Looting of Original Ruth’s Chris Steak House Reveals Problems with Partially Controlled Historic Districts – Mid-City Messenger

1100 N. Broad on July 10 (Photos courtesy of Matoulich family)

By John L. Schackai III, guest columnist

Commercial development in historic neighborhoods — in a bullish real estate market — is causing a crisis for familiar landmarks of traditional New Orleans culture.

One example is the aggressive renovation of the historic North Broad and Ursuline Building, the location of the former Chris Steaks and later also the original home of now international franchisee Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

Once the haunt of politicians and the powerful, the steakhouse has put this distinctive building on the map. It has a double-door corner entrance, a wrap-around terracotta canopy and a gable with a decorative wooden overlay in “fish scales” inherited from the old French opera house, according to legend.

1100 N. Broad was Chris Steaks from 1953 to 1976 and Ruth’s Chris Steaks after 1976.

The new owner is developer Max Perret, dba Velosity Assets LLC. Perret purchased the property in May 2021 for $300,000 from the estate of Nick Matulich Sr., son of the late original owner, Chris Matulich.

Perret wants to use 1100 N. Broad as a new office space for his company, Slate Realty. And that’s not all. The building will be mixed-use: The architect’s plans provide for two rental units on the second floor, one of which (at least) is for short-term rental.

Over the past few months, the 1100 N. Broad case has been the subject of a series of appeals to the Historic District Landmarks Commission and its architectural advisory board, the Building Review Board. architecture. The callers are restaurateur Chris Matulich’s grandson, Nick Matulich Jr., and his wife, Nancy Matulich. The couple still own the neighboring residential property and a commercial property across the street.

This Thursday (July 21), the appeal goes to a hearing before the municipal council.

The problem began when Perret and his architect, Loretta Harmon, filed a set of plans with the city to demolish more than 25% of the historic materials on the building’s main facade, including the distinctive terracotta canopy. A 25% primary facade demolition is a trigger point for full HDLC monitoring.

On January 5, the HDLC commissioners unanimously rejected Perret’s request.

1100 N. Broad on May 22
The plot thickens

1100 N. Broad is in a section of historic Tremé (the upper side of North Claiborne Avenue) where the HDLC’s jurisdiction is only “partial control”. In the city’s partially controlled historic districts, the primary job of the HDLC is to examine demolitions.

The developer changed its design and managed to avoid further scrutiny by HDLC commissioners by recalculating the demolition percentages on a revised set of drawings so that they cover less than 25% of the main façade on the rue des Ursulines side of the building.

It was HDLC staff – the commission’s support staff of curators, historians and plan reviewers – who approved the new percentages on January 31. Staff issued a certificate of overhaul on April 22, and the owner began demolition with only that approval — and without the required building permit from the city.

Nick and Nancy Matulich appealed the review certificate. It was rejected by the CRA in a May 17 hearing. The next day, however, Security and Permits issued a stop work order at the request of HDLC Executive Director Bryan Block.

A yellow stop work notice was posted at the site and reissued on May 23. Max Perret was fined $8,280 for the building permit violation.

1100 N. Broad in November 2019 (photo from Assessor’s office)
The heart of the problem

The Matulichs appealed the CRA’s decision to the full HDLC Commission, which heard their arguments on June 1. The commission voted 8 to 2 to maintain ARC support for the actions of HDLC staff. Now the call will go to the city council on Thursday.

Here is a list of the main problems. The first three points speak of general principles; the last two are specific to the 1100 N. Broad problem.

HDLC staff have the authority to deny any aspect of the application based on the HDLC’s six partial control demolition criteria – six clear reasons, including consideration of “the condition of the building or structure”. In other words, “If it ain’t broke, don’t destroy it.” This includes any part of the demolition below the usual thresholds for full HDLC monitoring.

HDLC personnel deny having jurisdiction over siding removal; yet the removal of weather protection panels and fish scales requires a permit for commercial and multi-family dwellings under the International Building Code, which HDLC staff also denied on appeal to the HDLC (June 1 ). Staff members may have confused the residential code’s leniency with the stricter requirement for commercial construction. Because building codes are enacted by the state legislature, the city has no authority to limit or override a requirement.

Also, as a practical matter, no historic material should ever be removed from a historic building, residential or commercial, unless it is defective, or unless an addition, such as a camel-back conversion , requires removal of walls or roof.

In the case of 1100 N. Broad, for example, HDLC staff could have rejected the request according to the building condition. It had been kept perfectly by the Matulich family. There is absolutely no reason to replace terracotta tiles, cladding or antique fish scales.

The most significant architectural element of the main facade of 1100 N. Broad is its terracotta canopy – but HDLC staff allow its removal as they falsely claim the canopy is a roof.

A canopy is specifically defined in the zoning code and building code as an “architectural projection” above windows and doors, whereas a “roof.” . . is built above the exterior walls. . . for the purpose of joining the story below. This is important because the HDLC’s partial control demolition criteria allow up to 50% of the roof to be demolished; and if an awning is a roof, misinterpretations of HDLC guidelines seem to permit its total removal.

Finally, the calculation of the percentages of the main façade which have been approved by HDLC staff is inaccurate. Since siding, fish scales and awning should be included in the calculation, the total amount of demolition would be approximately 94% of the main facade on the Ursulines.

In their overzealous elimination of the historic fabric, developers ignore the cultural imperative to preserve New Orleans architecture.

The implications for New Orleans’ historic neighborhoods are profound. Without the strict interpretation and implementation of demolition criteria – strictly limiting the removal of solid historic material from contributory and significant buildings – New Orleans’ partial control historic districts could be transformed within a generation.

Much of the original fabric could be destroyed in the current real estate gold rush that historic buildings can be stripped of their key architectural features – and so much so that neighborhoods in New Orleans without design controls could lose their National Register designation.

In the ongoing debate over the decline of the historic fabric in New Orleans, politicians and city officials inevitably reassure worried citizens that partial-control historic neighborhoods can be converted into full-control neighborhoods. But this is a protracted process involving broad public participation and the search for consensus.

And as I argued from the 1100 N. Broad Street case, much can be accomplished and preserved by strict adherence to the partial controls already in place. Yet full control districting also offers control over the design of new and historic buildings, not just demolition review – and is therefore the best choice. So what to do? I suggest the following:

  • Given the seriousness of the problem – the rapid destruction of historic fabric and the risk of loss of credentials with the National Registry – the city should begin holding town hall meetings in partially controlled districts to discuss the adoption of full control.
  • In the meantime, the city council can help maintain the integrity of established ordinances and confirm to the HDLC that its staff have the right to refuse demolitions of any degree in partial control neighborhoods by carefully reading the guidelines and building code. .
  • In the case of the Matulich family’s call for 1100 N. Broad, that means the terracotta tile canopy must be restored — and the original planks and fish scales must be preserved from the demolition.

Laws were instituted for a reason. It is the city’s job to create them and enforce them; but it’s up to all of us — the city, the developers and the citizens — to follow them.

Guest columnist John L. Schackai III was the architect of the first major historic conversions in the Warehouse District, the Federal Fiber Mills and Woodward Wight buildings, as well as the award-winning historic orphanage conversion. He served 12 years on the New Orleans Historic District Architectural Review Board and six years as a trustee of the Louisiana Landmarks Society.

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