CHAPTER 5


CURTIS AND DAVIS, THE WAY TO NEW YORK

ROYAL SONESTA HOTEL, FRENCH QUARTER, NEW ORLEANS, 1964
AND THE ARTHUR SONNABEND CONNECTION


There weren't many hotels being built at the time that we designed the Royal Orleans for the New Orleans French Quarter in 1960. That boom was just getting started. Conrad Hilton had bought the Statler in New York and was planning a major expansion. We designed a thousand-room hotel for a site owned by Tulane University at Canal Street and Claiborne Avenue. Terkuhle and I traveled by train to New York to try to sell it to Hilton. He sent us to Beverly Hills to meet his partner, Neil Toomey. It was a fast crowd that we couldn't cope with.

Click on the image to enlarge.

Aerial view of the Royal Sonesta Hotel
in the historic French Quarter.
Photo by Abbye A. Gorin, 1989.

We planned another hotel for the French Quarter in New Orleans on Bourbon Street to be operated by Hyatt, at that time a modest hotel chain. With the help of Richard Koch and his partner Samuel Wilson Jr., the building was designed in the style of the Quarter to blend with the character of the historic district. It had a half basement under it for parking. Because of the high water table in the city, the excavation for this space required sheet piling around the perimeter and a dewatering process. To our dismay, after all of the excavation had been completed, the entrepreneur declared bankruptcy. The contractor, of course, stopped work, and the project was closed down. For two years the site was abandoned, and residents of the neighborhood--in fact, almost everyone in town--referred derisively to the new lake in the French Quarter. The inevitable lawsuits commenced, a new experience for us. Irate neighbors sued the contractor and the pile-driving contractor for cracks that had either developed or were conveniently discovered. We were named as third-party defendants in suits that were settled out of court. Claims for "loss of antiquity" made the settlements difficult.

After the suits were cleared, Lester Kabacoff stepped forward, and with Hotel Corporation of America as operators and Jim Nassikas as manager, the project was completed and was known as the Royal Sonesta Hotel. The Royal Sonesta and the Royal Orleans, both relatively small in size, became the most profitable properties in the Sonnabend chain. As a result, other developers in other cities began coming to Arthur Sonnabend, the owner, with prospects. The developer would own the land; Hotel Corporation of America would be the operator, and the financial strength of the operator could be used to borrow money for construction.

Arthur Sonnabend proposed that if our firm were to open an office in New York near his base of operations, he would send all of these prospects to us. The idea of such a move seemed so enticing that we immediately set about trying to find an architect who could take charge of what would be our new branch office in New York. We first approached Dean John Lawrence of the Tulane School of Architecture. He declined, saying he didn't feel quite that expansive, so the job was offered to young Walter J. Rooney, who readily accepted the challenge.

Rooney was only about twenty-seven years old, three years out of Tulane, and married with two young daughters. He and his wife, Pat, and family went to live and work permanently in New York. Rooney was made an equal partner in what was to be known as CADNY, Curtis and Davis New York, as opposed to CADNO for our New Orleans office. Our first location was on the third floor of a building at 338 Madison Avenue on the corner of 43rd Street, one block from Sonnabend's Roosevelt Hotel. After we had committed ourselves to New York, Sonnabend died. His son, Roger, was not interested in expansion and sold the chain, only holding on to the Royal Sonesta in New Orleans and the Sonesta in Bermuda. We sought commissions elsewhere.

Our New York operation became a complete, self-contained office that was set up to obtain commissions and to carry them through to completion. The partners met in New York monthly to review the projects and discuss business matters and prospects. Some of our best work was done in New York.

 

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