This story first appeared in the September issue of the PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door each month? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!
The Southern Hotel laid dormant in downtown Covington for many years until a local preservationist breathed life back into the landmark. Since its renovation in 2014, the stylish hotel’s popularity has had a ripple effect on downtown Covington, and business is booming.
Now, four years later, hotel owner Lisa Condrey Ward and her business partners are at it again — this time giving a fresh makeover to a historic post office building to expand the hotel’s operations.
Following a speedy one-year renovation, the Southern Hotel has turned the former post office into the aptly named Garden House, opening the doors to its first guests this summer. The brick building is a Colonial Revival structure built in 1937 that operated as Covington’s post office until the mid-1960s when it was purchased by the St. Tammany Parish School Board.
The school board used the building as administrative offices until Ward and her business partners purchased it in 2017 from a parish surplus building auction. They worked with architect Alton Davis with Pascal Architects and Striker Construction to transform the space.
Prior to the post office, the site contained the hotel’s rose gardens and tennis courts — which inspired the building’s name and design. Its new look, designed by Ward, is equal parts sophisticated and playful.
The exterior boasts a lush courtyard, and the interior follows suit with bright colors, local artwork and tropical-inspired prints. Ward drew era-appropriate inspiration from designer Dorothy Draper, even including her signature banana leaf wallpaper to capture that 1930s glamor.
Photos by Kurt Coste
Like many other post offices built during the ’30s, the building contains a mural commissioned by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, a New Deal-era federal public art program that provided work for artists during the Great Depression. The mural at the Garden House was painted by artist Xavier Gonzalez, who also was commissioned to produce murals for the Art Deco style Shushan Airport (now the Lakefront Airport) in New Orleans.
Gonzalez’ “Tung Oil Industry” mural in the post office depicts the evolution of industries in the surrounding area, from timbering to the production of oil from tung trees. The artist painted himself and his wife as figures in the mural, depicted alongside other agricultural workers who he modeled from his friends and neighbors.
The mural had been obscured beneath layers of dust and cigarette smoke when the Southern Hotel bought the building. Art restoration specialist Else Grenier restored the painting, which is now as vivid as it was when it was painted in 1939. “I was amazed at how different it looks cleaned; the detail you really couldn’t see before,” Ward said.
Architectural plans for post offices built during the 1930s were typically standardized and duplicated, with many replicas built across the country. As a result, this building has features that are unusual for the Gulf Coast, including a subterranean basement and a front vestibule designed to insulate the interior in colder climates.
The vestibule — constructed out of a polished dark wood — now has been creatively converted into a bar for the new Xavier Gonzalez suite. The former front door opens to the suite’s private terrace. The original terrazzo floors have been restored, as have the original tile and wainscoting.
The Garden House contains five guest suites, a conference room and one standalone room that can be used as a second bedroom for a suite. Ward hopes to use the federal Historic Tax Credit for the project and is waiting on final application approval.
“We have to save these old buildings and our history,” she said. “The return on the investment is many times over the tax credit. We now employ all these people from a project that might have been easier to just knock down, but it was successful because people are drawn to the history.”
Photos by Kurt Coste