What began as the fix-up of a new resort property spiraled into a sprawling objet d’art and tribute to the bold, new self-image of New Orleans. Thanks to an almost complete facelift, Bluegreen Club La Pension reflects a city proud to blend tradition with eclectic artistic vision.
Inside and out, this boutique resort at the gateway to the French Quarter is testament to the skill of local artists and artisans commissioned to capture the forward-moving soul of the city. Their collective handiwork—some admittedly daring—elevated the ambitious overhaul unveiled in phases beginning in February 2012.
“The renovation is fabulous,” Club La Pension General Manager Zandrea Pfeiffer said. “It’s not a representation of the French provincial, heavy antique fabric look. It incorporates more of what New Orleans is today.”
Many still picture New Orleans as it was before Hurricane Katrina, a culture of copycat French-influenced buildings, cajunspeak and sometimes-outrageous largesse. But the historically tragic storm of 2005 drove off almost 30 percent of the city’s residents. Those who stayed had to adapt to swarms of newcomers with new ideas and values, just as French Creoles adapted to Anglo settlers in the 1800s.
“New Orleans has a history of welcoming outsiders such as my father, a Jewish holocaust survivor from Poland, and my mother, an orphaned teenager from Belize,” said Saul Berman, a second-generation local metalworker. “She has welcomed artists, writers, scientists and artisans of every imaginable type to follow their passions in an environment that celebrates their individuality and creativity.”
New Orleans takes in outsiders particularly after disasters. The city has been preternaturally put-upon by deadly storms, and there’s been not one Great New Orleans Fire, but two. Katrina is not the first catastrophe to trigger a migration of newcomers, and New Orleans never bothers to discriminate between Good Samaritans and opportunists.
“That’s always been the history of New Orleans,” said Tim Schwering, Bluegreen’s Director of Planning and Design and shepherd of the Club La Pension renovation. “When one group moves on, another layer moves in.”
Another layer. The inspired recognition of New Orleans as a city of layers liberated Schwering’s project from gridlock. Updating the oldest building on Canal Street required more than a paint job, but Schwering wanted to go beyond the basics. Through art and architecture, he wanted to tell “the whole story of New Orleans.”
Club La Pension, Like New Orleans, Is a Tapestry
But the story is too complex for one or two layers to represent the whole. New Orleans is brooding and joyful. It’s button-down and bohemian. It’s sinful and, as the neighbor-helping-neighbor response to Hurricane Isaac in 2012 showed yet again, redemptive. How could Bluegreen architects and designers incorporate all those layers in Bluegreen Club La Pension? To Schwering, the question was: How could they not?
“If you take out music, you don’t tell the whole story. If you take out art, or the mystery, you don’t tell the whole story,” Schwering said. “We wanted to create a sense of place, a soulful destination.” Schwering illustrated his ideas in PowerPoint. Rather than pick one or two themes, he said, “we collided them all together.”
So Club La Pension became a tapestry of clashing material. It’s wrought iron next to exposed brick. It’s pictures of a church next to fresh apples on brass pedestals bearing the invitation from “Eve” to TAKE A BITE. (Schwering: “We wanted to put something in there about the Adam and Eve story about temptation. There’s temptation in New Orleans, that seedier side, the decadent side you get on Bourbon Street.”)
Nothing at Club La Pension looks ordered out of an inventory catalogue. Bluegreen realized it could guarantee authenticity only by hiring authentic local artists and artisans where feasible. “When it all came together,” Schwering said, “that was our ‘Eureka!’ moment.”
Bluegreen eventually found the right people. Their backgrounds were as diverse as their skill sets, but they share a commitment to New Orleans.
Tami Curtis-Ellis, painter
“Living in New Orleans has transformed my palette into one that allows each color to stand alone to be recognized, while working to bring about the bigger picture with the hue that radiates alongside it. That’s the way of the Big Easy. Each person is a large character in his or her own right, but together, we find a way of building a culture that is unlike any other.” — Tami Curtis-Ellis
Illustrator Tami Curtis-Ellis is passionate about New Orleans and her causes. In the aftermath of Katrina, she painted a tribute to the spirit of her city that she called “Hope Floats.” She tirelessly marketed prints to raise funds in behalf of Habitat for Humanity. Her painting built a home for a displaced family and earned inclusion in the Library of Congress.
Curtis-Ellis also champions recycling, and in Bluegreen she found a corporate soulmate. Repurposed materials permeate Club La Pension and are part of every piece of Curtis-Ellis artwork. She created wall art for every villa by affixing her acclaimed, colorful prints—inspired by New Orleans music and musicians—to wooden window frames and other debris claimed from Katrina wreckage.
It’s fitting that Curtis-Ellis uses her palette as her personal metaphor for New Orleans, which can treat you to unrivaled color. But hers is not the only artistic trade tool useful as a metaphor. New Orleans also can treat you with the unforgiving hardness of an anvil.
Rachel David, artistic blacksmith
“New Orleans inspires my work like a lover; harsh and judgmental, stacked with layers of sadness and exasperation half the time, doting, loving and full of fresh air the other half. I suppose since I am surrounded on all sides by the thickness of those feelings, New Orleans imbues itself on my work daily without my conscious mind determining it.” —Rachel David
Those words reflect the two sides of Rachel David’s experience in New Orleans. Barely out of school, Rachel David arrived in 2005 just ahead of Katrina. Her boxes still were packed when the storm hit; she lost her possessions to Ninth Ward flooding. She stayed nonetheless and today—thanks to equal adeptness at creating abstract sculpture and functional furniture—she is admired by artistic peers and commercially busy. Endlessly hardworking, David devoted six muscle-burning months to Club La Pension. “It was my life,” she said.
She spent three months on “Dreamers,” a stunning wrought iron accent for the new front desk—two intricately symmetric pieces including a half-ton, 59 1/2-square-foot canopy. Then she spent three more months on banisters for the new lobby staircase and a 192-cubic-foot, three-dimensional stairwell landing display.
“ ‘Dreamers,’ ” David said, “attempts to invoke moments of the warm winter fogs rolling off the Mississippi, people blissed out by the surreal sounds and sights rolling around psychedelically.” There’s no way to express that kind of vision without having experienced it. “When out-of-towners do that,” Schwering said, “it tends to be a watered-down version of New Orleans.”
And so: More local artisans, and more layers.
Lisanne Dussouy and others
“The faith and spirit of New Orleanians, including my Catholic family, along with the beauty and resilience of the 600-year-old oak trees and heavenly statues that grace the tombstones of those that lived before us, all inspire my creativity.” —Lisanne Alack Dussuoy
Villa and corridor walls of Club La Pension bear simply mounted black-and-white works by Lisanne Alack Dussuoy, a part-time photographer and full-time wife and mom. Dussuoy’s New Orleans is a city of churchgoers and deep-rooted faith. Collectively, her work counterbalances Eve’s apples. In Club La Pension, as in New Orleans, virtue collides with temptation. Dussuoy’s favorite images feature the famous St. Louis Cathedral, where she was married. One, “Where Time Doesn’t Exist” skillfully freezes a falling leaf as it randomly obscures the face of the cathedral clock in the distance.
“My wish is for people to reflect on my photos, open their hearts and allow themselves to be transported through time,” she said. “To enlighten their senses so they can hear the stories the oak trees tell and see who the doors of St. Louis Cathedral have welcomed.”
Ironically, one noted former parishioner is Marie Leveau, the 19th-century voodoo queen who remains one of the biggest names in New Orleans lore this side of Drew Brees. The mausoleum reputed to be Leveau’s burial site is one of the area’s biggest tourist draws. So it’s almost inevitable, isn’t it, that each villa in Club La Pension displays a miniature replica of the crypt. Another New Orleans artist, ceramic sculptor Michael J. Clement, created the nicknacks.
The resort features other local contributions, too—more conventional than, say, mini-mausoleums but equally inspired by local pride.
- Saul Berman and other craftsmen at Jack’s Metal Arts hand-made exquisite exterior lanterns that help the façade retain a classic French Quarter look.
- Central City Millwork carpenters laid floors of reclaimed pine, crafted the front desk and built an immaculate grand staircase from scratch.
And then there’s YAYA.
Young Aspirations/Young Artists
“New Orleans sparks a desire to create beyond your personal means of life. This city inspires so many wonderful creative art forms but you have to want to be inspired to be creative. A few things that excite me the most are the different cultures, food, (housing) projects, family and its need for music and change. I want my art to say change is happening, as I work toward a brighter future for my city.” —Quinton Gilmore, 22, a teaching mentor with YAYA
Each Club La Pension unit contains at least one piece from Young Aspirations/Young Artists, an organization that cultivates artistic talent in at-risk teens and, as Schwering and Pfeiffer learned, does much more. “The neat thing is that these kids not only are encouraged to express themselves through art, they’re also taught how to support themselves with their artwork.” Pfeiffer said. “They learn how to write proposals and contracts. So they’re not going to be starving artists.”
The YAYA pieces might be the most original twist of all to Club La Pension décor—wooden headboards and chairs coated in kaleidoscopic colors. The chairs were then mounted on walls or ceiling corners, some upside down. When the finished pieces were delivered, Schwering said, “You couldn’t replicate the smiles.”
The painted chairs were Club La Pension discards, donated to YAYA rather than shipped to a landfill. That act was part of a broader project initiative. In repurposing wood, metals and other materials fished off scrap heaps, Club La Pension gave the sprouting New Orleans green movement a shoot of Bluegreen. But the unprecedented partnership with YAYA took recycling to a new boundary. “It’s giving back to the community,” Schwering said, “which is the ultimate green experience.”
But the new Club La Pension is more than enlightened aesthetics
Despite the changes—the art, the décor, myriad mood candles, the silver-and-rust room tones, the repainted exterior, interior and trim—what returning visitors might appreciate most about Club La Pension is how much more freshened and comfortable it feels. The linens are new and plusher. The bathrooms look like spas. The floors are pristine. And that doesn’t begin to address the massive infrastructure updates:
- All roofing was replaced. Doors and windows were repaired or replaced.
- A new central air system and new water heaters were installed.
- Data lines were updated to enable Wi-Fi.
In addition, sundecks were redone. Ice and vending machines were added. A restroom opened in the lobby. Club La Pension now makes vacationers in the Big Easy more at ease—in an environment unlike any other. “I don’t think there’s anything else like it in New Orleans,” Pfeiffer said. “In timeshare or outside.”
There’s certainly been no collaboration like it. In between Tim Schwering’s initial PowerPoint and the hanging of the last YAYA chair, many distinct voices joined in to create one clear chorus: We are New Orleans.
“Bluegreen realized the value of slowing down the tempo to find the rhythm of this unique area,” said Curtis-Ellis, the painter. “In doing so, they tapped into the magic that lies in the people of New Orleans, in its music, art and soul.”
Written By: Jim Saturday