ARI SHAPIRO, host:
And in New Orleans, the historic Roosevelt Hotel is back. Four years after Hurricane Katrina left 10 feet of water in its basement. The Roosevelt is a landmark. Louisiana's iconic Governor Huey Long used to hang out there. The building's $145 million renovation is seen as a bright spot in the city's revitalization efforts. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.
KATHY LOHR: The hotel dates back to 1893. But back in the 1920s and '30s, the Roosevelt was the place to stay in New Orleans.
(Soundbite of song, "I've Got the World on a String")
Mr. LOUIS ARMSTRONG (Musician): (Singing) I've got the world on a string, sitting on a rainbow. Got the string around my finger. What a world, what a life - I'm in love. Oh.
LOHR: Jazz greats, including Louis Armstrong, performed in the Blue Room, and movie stars frequented the grand hotel. After being shuttered for nearly four years, the Roosevelt has regained its former brilliance.
Mr. MARK WILSON (Director of sales and marketing, Roosevelt Hotel): Probably, I guess, these are 20-foot ceilings. And you've got gilded columns all the way down the lobby.
LOHR: Mark Wilson is director of sales and marketing for the Roosevelt, now part of the Waldorf Astoria chain of hotels. Original mosaic tiles in the lobby were uncovered, and the Italian crystal chandeliers have been carefully cleaned. Now, they are stunning.
Mr. WILSON: The property did not suffer flooding in the lobby. It was really in the basement areas where it's mechanical equipment… So this area here was in relatively good shape, but it has been restored meticulously and we're really excited to bring it back to the community.
(Soundbite of ice pouring into glass)
LOHR: In the Sazerac Bar, PJ Hanne, in his twenties, mixes the famous cocktail this place was named for. It's made with whiskey, bitters, simple syrup and a hint of licorice.
Mr. P.J. HANNE (Bartender): Here's your Sazerac.
LOHR: Hanne was a bartender and a cook before Katrina. He left New Orleans but returned a year ago, and was one of thousands who applied for 350 positions at the hotel. Hanne could work anywhere in the country, but he came back because he says he missed the culture and entertainment.
Mr. HANNE: It dawned on me one day: The city is not going to rebuild itself. It needs people. We need to, like, you know, get in there. So all right, like, I'm coming back, you know.
Ms. TERRI TREUTING: It's just been an amazing transformation to see it become what it is today.
LOHR: Terri Treuting relocated to Philadelphia after the storm because the hotel she had been working for was closed. But she returned a year later and ultimately applied here.
Ms. TREUTING: I just got so excited about the possibility of it — and that this whole block needed to be regenerated and rejuvenated, and this was the first step to really getting this whole area back.
LOHR: Part of the lure of this hotel comes from former Louisiana Governor Huey Long, known as The Kingfish. Long was ruthless, corrupt and gained massive political power. He built thousands of miles of roads, one leading right to a suite at the Roosevelt hotel.
Long even wrote a song to appeal to the masses.
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Every man a king, every man a king, why you can be a millionaire…
LOHR: According to the legend, Huey Long kept a cash box — known as the deduct box — inside his hotel suite. It was his political slush fund. Many believe he kept it hidden in a wall here, but the box has never turned up — even with this latest renovation.
Mr. WILSON: I mean there's a lot of colorful things that may or may not have happened in this room, but the deduct box, and the money that may have been here, we sure haven't been able to find it.
LOHR: What the city has found is something to rally around — and another economic engine. Kelly Schultz is with the Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Ms. KELLY SCHULTZ (Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau): We have major conventions that come to the city. They can, you know, rent out entire restaurants and ballrooms in the hotel. And if you think about that, that also creates a lot of economic impact with the, you know, bringing in florists and AV companies and transportation companies and all the other things that go along with just the hotel rooms and the meeting space, and all the better that we can employ even more people in New Orleans hospitality industry.
Mr. BEN JOHNSON (New Orleans Chamber of Commerce): In my mind, it's another check on the list that we're off the resuscitation, you know.
LOHR: Ben Johnson is with the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce. Many areas o the city are struggling. In fact, vacant buildings and the still-closed Orpheum Theater occupy the same block where the Roosevelt sits. But Johnson says things are turning around.
Mr. JOHNSON: The Roosevelt, in my mind, is a positive example where investors are putting a lot of money with the idea of a big return, and it's very good for New Orleans to have that hotel back.
LOHR: Even the midst of a recession, the hotel with its 500 luxury rooms, and ultimately 500 new jobs, is bringing in customers who are spending money in shops and restaurants. But so many here say the rebirth of the Roosevelt is a psychological boost for this recovering city.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
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