The Fascinating Story of M.S. Rau’s French Quarter Renovation

5 minute read

The countdown to November 2019 is on: In only a few short months, M.S. Rau will open its freshly renovated porte-cochère doors to reveal an expansive, new gallery space. The 107-year-old business has been busy combining its existing location at 630 Royal Street with an astonishing four historically significant buildings in the French Quarter. The addition of the 622-624 and 616-618 Royal Street properties double M.S. Rau’s showroom space to a whopping 36,500 square feet, and triple its business footprint along the 600 block of Royal Street, a gallery-lined slice of New Orleans’ local commerce.

Four years in the making, this once-in-a-generation opportunity for expansion is no small feat — particularly in New Orleans’ French Quarter, one of the oldest corridors in the nation. In a Times-Picayune article published in 1964 surveying the property, the buildings were cited as “...among the finest buildings in the Vieux Carre.” Placing historic preservation at the forefront, M.S. Rau enlisted design-build partner Palmisano and architecture firm Office of Jonathan Tate to honor and uphold the integrity of what are considered near-perfect examples of early 19th-century Creole architecture.

The jewel of Royal Street. The jewel of Royal Street.

A Provenance of Creole Aristocracy

Erected in 1831 during the most prosperous time in New Orleans history, the classic Creole-style structures at 622-624 Royal Street stood in what was then the most fashionable area of the Vieux Carre. One can no doubt imagine the identical buildings as “...the scene of many brilliant social affairs, having been occupied by some of the most prominent families of the Creole aristocracy.” The two three-story structures remained in the hands of one family for over a century until their 1953 sale, passed down through the lineage of eminent names in New Orleans’ storied heritage.

The properties at 622-624 Royal Street were originally built by Dr. Isadore Labatut as a wedding gift to his new bride, Caroline Urquhart, daughter of Thomas Urquhart, a titan of the New Orleans’ mercantile industry, popular politician and civic leader. The son of a celebrated military general renowned for his service at the Battle of New Orleans, Labatut was himself a veteran surgeon of Napoléon’s Army at Waterloo. Labatut became prominent as the first native-born physician to practice in Louisiana after serving in the later campaigns of the Napoléonic Wars. At the time of his death in 1890, Labatut was the oldest practicing medical doctor in the country.

The Labatuts’ home on Royal became the Puig household in 1858 after the family’s eldest daughter Angéle Caroline Labatut married Magin Puig y Ferrer, the son of wealthy Castilian Spanish merchants. Magin Puig established himself as a successful grocer and one-half of the Puig Brothers company. The Puigs earned a sliver of infamy when the brothers’ firm was sued by the United States in 1862 for supplying the Confederate Army with arms, food and tactical supplies. Many pieces of the Labatut-Puigs’ opulent furnishings from their Civil War-era tenure at 622-624 Royal are now housed in the Louisiana State Museum and can be seen in the museum’s 1850 House recreation.

Creole Families of New Orleans (1921), by Grace Kelly, p. 431 Creole Families of New Orleans (1921), by Grace Kelly, p. 431

Notable Tenants

Intending 622-624 Royal to be both residential and commercial, Dr. Labatut leased the ground floor as legal offices. Notable tenants included Edward Douglas White, who understudied as a law student at 622 Royal Street and would become the nation’s first Roman Catholic Chief Justice of the Supreme Courtin 1910. Famed Italian operatic tenor Enrico Caruso also lived here as a tenant during his time in New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A 1734 map of New Orleans illustrating Royal Street city blocks. A 1734 map of New Orleans illustrating Royal Street city blocks.

The Great Fire of 1794

The properties’ historical significance extends beyond the Louisiana Purchase to when New Orleans was under Spanish colonial rule. On December 8, 1794 — 35 years before 622-624 Royal was built — the second devastating fire to sweep through the Vieux Carre in less than a decade was sparked on the lot where the Royal Street properties sit today. The fire is reported to have been started by children playing with flint in stables on the lot. Encouraged by a strong north wind, the fire quickly spread to a neighboring warehouse where hay was stored. In less than three hours, 212 buildings in the French Quarter were destroyed. Among the only buildings to survive the fire were the St. Louis Cathedral, Ursuline Convent, U.S. Customs House and what is now Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop.

Spanish governance developed fire codes in response to the 1794 fire requiring structures to be constructed with non-flammable materials like brick and plaster. Wooden buildings in the French style were replaced by solid brick structures with flat roofs, villa courtyards and wrought-iron balconies with “Romeo spikes” and other fortress- and castle-like security features popular in Spain. According to New Orleans historian Lyle Saxon: “The city that fell before the flames was a congested French community of wooden houses, badly arranged and irregular. A stately Spanish city rose in its stead[…].” This intensely destructive fire and the resulting development codes directly influenced the foundational buildings of M.S. Rau’s gallery space, paving the way for the French Quarter we know today.

A 1794 map surveying the impacts of the Great Fire of 1794. A 1794 map surveying the impacts of the Great Fire of 1794.

630 Royal Street

M.S. Rau’s current location isn’t without its own tapestry of legend unique to the matchless Vieux Carre. The three-story building that previously occupied the site at 630 Royal Street is known to have been home to the first Mayor of New Orleans, James Pitot. The original structure burned in the late 1800s and was rebuilt as a one-story structure. A second story was later added.

In fact, 630 Royal is not the original French Quarter location where M.S. Rau first opened its doors over a century ago. Max Simon Rau, grandfather of current CEO, Bill Rau, opened M.S. Rau Antiques in 1912 at 719 Royal Street. In 1931, he moved the store to a larger space at its present location at 630 Royal. Additional expansions took place in the 1940s and early 1990s when the Rau family combined buildings along St. Peter and Toulouse Streets to the Royal Street building, making up the total expanse of the store today.

The 600 Block of Royal Street, circa 1900. The 600 Block of Royal Street, circa 1900.

Preserving the Past, Embracing the Future

Preserving the beauty and heritage of these incredible buildings with painstaking historical accuracy was at the forefront of M.S. Rau’s monumental renovation. Defining features trademark to the Vieux Carre, like massive porte-cochère carriage doors leading to hidden Romanesque villa courtyards, have been retained and are indeed celebrated in the gallery’s new design. The entire façade of the twin homes, with their Spanish-style arched transoms and elegant French doors, have been restored to their original 1831 state, along with all interior doors, stairs, banisters and windows. The buildings feature almost a dozen fireplaces with original mantels, all restored to their original grandeur. The only modern addition is an elevator providing easy access to the second and third floors of the expansive new gallery.

Plans for developing the ground floor of M.S. Rau’s St. Peter property will begin once the addition of 622-624 and 616-618 Royal Street is complete, rounding out M.S. Rau’s 21st-century renovation.

The final phase of the gallery’s expansion will quadruple the entire gallery space, and 630 Royal will be transformed into an unrivaled jewelry boutique showcasing some of the world’s most rare and valuable jewels. This expansion will include modern workspaces uniting the century-old business’ growing staff in a central location in the gallery. Keep track of progress on M.S. Rau's Gallery Expansion and see how far we've come.

Visit us in November 2019 to see the stunning new gallery space for yourself. Filled with the incomparable charm of pristinely preserved New Orleans history, you won’t want to miss it.

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