photo by: Charles Marsala

May 7, 2024

A Freshly Restored New Orleans Hotel and Music Venue Stages a Comeback

A visit to the Dew Drop Inn on Lasalle Street in 1950s New Orleans offered more than a place to rest one’s head—patrons could also get a haircut, grab a meal, lounge by the bar, and fall asleep to the sound of late-night rhythm and blues floating through the two-story establishment.

“You would hear of musicians coming in [to perform], going to sleep, waking up and being able to participate in the jam session that was still going on after their gig,” said Curtis Doucette Jr., a developer who recently finished restoring the Dew Drop Inn.

And these weren’t just any musicians. The Inn was a stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a collection of music venues where many Black musicians made their living during the Jim Crow era. Ray Charles, Little Richard, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, and Etta James are just a handful of the icons who graced the Inn’s stage in its heyday.

photo by: Rush Jagoe

Curtis Doucette Jr.

The Dew Drop Inn was listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook to help Black Americans find safe places to stay during segregation, and it thrived through the ’50s and early ’60s. But business began to slow down by the late ’60s after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which opened up new opportunities for Black performers and patrons at other establishments. When owner Frank Painia died in 1972, the music hub he’d spent his life cultivating slowly slipped away.

“After 1972, music on the Dew Drop stage became very rare,” said Doucette. “It functioned [as a hotel] up until Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It did damage to the property, and Frank’s family didn’t have insurance on the property because they couldn’t afford it.... So with that, it just sat there dilapidated, rotting, and being damaged by every passing storm from 2005 until 2021.”

‘Keeping the Dream Alive’

Doucette decided to take the restoration project on in 2021 after getting to know Kenneth Jackson, Painia’s grandson, and learning more about the Inn’s legends. Jackson, along with other Painia descendants, owned the Inn after inheriting it, and Jackson ended up becoming an investor in Doucette’s project.

"He was still taking care of the building to the best of his ability and keeping the dream alive, and also keeping the building in a position where it was salvageable, which meant a lot from a historic tax credit standpoint,” Doucette said.

Dew Drop's first floor had suffered extensive damage from years of flooding, and a section of the second story had collapsed into the first, creating a gaping hole.

“You could see daylight from inside the building,” Doucette said.

photo by: Rush Jagoe

The newly restored Dew Drop Inn can be found on Lasalle Street in New Orleans, Louisiana.

But this didn’t deter him. After pulling together a complex $11 million funding package—including New Markets Tax Credits, both state and federal historic tax credits, Hurricane Katrina disaster recovery dollars from the state, city funding, investments from friends and family, and Doucette’s personal investment in the project—the Inn was brought back to life and officially unveiled on March 1, 2024. Two grants from the National Trust helped fund the creation of museum-like exhibits scattered throughout the establishment that teach patrons about Dew Drop’s storied legends.

Evolution of an Icon

When Frank Painia first started his business in 1939, it was just a barbershop that he operated out of an early 20th-century two-story, single-family residence that he rented on Lasalle Street. But Painia had bigger dreams: He eventually purchased that building, along with the house next door that shared an alleyway, combined the structures into one, and added a music venue and hotel rooms to his budding business. The Dew Drop Inn was born.

“By the time we see images of the combined buildings, there’s a stucco facade on the front with a beautiful, curved parapet up top,” Doucette said. “That became the look that we’ve seen since 1953, until Frank did a revision again in 1968.”

Doucette and his team restored the Dew Drop Inn’s front facade to its 1950s character but decided to keep the sign that Painia added in 1968: two stacked white circles encasing the Inn’s name in bold font, pierced down the middle by a bulb-lit red arrow pointing inside.

“Now usually, I’m technical about these types of things: If you restore it to the 1953 version of the building, you need a 1953 sign,” Doucette said of the choice. “But in this case, I said, let’s keep the 1968 sign, because that’s the sign that’s been here for the last 50 years, and that’s the sign that gives [people] nostalgia—everyone will recognize it as the Dew Drop Inn sign.”

Stepping through the front doors evokes a similar feeling. Guests are greeted by an old-school-style welcome desk and a carefully restored interior.

“The venue had been gutted essentially post-Katrina, [but] there were remnants of features that we were able to work with,” said Gabrielle Begue, senior manager of historic tax credits at Ryan LLC, which assisted the Dew Drop Inn in navigating the historic tax credit application process.

“We used historic photos for inspiration," Begue said. “The lobby is as it was, this sort of striated plywood wainscoting that was actually still being produced, the exact same manufacturer, [which] we were able to source. The checkerboard tile flooring [has] a very midcentury feel—we really wanted it to feel like we brought it back to life.”

photo by: Rush Jagoe

The Dew Drop Inn's iconic 1968 sign was restored.

For the music venue, the team positioned the new stage below the area where the second floor had caved into the first to create a special experience for two of its hotel rooms: Guests staying in these rooms can see what's happening on stage from their suites.

The original Inn had 29 rooms, but not all had their own bathrooms, and many were too small for modern standards and expectations. Doucette and his team decided to adjust the floor plan to contain 17 rooms, so that all guestrooms could accommodate a private bath.

“But with that modification, we kept what we call dummy doors,” Doucette explained. “These indicate where there was a door in the past. So if you walk through that hallway, with the exception of the colors and some of the materials, it looks like it did—the ornamentation around the doorframes is the same, and the number of apparent door openings is still the same.”

photo by: Rush Jagoe

The Dew Drop Inn's Patsy Vidalia room.

Honoring the Legends

Each room is named for a person of significance to the storied establishment. There’s the Patsy Vidalia room, named after the self-proclaimed “Toast of New Orleans” who hosted an annual gay ball on Halloween and fostered a safe space for LGBTQ+ people at the Inn. There’s the Little Richard room, named for “the innovator of rock n’ roll.” And of course, Frank Painia’s Groove Room honors the unofficial “mayor of Lasalle Street,” the man who started it all.

The Inn also pays tribute to its history through educational exhibits that grace the walls throughout the historic building.

photo by: Rush Jagoe

A restored original barber chair sits in front of one of Dew Drop's historical exhibits.

photo by: Rush Jagoe

Guests are greets by a welcome desk in the Inn's restored lobby.

Doucette called this element "the heartbeat of the project.” These exhibits were funded thanks to two 2023 grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation—one awarded from the Johanna Favrot Fund, and another from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

The grants allowed Doucette to hire Civic Studio, a New Orleans-based creative co-op, to put together an interpretive plan and exhibits that tell the Dew Drop Inn’s story. One exhibit features a timeline on the wall that tells the story of the Inn, plus an original chair from Painia’s barbershop that Doucette’s team refurbished.

“People love the Dew Drop Inn because of its history,” said Doucette. “If it were just a building that didn’t have its historic significance, there’s no way that so many people would be excited about it. Those stories are told in every room.”

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Preservation magazine Assistant Editor Malea Martin.

Malea Martin is the assistant editor at Preservation magazine. Outside of work, you can find her scouring antique stores for mid-century furniture and vintage sewing patterns, or exploring new trail runs with her dog. Malea is based on the Central Coast of California.

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