I’m a Preservationist
Dr. Eric George is a hand surgeon, entrepreneur, real estate developer and author. In the December issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine, he talks about his preservation projects and his new book.
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In addition to being a hand surgeon, you also are a real estate developer and investor whose work has focused on historic properties, including the Pythian, the Orpheum Theater, the Pontchartrain Hotel and the Windsor Court, among others. How did you become interested in historic preservation?
I first became interested in preservation through my work as a physician. I have always been a curious caregiver who is innately interested in the lives of my patients. When I first started living and practicing in New Orleans 25 years ago, it didn’t take long for me to learn about our great city and, particularly, about its historic monuments. My patients often shared stories from their past interactions with our most iconic structures — the Orpheum Theater is a great example. These stories were deeply personal and meaningful to the point that I came to appreciate these landmarks as more than architecture but living organisms giving New Orleans its character. And then, of course, Hurricane Katrina began stripping the city of these precious properties. When I realized I could do something to salvage them, it became my responsibility to get involved. And I’m so glad that I have. It’s brought me closer to my patients who have great appreciation for these places, and it’s allowed new generations to experience them as well and form their own memories.
Your projects have ranged from theaters to hotels to apartment buildings and food halls (at the Pythian). What attracts you to a project?
Every project is a collaborative effort, both in terms of our partners and the people who work for and support me. As a collective, we look for projects that provide value to the people of this city, whether in terms of lodging, entertainment, dining, etc. At the same time, we also look for projects that produce an exceptional experience. And last, we look for projects that are sustainable for our planet. And it’s really these criteria that we focus on, which has introduced us to preservation. In terms of value, preserving an iconic property means much more to people than building a new apartment building. And we find that it creates a better experience. A new building lacks the character and backstory of an existing structure. When you enter the Pythian or the Orpheum, for example, you are entering a part of history, and you can sense it. There’s a certain aura that comes from the mix of the past and present. It creates a memorable experience people appreciate, and when you’re talking about the hospitality business, the experience is what matters.
Of all the historic building renovations you’ve done, which are you most proud of and why?
I would have to say the Orpheum Theater because of what it represents and everything that went into its renovation. When I first acquired the property in 2014, it was in a state of significant disrepair. The basement still contained flood waters from Hurricane Katrina. Despite all the work it needed, we had become fascinated with the idea of reopening the theater on the storm’s 10-year anniversary. The date seemed symbolic to us, and meeting that goal presented numerous challenges. We managed to overcome all of them without sacrifice, which still seems miraculous to me. True to our original vision, we reopened the theater 10 years to the day. And we invited all the pillars from the community to attend a grand ceremony reintroducing it to the city. Everyone showed up, including the mayor of New Orleans, the governor of Louisiana, celebrities, movie stars and members of the Saints organization. It was truly a remarkable event, but the excitement has not been an episode. It’s been an ongoing narrative.
I’m also proud of the Orpheum because it challenged me as an entrepreneur. I wanted to make the theater not only a destination for concerts, but also for events such as weddings, parties, etc. I knew by making the theater multi-purpose it would become more accessible to people, which meant more patrons would get to experience it. Of course, my vision didn’t align with reality. The problem with events is you need a flat surface, whereas concerts require sloped flooring. So, to make the venue multi-purpose, I needed to make the surface level adjustable. This seems simple, but we’re talking about raising and lowering thousands of pounds in a reasonable timeframe. Not days, not hours, but minutes.
I can’t tell you how many different solutions I investigated. Finally, I discovered the answer talking to a patient who worked in the oil and gas industry. Somehow, we’d started talking about the hydraulic systems that oil rigs use. These systems raise and lower thousands of pounds efficiently and almost effortlessly. I asked him, “Theoretically, do you think we could use hydraulics in a theater to move 20 tons?” “I don’t see why not,” he said. That was all I needed to hear. Soon, we installed hydraulics into the theater. Sure enough, it worked. Today, all it takes is the push of a button and a few minutes to transform the theater from event space to a concert. It’s remarkable and has allowed more people to experience what the venue has to offer.
Tell us about your latest project, The Rampart Hotel at 300 Rampart St.
The Rampart Hotel is an exciting project. We are a co-developer of it, and our partner is the current tenant. The structure was built in the early 20th century, and most recently was a medical office building prior to its renovation. Today, it’s a luxury hotel that provides an exceptional experience by embodying many of the same characteristics as our other projects. And the hotel resides in a neighborhood of great historical significance. It’s considered the birthplace of jazz, and Louis Armstrong called it home. Because of its musical influence, we wanted to do something unique to commemorate it. And we did. We were fortunate in getting the world-famous street artist Eduardo Kobra to paint a massive mural of Louis Armstrong on the outside of the building.
Outside of The Rampart, there are several exciting projects in the works. We’re currently renovating the Orpheum to accommodate another enhancement we think our patrons will love, and we plan to announce it soon, once the project nears completion. We also have two hotel projects that are particularly exciting. At this stage, both are too early to announce publicly. Visit our website at www.ergenterprises.net to see a listing of our completed projects and current investments, which we’re constantly updating.
Tell us about your new book, We: Ditch the Me Mindset and Change the World. What prompted you to write the book?
We is about embracing human connectivity as a means to living a more fulfilling life. I’ve always believed that when we orient our lives around other people and make them our primary focus, we become healthier, happier, and far more successful as a result, as do the people connected to us. It’s such an important mindset, and it’s one that seems noticeably absent in today’s world. My purpose for the book is to spread awareness about the benefits of this mindset in hopes that others will adopt it. So, the book examines six key outcomes of embracing a frame of mind I call “connectedness.” And it does so through stories and examples from my life, which span medicine, entrepreneurship, investing and importantly, preservation. I’m very excited about the book and its reception so far. This month and next, I’ll be going on a nationwide book tour and speaking at conferences, organizations, and universities. I’ll also be promoting the book through local talks and book signings throughout 2020. If you’re interested in attending an event, visit my publisher’s website at www.mskor.com for a full listing of events.
Susan Langenhennig is PRC’s Director of Communications and the editor of Preservation in Print.