When New Orleans attorney James G. Derbes and his wife Jan Katz first saw the listing for the building in the newspaper they knew that they had to have the property. A short while later in April 2006, Ernesto Caldeira handed them the deed to the old building. The task wouldn’t be easy, but Derbes was no stranger to the hard work of preservation, having practiced preservation law in New Orleans for forty-two years. He had also served on the board of the Louisiana Landmarks Society and on the Vieux Carre Property Owners’ Association Inc.. Jan Katz is the Curator Emerita of the Center for Southern Craft and Design at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
Bringing a vision into life takes more than money and hard labor. It takes patience and persistence to see a project like this through, and the building presented a number of challenges. The old City Hotel was built at the turn of the century with eighteen guest rooms upstairs and a small lobby and other businesses downstairs. The storefronts facing the square have housed any number of businesses over the years. When I lived in Woodville I was often curious about the old hotel and what, if anything, lurked upstairs. The hotel had closed after World War II and the tiny, basic hotel rooms had been unused ever since. While there had occasionally been talk about renovating the building, the reality of actually doing it never took off. The task appeared Promethean to all but a few onlookers and most prospective buyers shook their heads and walked away.
Construction commenced in October, 2010 and has continued apace so that the building is nearly complete downstairs and the rear gallery is presently being built. In the end, there will be seven condominium units, one of which will be used by Mr. Derbes and Ms. Katz. There will also be one smaller studio unit which will be used for guests of the owners. The units themselves will be spacious and light and will offer views of Woodville’s classic town square while the rear gallery will offer a peaceful view over the trees into the eastern sky.
The real action, however, will be taking place once again on the main floor where Derbes and Katz plan to open the Town Square Cafe, offering breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as a wine bar. A wine bar in Woodville? You heard it right folks. Woodville’s classic town square is moving boldly forward into the 21st century! Another ground floor space will be used for a yoga studio while another may house an art gallery. Final plans for the shops are still under negotiation. The rear will also include a covered outdoor space which will be used for meetings or parties. Light and life will finally return after 5:30 PM! As Ernesto Caldeira remarked, “He has preserved the exterior of the building and I’d rather see that than a replica of any kind, however grand.” Well said. As for the interior, Derbes and Katz have taken great pains to preserve as much as they could, reusing the original beaded board paneling and the old woodwork and doors whenever they could. Admittedly, after sixty years of total neglect, it is a wonder that anything upstairs could be salvaged. The resulting spaces are bright, clean and painted in cheerful tones. High ceilings add to the sense of authenticity, though it is obvious that these are new and modern units. Owners will not have to sacrifice convenience or modernity in order to live here.