By Quinn Welsch
The restoration of downtown Baton Rouge may be one way the city is getting back to its former glory.
Before Red Stick was Baton Rouge, it was known as Istrouma by Native Americans. By 1903, the term was synonymous with the city’s first hotel, the Hotel Istrouma. Although it’s been more than 50 years since the hotel closed, a part that hotel is coming back.
A Courtyard by Marriot, complete 148 rooms, is set to be built on the old hotel’s site in 2016. The hotel, which is owned by Windsor-Aughtry Company, was announced by city officials on Oct. 13 at the site, located on the corner of Third and Florida streets. By the time it is completed, downtown Baton Rouge will have more than 1,000 guest rooms available.
“It’s a breaking point crucial to accommodating events” said Windsor-Aughtry principal Paul “Bo” Aughtry III during the hotel’s announcement.
“It also attracts new conventions and businesses to Baton Rouge,” Mayor Melvin “Kip” Holden said.
The breaking point has been the result of a little more than a decade’s worth of downtown development. Though that development is the result of various investments, the history of downtown’s hotels has been a rocky one.
In its heyday, the Hotel Istrouma was considered the center of Louisiana state business. Its 90 rooms accommodated the state’s governors, legislators and served as a hub for Baton Rouge society for more than 60 years.
As the state’s petro-chemical industry boomed, so did the city. “But through the years, the grandeur of the hotel declined as the city grew and more hotels were built,” a 1960s news article from The Advocate reported. The construction of new hotels, such as the Lamplighter, the Riverview and the King kept the city’s hospitality industry alive, but at the expense of the Istrouma.
The hotel’s rooms were deemed fire hazards in 1961 and the building was sold to Capital Bank & Trust Company in 1966. After the building’s demolition in 1969, additional news articles claimed big plans for the site – including the mention of a skyscraper – yet it remained vacant.
As downtown’s hotel’s swapped hands and changed name between the 40s through the 70s, lodging along Airline Highway boomed. Similarly, the implementation of Interstates 10 and 12 drew more and more “business energy” out of the downtown area, said Davis Rhorer, the executive director for Downtown Development District and a lifelong Baton Rougean.
Business along the new traffic corridors began to slowly phase out downtown’s hotels. The once bustling corner of Hotel Istrouma soon became a ghost town.
The city has always had a strong attraction for out-of-towners, with a major draw in oil, government, courts and LSU events, Rhorer said.
Today, “[the hotels] are capitalizing on all of those things,” he said. “When LSU football is going all the hotels are sold out.”
But the renewed interest in downtown, which began in the 90s and 2000s, is making the area itself an attraction. That is in part due to about 30 young entrepreneurs breathing new life into the city, Rhorer said.
Though city-wide hospitality reportedly lagged in the turn of the 21st century, the current hotels operating downtown are prove that is no longer the case. The reintroduction of downtown hotels began in 2001 with the Sheraton on France Street. The Sheraton was the first of the five hotels currently in business.
Additional hotels downtown include the Indigo, the Hilton, the Hampton Inn, the Belle of Baton Rouge and a Holiday Inn Express, which is slated for March.
Construction of the new Courtyard will be will finished in mid-2016. Amenities for the new hotel include meeting space, retail space, exercise facilities and a business center, but will not include food or beverage service.
“It puts people on the street, that coupled with the development of new residences is a perfect menu for success,” Rhorer said. “This is great. You couldn’t ask for a better scenario.”