After previous plan for opera venue fell victim to the First NBC collapse, a new team of developers plans an event space.
Our Lady of Lourdes, the century-old former Roman Catholic church on the corner of Napoleon Avenue and Lasalle Street, is finally set to be rehabilitated after remaining unused since it was shuttered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The new owners — three local developers — plan to give the interior and exterior of the Uptown church a complete makeover. They expect to reopen it in time for Mardi Gras 2024 as a space for wedding ceremonies, carnival balls, corporate gatherings and other events.
"A lot of people in the city and in this neighborhood have been eagerly awaiting this building's adaptive reuse," said Doug Cloninger, who with David Fuselier and Chris Prasad have formed a partnership, Arts Design Hospitality and Development, to handle the $10 million conversion of the property.
A century-old structure
The church, which was built in the early 1920s and completed in 1925, was sold by the Archdiocese of New Orleans six years ago after the local church decided that it wasn't feasible to bring it back into service in a religious capacity.
The archdiocese has been combining parishes and selling properties from its vast portfolio for years. The process began after Katrina and has continued in recent years amid financial difficulties and lawsuits related to the church's child sexual abuse crisis.
That has allowed some developers to convert the historic structures into new uses. One of the most notable conversions in New Orleans was the Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in the Bywater, which was redeveloped into the Hotel Peter and Paul and opened in 2019. A year earlier, the Saint Rose de Lima Catholic Church on Bayou Road found new life as a theater and arts complex.
One reason for the long delay in Our Lady of Lourdes' renovation is related to the 2017 First NBC Bank collapse. The group of developers who bought the church in 2016 was led by Gregory St. Angelo, the former top lawyer at First NBC.
Following the bank failure — the largest in the U.S. since the 2008 financial crisis — St. Angelo pled guilty to bank fraud. He is expected to be among the prosecution's witnesses in a federal fraud trial against First NBC's former president, Ashton Ryan, which is set to begin next week.
St. Angelo and his group had planned to convert the church into the "Uptown Opera Center" and had secured historic tax credits to finance the project.
Indeed, the fact that the property is "primed and ready for historic tax renovation" was a major selling point last summer when broker The McEnery Company put it back on the market for $1.25 million.
The seller was the Landis Construction Company, which had acquired the 22,000 square foot site, which includes the nearly 12,000 square foot building, when St. Angelo's group failed and left it with millions of dollars of unpaid bills.
The former church's status as a building of historic note was enhanced last spring when it was listed by the National Parks Service on the National Register of Historic Places.
"It is an important building," said Robert Boyd of Holly and Smith, the firm of architects employed by the new owner for the renovation.
"It is a beautiful example of mission revival style, not something you see in Uptown New Orleans frequently, certainly not at that scale," he said.
It was built at a time when the parish was growing rapidly as people moved into newly constructed Uptown houses from other parts of the city, Boyd said.
The neighborhood where Our Lady of Lourdes is located has changed since the church was last in use, with trendy new restaurants and retailers sprouting along Freret Street. Still, Cloninger said, they plan to keep the building's historic name when it changes to an event space.
The exterior, which includes two large copper-domed towers and a terracotta tile roof, will be retained, as will many of the interior features.
"All the architectural details are still in place, though the religious iconography was removed when the church was deconsecrated," Cloninger said. "We're not changing anything, really. It just needs a complete and total renovation."
"The preliminary drawings of what (the developers) are planning is fairly elaborate," said Boyd. There will be a new orchestra pit as well as sound and lighting to accommodate large-scale entertainment events.
"The main focus is to try and restore the building and interior to what it was before, with some obvious modifications necessary to make it a wedding venue," Boyd said. There are also plans for an elevator so that the choir loft and bell towers can be fully used as part of the venue.
All of the non-religious decorative components will be restored, and new stained glass will replace the old windows that were removed by the church. The developers also plan to restore the terrazzo flooring.
Boyd said that the space which previously had seen pews arranged in neat rows will now either have table-clothed dinner tables or be left open for revelers.
The archdiocese said in 2021 that it planned to redevelop an adjacent school building into the Our Lady of Lourdes apartments, which would provide 62 one-bedroom and studio apartments for low-income senior citizens.
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