International House Hotel: High Art and High Spirits in New Orleans
By Debra Smith
Is it possible to fall in love with a hotel? Tall, sophisticated, cultured, and artistic. If the International House Hotel in New Orleans was a person, you might be swept off your feet.
Love at First Sight
First impressions are lasting. The slender columns and arched pediment of this 1906 Beaux-Arts building gather guests into the pristine white lobby with a gentle hug. There are worlds to discover in this modest space, steps away from the French Quarter in New Orleans.
Depending on what time of year you visit, you may find the furnishings draped in their summer dress of white linen. In the fall, rich pumpkin-colored velvet upholstery, black leather, and hand-carved wooden chairs make an appearance.
And if you’re lucky, you may be in time to partake in one of the hotel’s annual rituals.
Seven Spellbinding Celebrations in New Orleans
There are seven celebrations in all, drawing from the heady swirl of influences that created New Orleans, mainly the Caribbean, France, Spain, and Africa.
According to John Price, General Manager, “We will take apart the lobby anytime. It’s our best-kept cultural secret.” Mardi Gras brings an enchanted tea party, and the walls wear a necklace of rich watercolor prints dating back to the original sumptuous Carnival of 1896.
The satirical scenes are by Bonnecaze, the first woman to create floats and costumes for Mardi Gras. Dress in white and wash your hands to take your place on the longest day of the year, St. John’s Day, and the summer solstice.
Join in a 150-year-old Vodou ceremony, honoring the wild saint himself, and the thin veil between this life and the next, while sipping John’s Way, the ritual’s elixir of the moment.
Bewitched, in a Good Way
“We like to say that we worship at the altar of a good cocktail,” says Abigail Gullo, Creative Director, and Bar Manager. A warmer, more welcoming high priestess would be hard to find. Every ritual has its signature cocktail, as befits a bar named after the Loa, the divine spirits of the Vodou faith.
A seductive space off the lobby, the twinkling lights and gothic mirrors of Loa cast a spell that makes you want to linger. As the seasons change, new cocktails appear in elegant vintage glassware.
In winter there’s a flaming punch because “the Irish like to light things on fire.” The wine selection calls on family-run artisanal vineyards reminiscent of her own Sicilian roots.
Art from the Heart: Banksy Even
Lest you imagine that the hotel is lost in the past, raise your eyes to the back wall of the lobby where you’ll find the Banksy mural, “Looters”, rescued after Hurricane Katrina by the hotel’s owner and art curator, Sean Cummings.
One of 16 stenciled by the artist in August of 2008, it had been vandalized and four years of work were needed to uncover the original art which was covered in layers of paint and detritus.
It was important to Cummings that the work remain protected and still available to the public. A small gallery adjacent to the work is covered floor to ceiling in Banksy stencils and also tells the story of the recovery.
It’s a labor of love for Cummings. “I’m really drawn to creative people and particularly creative rebels. It’s the rebel personality and people of action that I admire,” says Cummings. “So many of us hear the divine impulse to create but fewer of us actually have the courage to act on that.”
In honor of his heroes, like Audrey Hepburn, Basquiat, David Bowie, and Steve Jobs, Cummings has commissioned forty-five vivid mixed media portraits from Los Angeles-based artist Byron Buchanan that are hung, in rotation, in the lobby.
Tucked away on the second-floor mezzanine is the Magdalena Gallery, which began in 2010 with an open call to artists to explore the theme of the feminine and Mary Magdalene in particular, focusing on her story and her lasting significance.
The annual exhibition celebrates women in every incarnation from icon to mother to spiritual being. It’s also an homage to the women who are part owners of the hotel, the women on staff, and to “honor the women in our midst who are remarkable in their own right.,” says Cummings.
Remain In Light, or Embrace the Darkness
No space has been left unconsidered in this 117-room, twelve-story hotel. Even the elevator has been adorned with a floor-to-ceiling tile mosaic of Adonis and Venus. The most modest room has the luxurious feel of a suite, with a toffee-colored leather headboard, inviting armchairs, and a lavish marble bath.
The eight corner suites are light-filled and welcoming with views of the busy streetscape. Nighthawks may prefer the 11th-floor windowless rooms, a type of room that’s often found in New Orleans, but hardly anywhere else. With brick walls painted a bright white and plenty of lighting options, they have the advantage of being exceptionally quiet.
Whichever style you choose, this sophisticated hotel is not for first-timers looking to get their kicks on Bourbon Street. It may not be your first love, but it may be your last.
International House Hotel, 221 Camp Street New Orleans, Louisiana 70130, Toll-free: 855-974-6835
Hotel website: ihhotel.com
Rooms rates from $155 for a standard room, to $739 for the penthouse with a wraparound terrace and soaking tub.
Tourism website: louisianatravel.com