The Hotel Modern
936 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans, La.; 504-962-0900; thehotelmodern.com. 135 rooms from $265. No eco-rating.
Whatever you expect from New Orleans, you will be surprised when you reach the Hotel Modern.
If you're seeking the French Quarter's boozy quaintness, forget it: The streetscape here, on a traffic circle in the city's historic warehouse district, includes a big gas station and an elevated freeway.
If you expect to see evidence of Hurricane Katrina – whose damage lingers throughout the city – you will likewise be surprised by these clean, empty streets.
Like the city as a whole, this is a knot of history and contradictions. Across the street is a well-groomed park with a monument to Robert E. Lee. Wood-panelled streetcars trundle past the gas station, and a good museum with a fabulous restaurant is around the corner – just across a highway off-ramp.
The hotel itself, not unexpectedly given its name and its choice of location, is unique within the city. It was recently bought and overhauled by German hotelier Klaus Ortlieb, who has built a small, successful empire of boutique properties. It occupies two oddball buildings: a 1960s tower built as a YMCA residence and a 1940s former merchant-marine hotel.
The pair have been unified with a coat of grey paint and a comprehensive renovation that gives them a contemporary, eclectic vibe.
Ortlieb's staff designed the hotel to make it feel more like a friend's home than a hotel. This is a common goal for boutique-style hotels today, and here it largely succeeds. My room mixed modern white-oak furniture (all new, including an excellent bed) with unpredictable accents: recycled art moderne-y door frames, a hot purple accent wall and dubious still-life painting. (A local friend who visited asked us why such a nice room had such ugly art. Good question.)
Our room, facing the street, was well built, with good furniture, new finishes and well-sealed, double-paned windows. The latter was important, because traffic noise out front is considerable. Likewise, the room was very bright for our first night as the decorative lights on the front façade shone through the shutters into our room; things improved when we noticed the blackout blinds up at the ceiling. Some rooms, including ours, have showers instead of tubs. The most distinctive accent is a selection of books stacked on the tables and in the bathroom, including a John Irving first edition, a 1911 translation of a Euripides play and a book of interviews with journalist Walter Lippmann. No friend of mine has these things in their home, but it's a charming gambit.
A question mark. When I visited with my wife and son at the end of November, the hotel had missed its planned opening date (a common occurrence in the industry) and was in upheaval. All the staff were nice, but this is a city where even corner-store clerks are cordial. The check-in process was, as promised, friendly and informal. Staff were knowledgeable about the area, too. But there were missteps. A 1 a.m. fire alarm left guests hanging around in confusion on the sidewalk for some time, with no communication from staff. The room had no brochure to let us know about food options, hotel procedures or the free WiFi. And when I left items in the room safe on departure day, it took me five separate communications to get my things back.
The WiFi, as we discovered, is free. But the list stops there. Clearly the hotel's management is expecting guests to spend time in the bar, the restaurant or out in the city, which makes sense. Do you really want to work out? In New Orleans?
At the time of my stay, the hotel had no food service. It now has a lobby cocktail lounge, Bellocq, with a fashionably artisanal menu developed by a crew of top local bartenders; and the restaurant, Tamarind, has a Vietnamese theme. My family wound up dining twice at The American Sector, the nearby restaurant at the war museum – where chef John Besh, a local personality, made us and our toddler feel at home. The museum's café is another good option for breakfast.
With the hotel, restaurant and bar, Ortlieb is trying to bring new life to a piece of the city that lacks it. Though the block is not so picturesque, the area is rich with cultural attractions.
Within two blocks are the National WWII Museum, a large public contemporary-art gallery, a small gallery run by the local American Institute of Architects, and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
The music, food and drink of the French Quarter are a 15-minute walk away or a short ride on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar – that's the one out front, which is slow but steady and has lots of character. Ride the rails the other way, and you're in the Garden District even more quickly. Here you'll find the city's best boutiques, excellent restaurants (including Emeril Lagasse's flagship, Delmonico) and a more genteel brand of nightlife. And if you wind up at the Modern with kids, the local children's museum is an easy walk away.
Ortlieb may well succeed, especially if the hotel tightens up its service. The Modern's blend of small-hotel ambience and unusual style makes it stand out among its competitors – and New Orleans always likes a non-conformist.