I’m a Preservationist
Robért LeBlanc is the owner of Sylvain, Barrel Proof, Meauxbar, Cavan and Longway Tavern; and the founder and creative director of LeBLANC+SMITH hospitality group. In the February issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine, he talks about restoring historic spaces is the inspiration behind the company’s restaurants and bars.
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Your latest project is the renovation of a Thomas Sully-designed 1891 mansion on St. Charles Avenue into Hotel Chloe. What attracted you to the property?
As with all of our restaurants (Sylvain, Meauxbar, Cavan and Longway Tavern), each of our projects begins with the building. We try to find magical spaces that deserve to be restored so that we can invite the world in to enjoy them. Hotel Chloe’s building was very underwhelming from the street view when we first arrived to tour it. I remember thinking that our friends Ben and Casey were wasting our time by making us tour it. But once we stepped inside, we were awestruck. So much of the original detail — the soaring ceilings, the woodwork, the plaster — was still intact, but the building was a boarding house and much of the common space had been closed in to add additional rooms over time. We were compelled to open those spaces back up and to restore the property, and we knew that in doing so we would be able to add a bar and a restaurant so that we could create a de facto lobby and garden space for so many more people than just hotel guests. It quickly went from being a restoration project to a calling.
All of LeBlanc + Smith’s restaurants and bars are housed in historic buildings. How does the history of these structures influence the unique and modern hospitality businesses you’ve created in them?
We never start any of our spots with a concept or an idea for a restaurant. Rather, we begin by trying to find magical old buildings that we can restore and whose stories we can tell through the restaurant that we will do there. Once we do, we work with historians to build out the entire history of the building and as many of the people who have called them home over the buildings’ lifetime. We then use this history and these stories to inform what the restaurant will become. For instance, Roark and Mary Rose Bradford lived in Longway Tavern’s building in the early 1900s. They were known in the French Quarter as a spot to stop when “taking the long way home” to either get eggs and grits to sober up or to get one more nightcap before heading home. So we named it Longway Tavern, and everything about it is designed for nearly the very same purpose: so that people can easily stop in for a great drink and a quick bite before or after other occasions in the French Quarter.
Of all the historic buildings you’ve renovated for your businesses, which one are you most proud of and why?
I have come to realize that all of the buildings are like children: You love them all equally but in different ways. I think the one of which I am most proud, though, is the first one we did: Sylvain. The building was the La Marquise Bakery prior to Hurricane Katrina. It lost part of its roof during the storm and was badly damaged. After four years, we began the process of restoring the building in painstaking fashion. It took twice as long as we thought it would (shocker!), and it was far more expensive. But from this we learned how to design and restore restaurant spaces. We still design our own restaurant and bar spaces, and we draw upon our learning experiences from Sylvain when doing so. We are still so proud of that building and Sylvain’s place in the French Quarter restaurant and bar landscape.
You grew up in Houma, but your family’s roots go back to the mid-18th century in New Orleans. What’s your favorite place in the city?
I love walking across Loyola University’s campus as it is where so many formative experiences occurred. I love being at Crepe Nanou with my wife Danielle as we’ve had so many magical nights there. I love walking through Audubon Park on foggy mornings. I love walking along Royal Street as my sons take in its galleries. I love sitting on a neighbor’s porch enjoying seemingly low-key afternoons that become magical evenings. I love Napoleon Avenue on the first weekend of Mardi Gras.
What does historic preservation mean to you?
Historic preservation is everything to me. If we want to be clear about where we are going, it is important to know from where we can. In New Orleans, so much of that history lives in our buildings. More importantly, though, is that there is so much beauty and inspiration in our buildings, their details and the patina that has been created throughout the years. At LeBLANC+SMITH, it is important to us to have one foot firmly rooted in the history, the culture and the architecture of the city, which are what places New Orleans amongst the greatest cities in the world, and the other foot making a clear statement about what we think 21st Century New Orleans can be.