen chimney. It might have been started by a gas leak. It didn’t matter, really.
That knowledge wouldn’t have changed the simple fact that, because of that fire, the Verandah Hotel — a six-story Greek Revival structure designed by noted local architect James Dakin — was history.
Its destruction can’t quite be considered the end of an era in New Orleans. It had stood just 18 years, after all. But it did mark the end of what had become something of a landmark.
Noted as much for its beauty as its hominess, in its short run, the Verandah carved out a reputation as a family-friendly alternative to the swankier St. Charles Hotel, catercorner from it at the intersection of St. Charles Avenue and Common Street.
Before its fiery demise, the hotel would also play an influential role in helping to establish iron railings as one of the city’s architectural hallmarks.
Born of conflict
Although it wouldn’t open until 1839, the Verandah — as genteel as that name sounds — was born out of an 1834 tiff between investors in the St. Charles Hotel, which was envisioned as a suitably luxurious hotel for the city’s then-fast-growing American sector.
Shortly before construction on that project began, the 20 businessmen behind it gathered for a celebratory feast. Some began taking turns toasting their home countries.
When a toast was offered to England, an Irish-born investor reportedly declared, “Damned if I do!” Before long, the nose of English-born Richard Owen Pritchard was firmly out of joint.
Pritchard erupted: “Damn your hotel! I will build one of my own!”
Which is exactly what he did, hiring the firm of Dakin and Dakin to design it.
Cosiness was the theme
The St. Charles would open its doors in 1837. By then, construction had begun across the street on Pritchard’s Verandah Hotel, which opened in 1839. The cost: $300,000 (more than $9 million today).
“The Verandah prides itself upon its cosiness,” wrote A. Oakley Hall in “The Manhattaner in New Orleans,” an 1851 travelogue. “The snugness of its exterior and the comfort of its inn-door life possess peculiar attractions for families. And there is about it altogether a home look and a home feeling as pleasing as it is novel for New Orleans.”
Exterior ornamentation was restrained, but it included arguably the hotel’s most distinct feature: a wraparound second-floor gallery.
According to Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella, the railing lining that gallery “may be the city’s earliest long, full-width gallery supported with iron columns and lined with iron railings, the likes of which would become ubiquitous after the 1850s.”
Then came July 19, 1855 — and that aforementioned fire.
Fortunately, the hotel was evacuated without injury, and firefighters were on the scene quickly, storming into the burning building, hoses in hand.
Too much to fight
Just as they appeared to get the upper hand, it became apparent the structure was no longer sound. They were forced to withdraw.
By 2 a.m., the walls began crashing down.
“It was not a trifle to see how they crushed in roofs, annihilated out-offices and cracked walls as the(y) came down from their lofty heights with (a) terrible crash,” the paper wrote.
At that point, the firefighters focused their attention on keeping the blaze from spreading to other buildings.
By 4:23 a.m., the horse-drawn Young America — the Fire Department’s first steam-powered pumper — was on the scene, blasting water from three hoses onto the fire. A fourth was later added.
Even though not operating at full power, the strength of its flow left an impression on spectators:
“The pipe once slipped from the hands of those holding it, and away it swung with a force that sent some thirty or perhaps fifty sprawling in the gutter and one of them in rising was actually thrown again by the force with which the stream struck him, and he again fell!”
Though they contained the blaze, the Verandah couldn’t be saved.
Gone but not forgotten
A front-page story on the next morning’s Daily Picayune read: “One of the most destructive fires that has taken place for many months in this city, broke out about 1 o’clock this morning in one of the rear apartments of the Verandah Hotel, and was not extinguished until the whole of the elegant building was destroyed.”
By the end of the year, work was well underway on a row of six four-story buildings on the site to replace the Verandah — and which would house a variety of offices and businesses for more than 100 years.
But the Verandah wasn’t forgotten entirely.
In 1993, the city gave developers permission to demolish the six buildings, five of which by then had been long vacant and were in a state of decay. In its place, they planned an $11 million, 140-room project designed by Lyon & Hudson Architects to echo, although not duplicate, the old Verandah.
Operating today as a Courtyard by Marriott, that building also stands six stories. Its defining exterior feature: a second-story, wraparound gallery running the length of its Common Street and St. Charles Avenue sides.
In a laudable nod to the site’s history, the new building’s dining room, according to a 1995 story in The Times-Picayune, is lined on one side by iron posts salvaged from the wreckage of the old Verandah.
Sources: The Times-Picayune archive; “A Manhattaner in New Orleans,” by A. Oakley Hall; Preservation in Print, October 2019; “History of the Fire Department,” edited by Thomas O’Connor.
Know of a New Orleans building worth profiling in this column, or just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at [email protected]
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