Gallier Hall’s grand interior is once again worthy of receiving royalty, just in time for the mayor’s Mardi Gras toast to Rex and the king and queen of Zulu from the hall’s front steps.
Over the past three years, the Gallier Hall Preservation Committee led by Cheryl Landrieu, the wife of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, has raised $3 million in private donations to pay for the interior restoration of the city’s neoclassical jewel.
And unlike most renovations, this one came in on time and under budget.
The 165-year-old Greek Revival former city hall, designed by James Gallier Sr., had fallen into critical disrepair, a point underscored in 2014 when a chunk of the facade crashed down near the building’s entrance, shaking up city officials and historic preservationists alarmed at the building’s deteriorating condition.
A $10 million exterior and structural restoration was complete in time for Carnival last year, paid for with Federal Emergency Management Agency and city bond funds.
But repairs to the interior — entirely paid for with private donations — have been ongoing, with the goal of finishing in time for the city’s tricentennial celebration this year. The work on the second and third floors is now done, and the restoration of the Ty Tracy Theater should be complete by March 15.
“We wanted this to be the legacy gift from the citizens to the city for the tricentennial,” Cheryl Landrieu said. “For the bicentennial, they restored the (St. Louis) Cathedral. For the tricentennial, we wanted to preserve Gallier Hall to make sure this historic building would be available for many future generations to enjoy.”
Layers of history
When Gallier designed the hall that would one day bear his name, he turned to a popular style of architecture to give it gravitas. He built the structure of Tuckahoe marble and ornamented it with towering ionic columns, creating a Greek temple to house such municipal functions as the assessor’s office, mayor’s office and City Council chambers.
And he gave the building a commanding presence — soaring four stories high, 90 feet in width and 215 feet in depth.
Erected between 1845 and 1853 (with construction delayed because the city ran out of money at one point), the building originally would be called Municipal Hall; it served as the seat of government until City Hall moved in 1953 to Duncan Plaza. At that point, it became Gallier Hall.
Over the years, Gallier’s masterpiece began showing its age. Plaster millwork became cracked and crumbling. The marble floors were worn and stained from a century of foot traffic. “The wood floors also were in very bad shape,” Cheryl Landrieu said. “I’m not sure they had ever been sanded down, restored and refinished.”
At some point, the bronze lamp posts in front of the building had been turned into flagpoles because the lighting mechanisms no longer worked. A few steps away and flanking the front door, two classical torchieres (attributed to the sculptor Toussaint and made in Paris) also had not functioned in years.
“Because of moisture intrusion, a marble mantel in the mayor’s parlor was coming off the wall,” said Scott Hutcheson, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer, adding that the last time the building was renovated was in the 1980s. “The whole wall could have come down.”
Given the interior’s condition, this renovation would require much more than a cosmetic face lift. Cheryl Landrieu worked closely with Hutcheson to direct the project, enlisting the help of a dozen local experts in artwork, marble and architectural restoration.
Beyond repairing the plaster walls and restoring the floors, the lamp posts and the torchieres (which once again now light up at night), the work also included repairs and cleaning of 41 paintings, 33 chandeliers (some original to the building), 60 windows, two antique grand pianos and several pieces of period furnishings.
“I knew this would be a fun project, but I couldn’t imagine it would turn out this fabulous,” Landrieu said as she walked through the building recently while workers finished painting the first floor. “It takes my breath away every time I walk in here.”
Gathering the pieces
Deep in the bowels of the building — squirreled away in an attic and down in the above-ground basement — were decades worth of broken, moldy and tattered furniture, dozens of blackening oil paintings, some so dark the images were barely visible, and a row of regal Renaissance-style chairs from the City Council chambers.
Hutcheson and Landrieu threw open the doors and started digging out the treasure trove, culling through items to see what could be salvaged. She brought in experts to evaluate each piece and do a proper inventory.
Two 19th-century receiving tables, originally located outside the mayor’s office, were missing legs, “but all of the pieces were here,” Hutcheson said. “We were able to put them back together.”
While the history of some items is unknown, others were easier to identify. “We have a beautiful living room set from Paris,” he said. “It was bought right around the Civil War, and we still have the bill of sale.”
Also in the stockpiles were paintings of every mayor from the 1850s to present — “except we think about three are missing,” Landrieu said. “They weren’t all labeled so we had to do research on the mayors to identify them as best as possible.” One painting that they initially thought was a mayor ended up being a portrait of Gallier.
Artwork conservator Darcie Flinn and frame restorer Elizabeth Holt set up work benches in the basement and meticulously cleaned away decades of dirt to reveal serious faces, stiff collars and picturesque scenes.
Now many of the restored mayors’ portraits once again gaze out from their frames, hanging in chronological order in rooms on the third floor.
Artwork was an important focus of the project. Landrieu enlisted the help of The Historic New Orleans Collection to hang a pictorial history of the city down the massive second-floor hallway, using giclees of historic artwork, portraits and scenes. “We wanted to show an accurate history over our 300 years,” she said. “When visitors come in, we wanted them to appreciate the many contributions New Orleans has given to the nation.”
History also came into play when picking the wall colors. Deciding paint colors is tricky in any renovation, but imagine the challenge of picking just the right hues for 16 ballrooms, some with 15-foot ceilings.
Landrieu called up Louis Aubert, interior designer and color guru of New Orleans, who then turned to historical sources for inspiration.
“Gallier built a very gutsy, very grand building,” Aubert said. “The colors also needed to be gutsy.”
Inspired by the dining room at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Aubert picked a rich navy — Benjamin Moore’s Prussian Blue — for one of the ballrooms. The red for the mayor’s parlor, Flamenco, was inspired by the White House’s red state parlor. “It’s a saturated deep red, less orange,” said Aubert, who used all Benjamin Moore paints in the project.
Perhaps the most dramatic change came in a ballroom that had been painted a fleshy pink for years. It’s now Clay Beige. “The pink ballroom was the most unpleasant room in the building, even though it had that amazing triptych by George Dureau (called “The Parade Paused”). The room needed to be quiet, soft, but on the warm side of neutral,” Aubert said. “A lot of wedding receptions are held there, and I was thinking about brides.” (Gallier Hall can be rented for private events.)
In the hallway, Aubert went for a bold contrast, picking an aqua color –Anderson Blue — for the ceiling and a foliage color — Palace Green — for the walls. “They refer to that color as old money green,” he said of Palace Green with a laugh.
“The human eye goes to color and contrast,” Aubert continued. “I wanted people to walk in and really see the building, to see the detail, to see each ceiling panel and the plaster medallions and have it all set off by the black-and-white checkerboard floor. It’s stunning.”
Other design professionals who worked on the restoration include: Leslie Walters, drapes; Keith Guy, painting; Ron Del, flooring; Zito’s, chandeliers; Battco Construction; CC Maintenance, marble floors; Jessica Hack, textile restoration; and Watch and Clock Shop, antique French clock restoration.
The members of the Gallier Hall Preservation Committee members include Cheryl Landrieu, Joy Bollinger, Ruthie Frierson, Shelia Burns, Frances Fayard, Ron Foreman, Tony Gelderman, Jennifer Heebe, Sandra Herman, David Kerstein, Anne Redd, Slyvia Scineaux-Richards and Mary Von Kurnatowski.