|THE RIVERGATE||title page | contents | appendices | cd-book cover|
|a politically slanted competition
critique of proposals for a land-based casino
at the rivergate site
by michael rouchell
|I.||Call For Proposals|
|II.||Selling Gambling To New Orleans,
Christopher Hemmeter Comes To Town
|IV.||Hemmeter-Caesar's Grand Palais|
|VIII.||The New And Improved Grand Palais|
|XI.||The Temporary Casino|
I. Call For Proposals
After the State legislature passed the bill legalizing gambling in June 1992 and the City of New Orleans altered the zoning ordinances to allow construction of a casino at the Rivergate site, the City of New Orleans issued a call for casino proposals that required a $50,000 payment for the privilege of submitting a proposal, half of which was refundable to unsuccessful bidders. The four casino finalists were Casino Royale, Casino Orleans, Jazzville, and Hemmeter-Caesar's Grand Palais. Some expressed concern that potential developers would not think it worth losing half the deposit in the face of Hawaiian developer Christopher Hemmeter's head start, not to mention, the way the call for proposals seemed to dove-tail with Hemmeter's plans (Eggler 1992).
Public Proposals, 14
Casino Royale: a spiral-bound fifty-five page written proposal; a spiral-bound supplement to the proposal, nineteen over-sized pages with colored illustrations and drawings, and a gold embossed title on the cardboard cover; the Promus Companies 1991 Annual Report; and Casino Royale fact sheet.
Casino Orleans: a spiral-bound proposal consisting of thirty-seven over-sized pages in color with a gold embossed title on the cover; Carnival brochures with folder.
Jazzville: a wire bound proposal recap, nine over-sized pages, card stock covers; a sixteen-page newsprint pull-out advertisement; Fall 1992 edition of Showboat Magazine (brochure); and a one-page fact sheet comparing Jazzville with Grand Palais.
Grand Palais: a proposal recap, five 8-1/2" x 14" black and white copied pages stapled together.
Grand Palais developers were frugal with presentation materials. Other casino developers went through significant expense to provide take-home information for the public. Handouts from Grand Palais developers did not include plans or conceptual drawings depicting how the building would fit into the New Orleans cityscape. All casino developers, except Grand Palais, made an effort to sell their proposals to the public.
On 5 November
1992, then-Mayor Barthelemy selected the Grand Palais group to develop
the casino. The lease was signed on 27 April 1993 by the City Council
after exhausting negotiations and multiple amendments.
Christopher Hemmeter came to New Orleans with a dream of transforming the city into the gambling mecca of the South. He met with city officials and state legislators to persuade them to pass legislation and ordinances that would allow operation of a single land-based casino. He flew then-Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, then-Councilman Lambert Boisiere, then-State Senate President Sammy Nunez, then-Jefferson Parish District Attorney John Mamoulides and their wives to his resort in Hawaii. He also flew then-Governor Edwin Edwards and a top aide to Colorado in his private jet for a weekend visit (Bridges 1992a).
Hemmeter and Dallas developer Daniel Robinowitz formed Hemmeter-Woodmont Development Corporation. They proposed to demolish the Rivergate and construct in its place a pseudo-classical domed casino called the Grand Palais. Their proposal also included a job training center utilizing the existing tunnel under the Rivergate.
The first rendering depicted the Grand Palais oriented to the river. A large portico stretched across the river elevation with apsidal structures at each side. The casino was situated in Celebration Park, a Las Vegas-style wonderland that featured a lake at the foot of Canal Street near the Mississippi River and two monumental ten-story arches commemorating Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon.
A Petite Palais, in the form of a domed tempietto, was situated on a parcel of land used as a parking lot adjacent to Saks Fifth Avenue at One Canal Place shopping mall. The Petite Palais included a Celebration of Life Museum, featuring a Disney like experience that carried visitors through space and time, a space shuttle flight simulator, and a planetarium.
Hemmeter expressed an interest in purchasing the World Trade Center to demolish it because it obstructed views of the Mississippi River from the casino. Usually casinos are windowless buildings so that gamblers can not detect any notion of day or night. To accomplish this destruction Hemmeter and the City of New Orleans would have to negotiate the termination of the lease of the World Trade Center organization, which expires in 2019. President W.J. Amoss Jr. had no intention of giving up the building (Bridges 1992b).
A riverboat terminal, modeled after the historic Orleans Cotton Press (1833) was proposed for the Julia Street Wharf. The terminal would be capable of docking three riverboats. A parking garage would be constructed on a vacant parcel of land in front of the Federal Fiber Mill Condominiums in the Warehouse District. Residents had hoped that this parcel, Square 26, would be a public park.
Additionally, Hemmeter proposed demolishing two buildings in the Vieux Carré: an abandoned nineteenth-century red brick warehouse at the corner of Bienville and Clay Streets, and a nineteenth-century cotton warehouse at 111 Iberville Street, a 1971 renovation project by Curtis and Davis Architects. This building housed the Hemmeter-Woodmont offices until their eviction following the bankruptcy of River City, the "dream" riverboat casino complex. On this land, plus the vacant parcels stretching to the Jax Brewery in the Vieux Carré, Hemmeter proposed a parking garage, retail shops, an artisans' village, and a carriage house with stables for a horse-drawn trolley line linking the Jax Brewery and the casino.
Anticipating opposition from preservationists, Hemmeter dropped his plans for the Vieux Carré riverfront. He did, however, continue to pursue the demolition of the red brick warehouse so that he could add six surface parking spaces to the adjacent parking lot. The Vieux Carré Commission unanimously rejected his application.
Hemmeter also negotiated with New Orleans Public Service Incorporated to relocate the substation and replace it with a combination horse barn and carriage museum (Bridges 1992b).
Hemmeter promised to reconstruct James Gallier Jr.'s French Opera House (1859) which was located in the Vieux Carré before it burned down 4 December 1919. The proposed replication at Poydras Street and Convention Center Boulevard would feature a 2,500-seat performance hall, a Museum of American Music, and possibly a Jazz Musician's Hall of Fame.
Hemmeter persuaded local and state politicians to pass ordinances and legislation allowing a monopoly land-based casino at the Rivergate site. Hemmeter insisted that the perks of his proposal -- the job training facility in the Rivergate's tunnel, reconstructed French Opera House (albeit outside the Vieux Carré), the Celebration of Life Museum, and a Music Hall of Fame -- could be supported only by a monopoly casino (Bridges 1992b). All promises disappeared from the grand scheme after the legalization of gambling at a monopoly land-based casino.
Hemmeter also promised that the casino would not be operated by a Las Vegas operator. Again, he reneged and teamed up with Caesar's World from Las Vegas.
Caesar's World originally proposed renovating the Rivergate. Their plans called for removing the cantilevered roof structure on three sides and replacing it with a facade. The designers of this scheme were obviously unfamiliar with the engineering of the roof structure, not understanding that the main roof structure, including the cantilevers, was tied together with post-tensioned cables, and is an integral part of the structural system. This proposal was not chosen as a finalist and was abandoned when Caesar's World joined Hemmeter.
The Hemmeter-Caesar's group proposed demolishing the Rivergate, excavating its two-level basement and replacing everything with a 200,000 square-foot mostly underground casino at an estimated cost of $425 million. The developers projected their annual revenue to be between $788 million and $1.35 billion. Grand Palais was designed by Paul Ma, principal of Projects International from Hawaii. Projects International was to associate with the local architectural firms of Hewitt Washington, The Mathes Group, Eskew Filson, Concordia, and Sizeler; many contributed significantly to Sidney Barthelemy's 1990 mayoral campaign (n.n.a. 1992).
Grand Palais developers hired consultants who were contributors to the campaigns of Barthelemy and then-Gov. Edwards and others who had the political connections to lobby the legislature, such as Hank Braden IV, Barthelemy's closest political confidant; Billy Broadhurst, confidant and former law partner of Edwards; and Bob d'Hemecourt who gave $100,000 to Edwards' 1993 campaign, lent $25,000 to Edwards' 1987 campaign, and contributed $5,000 to Edwards' 1991 campaign (Bridges 1992c, n.n.a. 1992).
The Grand Palais was a grandiose pavilion that vaguely resembled Charles Garnier's Paris Opera House (1861-1874). From a distance, it looked like the Paris Opera House had been dismantled and shipped to New Orleans with much of the building lost in transit. Up close, its synthetic stucco exterior would have been a dead give away that the building was not imported.
The facades inspired by Beaux Arts Classicism, encrusted with faux arts frou-frou seemed out of scale and proportion. On top of the building was the dome of the Paris Opera House rendered in glass and steel.
The above-ground pavilion had some gambling areas, but most of the gambling would take place on the basement level, which spread out beyond the external walls above to encompass the entire site. The vast gambling floor was subdivided into areas labeled on the plans "red oval," "green oval," "black oval," "blue oval," "gold oval," and "white oval." These areas were defined by columns arranged in ovals. At the center, a circular area with paired columns around its perimeter, called Celebration Hall, opened to the glass dome above. Celebration Hall featured a large monumental stairway to street level.
Other than the columns arranged in circles and ovals, there was no other structural grid or module indicated on the plans. In fact, the footprint of the pavilion above was undetectable in the basement level plan. In this sense, it is very unlike Beaux Arts buildings where facade, plan, and section are all integrated.
In addition to no logical structural grid or module, the Grand Palais had some unresolved egress problems. The National Fire Prevention Association, which writes building codes that are enforced by the state fire marshal's office, requires more than one means of egress with a separation that is no less than half the dimension of the longest diagonal across the plan. To accommodate this requirement, free-standing stair towers would have to be provided to egress casino patrons at the extreme edges of the gambling floor. Such stair towers were not indicated on the plans.
Radiating from the circular Celebration Hall were two pathways: one, the Marching Saints Avenue stretching toward the Canal-South Peters Streets corner bisecting equally the intersecting angle of those two streets. At the other end of the Marching Saints Avenue was Satchmo Square, an area defined by pseudo Vieux Carré-style facades. Although the Vieux Carré is an ordered symmetrical rectangular street grid, Satchmo Square was irregular, asymmetrical, unlike anything in the Vieux Carré. The other pathway, called The Big Easy Boulevard, linked Celebration Hall to the pedestrian-service tunnel under Poydras Street.
Surrounding the gambling floor was an artificial bayou with twenty boats cruising past attractions labeled on the plans Venice Street Scene, Tivoli Fountain, Sound and Light Show, All That Jazz, Gone With the Wind, Southern Mansion, Waterfall, Treasure Cove, Shipwreck Bar, Gator Alley, Shanty Town-Red Light District, War of 1812, Great Rainforest, Bayou Country, and Shark Attack, similar to Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean water course ride in Walt Disney World, Florida and the water course ride at the Louisiana Pavilion at the 1984 World's Fair.
The theme interiors were criticized for offering a surrogate Louisiana experience when the real thing is only a bus ride away, or in the case of the Vieux Carré, a short walk away. Architect Errol Barron in his Architectural Record article, "Trouble in river city," states: "Lacking internal logic, it [the casino] relies on bogus themes based on saccharin interpretations of Southern lore (a bayou theme here, a southern mansion theme there) to articulate its vast flat spatial condition" (Barron 1995, 23).
Although Grand Palais plans were shelved after the Hemmeter-Harrah's-Jazzville merger, Hemmeter did create a smaller "fantasyland" up river called River City.
Celebration Lake also came with its own sound and light show. Lasers were to shoot into the sky, while projectors projected images upon water jet screens -- all necessary, Hemmeter contended, to lure people off the street to gamble away their money.
On the opposite side of the lake, across from the casino building, was the Colonnade, a recreation of Bernard Maybeck's colonnaded arcades at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco (1913). Victorianesque covered walkways along with the Colonnade attempted to hide the New Orleans Public Service Incorporated substation which proved too costly to relocate.
Although the casino was oriented parallel to Canal Street, a meandering lake taking the place of the building's street frontage blurred its relationship to the street. Also, the building's rectangular corners abutted South Peters and Poydras Streets at awkward angles giving the appearance of a rectangular block at a skewed angle within the trapezoid site. The statue of Jeanne d'Arc, the center piece of an urban park between the Rivergate and the World Trade Center, would be retained, but the formal grounds surrounding the statue would be sacrificed. The statue was partially swallowed up by Celebration Park, its relationship to the World Trade Center compromised.
"Casino Support Facility" -- Parking Garage
Connecting the basement of the garage with the basement of the casino is a tunnel under Poydras Street to funnel gamblers onto the casino floor preventing them from experiencing New Orleans. It also prevents gamblers from experiencing a sense of arrival at the casino. Instead of approaching the building, seeing its grandeur and walking through an elaborate portico into a grand lobby, casino patrons scuttle through a tunnel that dumps them directly onto the gambling floor.
Carnival Management Services, headed by local developer Joseph Canizaro with Casinos Austria as consultant, submitted a proposal for the land-based casino called the Casino Orleans. They proposed to replace the Rivergate with a 318,000 gross square-foot underground casino topped with a glass pyramid similar to I.M. Pei's 1993 glass pyramid at the Louvre. On top of the casino was an elevated park with monumental stairs of pseudo classical style linking the corners of the park to the street level below. The design required pedestrians to ascend a flight of steps to get to the park.
Included in the Casino Orleans design scheme was a clock tower at the foot of Canal Street.
Casino Orleans' proposal featured a plan for peripheral parking scattered throughout the business district. This is similar to what was proposed by Friends of Rivergate.
The plan of the casino's 218,000 square-foot gambling floor was divided into quadrants with the glass pyramid at the intersection. Each quadrant was a different themed gambling room. The designers of Casino Orleans are Cimini, Meric, Duplantier, architects; John M. Clements, architects; Design Consortium, landscape architects; and Cindy B. Maughan, interior designer.
The Casino Royale Group, a joint venture of Harrah's and Mirage Resorts, proposed a 425,000 gross square-foot building estimated to cost $400 million. Their market analysis estimated their net winnings to be $500-$600 million per year. The proposal placed the casino diagonally across the site with its entrance facing the New Orleans Public Service Incorporated substation similar to the casino that was built. The Casino Royale was elliptical rather than rectangular and an attempt to reconcile the rotated geometry with Poydras and South Peters Streets. Portions of the facades were parallel to the edges of the site eliminating the corners abutting the street. The porte-cochere was approximately in the same location as the one built by Harrah's. A large circle of paving in front of the porte-cochere reconciled the axes of the Place de France, the casino building, and Canal Street, forming a node at their point of intersection.
The casino building featured a large elliptical dome flanked by two smaller domes that partially intersect with each other. Under the large dome and on top of the gambling floor were two theaters placed back to back. The two smaller domes, the Poydras Street Pavilion and the Canal Street Pavilion, formed monumental entry spaces with stairs and escalators that led to the theater level while offering amusements and a New Orleans experience, respectively.
A naturally lit elliptical palm arcade surrounding the theaters connected the two entry spaces located at Canal-South Peters Streets corner and the Poydras Street-Place de France corner. The Casino Royale also featured a three-level basement parking garage. The style of the building resembled Art Nouveau with ornamental ironwork to relate it to New Orleans architecture.
The Casino Royale design was created by the Jerde Partnership from Los Angeles.
A group of politically connected local businessmen submitted a proposal to operate the casino. The businessmen, known as the Jazzville Group, included John J. Cummings III, Carl J. Eberts, Calvin C. Fayard Jr., Wendell Gauthier, Ronnie Lamarque, Burnell K. Moliere, Duplain W. Rhodes III, Louie Roussell III, Michael X. St. Martin, and George Solomon Jr.
The Jazzville proposal differed in many respects from the others -- local and minority business people were owners. A casino operator was not included in the development team. The initial Jazzville scheme called for a Casino Mall with as many as four casino operators each operating a different themed area. Showboat, a gambling company, had an interest in operating part of the Jazzville Casino and participated in the public presentation.
The Jazzville Group recognized the economic advantages as well as the aesthetic advantages of reusing the existing Rivergate. Their proposal stated,
Jazzville proposed expanding the Rivergate to include a 250,000 square foot gambling area. Their projected winnings were $950 million annually.
Hemmeter criticized the Jazzville group's proposal to renovate the Rivergate, stating that the casino project was much too significant for a "paint job" on the Rivergate.
Preservationists, led by the Preservation Resource Center, protested the replacement of nineteenth-century buildings at the corner of Poydras and South Peters Streets with a massive parking garage, and the resultant obstruction of the open-to-sky vistas of the Lafayette and Fulton Streets.
In response, the giant parking garage became three parking garages. Instead of one structure leaping across streets, each garage was confined to its own block, retaining the open-to-sky vistas of Lafayette and Fulton Streets. The heights varied from ten levels for the garages fronting on Poydras Street to six levels for the garage nearest the Warehouse District. The six-level garage still exceeded the fifty-foot height limitation allowed by zoning law but was considered a fair compromise by City officials. The ten-level parking garage did not have any height restrictions; zoning laws allowed unlimited height on this parcel. The facades of the garages were redesigned to emulate early twentieth-century industrial architecture of the Warehouse District.
The City Planning Commission suggested that the facades of the five nineteenth-century buildings at the corner of Poydras and South Peters Streets be retained with the parking structure built behind the existing facades. This solution was still unacceptable to preservationists who objected to such a token approach to historic preservation. In addition, what appeared to be a nineteenth-century building would be used exclusively for vehicle storage.
Hemmeter dropped his plans for the parking garage at the vacant Square 26 in front of the Federal Fiber Mill Condominiums and promised to provide money to develop the site into a park. Later, Hemmeter, at the urging of Councilman James Singleton, dropped his plans to demolish the nineteenth-century buildings at Poydras and South Peters Streets and promised to restore them. The restoration of the nineteenth-century buildings has never come to pass, and the city is constructing a modest green park on Square 26.
Preservationists also objected to the destruction of the foot of Canal Street, its replacement lake, and the Las Vegas-style sound and light display. In response, Celebration Lake was deleted and replaced by a large plaza with a hundred-ten foot Egyptian Obelisk as its centerpiece.
As a gift to the city, Hemmeter proposed erecting at the foot of Canal Street a million dollar German-style glockenspiel (playful clock) intended to be a signature piece for the City of New Orleans. Plans for the clock were later shelved with much of the Grand Palais proposal. The City Planning Commission also insisted that the Grand Palais be redesigned to be more sympathetic to New Orleans architecture -- e.g. similar massing, materials, scale, proportion, detailing. This request was ignored, and the synthetic stucco pseudo Paris Opera House prevailed.
After Hemmeter was awarded the lease to the Rivergate site, Harrah's (a partner in the Casino Royale proposal) and the Jazzville group teamed up to compete for the State license.
In the proposed adaptive reuse of the Rivergate by Harrah's-Jazzville, Perez, Ernst, Farnet Architects proposed to demolish North Hall. A new Neo-Constructivist porte-cochere would replace North Hall. The gambling hall would encompass all areas under the roof, including the original Rivergate porte-cochere driveway.
The Harrah's-Jazzville Group proposed cladding the new exterior walls of the casino in granite.
On the interior, the vaulted bays nearest Poydras and Canal Streets would be sealed off from the rest of the space. Casino support spaces would be allocated to a new second story constructed within these end bays. The Rivergate's six-bay South Hall would, in effect, be reduced by a third. The resulting four-bay gambling hall would be absent of any natural light. (Remember, casinos do not have windows.)
The gambling hall was divided into four areas, each with its own theme. Blaine Kern, creator of Mardi Gras floats, would be commissioned to design and build the interiors.
The Jazzville proposal narrowly won the State license to operate the land-based casino. This proposal was the only one acceptable to Friends of Rivergate.
On 11 August 1993, the Louisiana Economic Development and Gaming Corporation's board chairman, Max Chastain, cast the deciding vote that selected the Jazzville proposal. At the urging of then-Gov. Edwards, Hemmeter dropped Caesar's World and Robinowitz. A menagé a trois was formed by Harrah's-Jazzville-Hemmeter. Caesar's World filed a breach of contract lawsuit against Hemmeter (Eggler 1993b). Two out of the three parties -- Harrah's and Jazzville -- favored renovating the Rivergate. But after the negotiation session in the governor's mansion, the partners emerged and announced that the Rivergate would be replaced with a new building.
The original Jazzville proposal called for renovating the Rivergate in phases in lieu of opening a temporary casino. When the renovation plans were abandoned, Harrah's-Jazzville-Hemmeter proposed building a temporary casino across Canal Street from the Rivergate site (originally the site for Hemmeter's Petite Palais). But the City insisted that a temporary casino be located at the 1930 Municipal Auditorium.
The City required that the old auditorium be renovated into a casino and subsequently unrenovated back into an auditorium after the permanent casino opened. During the brief interim, the City expected to have the auditorium restored, to collect rent during the construction phase of the permanent casino, and to revitalize Rampart Street.
The temporary casino opened 1 May 1995 in the Municipal Auditorium and closed six months later in bankruptcy. The exterior of the auditorium, with the exception of the addition of neon signs and the synthetic stucco addition grafted to the northwest side of the building, remained intact.
The auditorium's performance hall floor was carpeted with a fabric printed to resemble fallen confetti. The interior plaster work was painted gaudy colors. The main ceiling of the performance hall was barely visible behind a draping of alternating strings of lights and colored canvas strips. At the apex were a series of carnival masks used to conceal security cameras.
Acres of surface parking lots replaced abandoned railroad warehouses across Orleans Avenue from the temporary casino. One warehouse slated to be demolished to make way for the giant parking lot mysteriously caught fire and burned to the ground. Prison guard-style watch towers punctuated the desolate asphalt landscape.
The temporary casino closed on 21 November 1995. It was alleged that fear of the high-crime location of the auditorium and isolation from the tourist side of the Vieux Carré contributed to poor gambler attendance.
Subsequent use of the old auditorium, now named Morris F.X. Jeff Sr. Municipal Auditorium, as a home for minor league ice hockey, has proved successful, and crowds are attracted from all over the metropolitan area. Plans are underway to accommodate carnival balls at their traditional venue, and no resistance has been experienced. The customary capacity crowds fill the nearby Mahalia Jackson Theatre For The Performing Arts for the opera season and other music and dance events.