WHAT DO PHILIPPE STARCK, LEE HARVEY OSWALD AND DALLAS’ NIVEN MORGAN HAVE TO DO WITH THE HOTTEST NEW HOTEL IN NEW ORLEANS? TO FIND OUT, WE GO MARCHING INTO THE SAINT.
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Trumpets blast, drums pound and heads turn. A marching band is stomping up Canal Street in New Orleans. The pavement is wet with rain, but that doesn’t slow down their leader, wobbling along on a pair of stilts. It’s just another Wednesday night in the French Quarter. The band, presumably practicing for Mardi Gras, incites a mini flash-mob of followers as it parades past the buttoned-up Ritz-Carlton to stop directly in front of the Ritz’s adjacent neighbor: The Saint hotel, open less than two weeks on this night.
The hotel’s two Dallas-based owners, Mark Wyant and his mother, Jana, could hardly have scripted a better showcase for their new property. The 103-year-old building rises eight stories into the air, still crowned by its original beaux arts stone scrollwork.
Inside the soaring lobby, the look is anything but period. Clear “Ghost” chairs go toe-to-toe with baroque banquets and mod chandeliers. A niche above the front doors houses a mirror-mosaic mannequin, hands on hips, that owner Mark bought as-is at Dallas Market Center. (In rustic contrast, a pair of carved-wood angels above the reception desk was a flea-market find in Forney, Texas.) The voluminous entry hall feels ethereal with sheer white drapes dangling 22 feet from ceiling to floor. Seem familiar? It’s a direct nod to designer Philippe Starck and his infamous, now-shuttered Starck Club in Dallas.
“I’ve been obsessed with the Starck ever since I first walked through the door in 1984,” says Mark, clad in a black turtleneck and jeans. His fixations grew over the years from dance clubs to exotic sports cars (still a thing) to jet airplanes. He’s been a pilot since 1990 for American Airlines.
Mark’s other defining passion is hotels. He’s third-generation in the business, which began when his late grandfather first opened a place in East Texas. Since the ’70s, Mark and his mother have owned and operated more than a dozen hotels in Texas and the Southwest, and he still owns the Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort on the Galveston coast. But his dream was always a boutique property.
Everything fell into place in 2010 when bad weather forced him to cut a family vacation short and land his private plane in New Orleans for a layover.
Mark went for a walk with his wife, Lorenda, and stumbled onto the historic
Audubon Building at the corner of Canal and Burgundy. It happened to be for sale. Built in 1909, the property had mostly served as an office building. Investors once tried to convert it into a Hilton, but Hurricane Katrina put a stop to that in 2005 and it had sat abandoned since. Poking around out front, Mark saw plywood covering the doorways and broken glass everywhere, but the proverbial bones were intact. He called his mother back in Dallas and told her to get on the next plane.
Jana, a whirlwind of energy in her 70s with a mod haircut and perfectly done makeup, still recalls her reaction the first time she saw the place: “I stood inside the doorway and looked around at the most ugly, gross, stinky thing you ever saw. Oh, and all of that space. I looked at Mark and said, ‘What in God’s world are we going to do with all of that space?’”
Turns out, quite a bit.
The Wyants spent a year and a staggering $40 million-plus on renovations. Mark hired architects for the heavy lifting — former offices were reconfigured into guest rooms; bathrooms had to be built into each one — but tackled all of the finish-out and interior design himself. (And talk about a family affair: Mark’s well-manicured wife painted most of the pressed-tin tiles underneath the building’s reconstructed iron awning.) The hotel’s 166 rooms are now furnished with sleek, white-lacquered furniture and jumbo-graphic-print carpets. The ceilings are slathered in indigo paint because, as a pilot, Mark says you should “keep the blue side up and the brown side down.” Many of the rooms also have original exposed-brick walls. Every bathroom is stocked with lotions, potions and spa robes by Dallas scent prince Niven Morgan. (Morgan was a natural choice since he’s also a Louisiana native.)
Mark is working to finish dressing the building’s eighth floor, where he’s adorning the hallways with historic photos of Dallas and John F. Kennedy from 1963.
The reason? Mark discovered while researching the building with the Library of Congress that Lee Harvey Oswald was once interviewed on the eighth floor by an anti-communist group that officed there.
In fact, the property is even named in the legendary Warren Report.
For The Saint’s signature restaurant, Mark partnered with celeb New Orleans chef Michael Stoltzfus of Coquette in the Garden District to open Sweet Olive near the main entrance. The best way to order here is the four-course tasting menu, which
pairs dishes such as Louisiana crab meat with quail eggs and pickled Gulf shrimp with the perfect wine. (If you’re with a group, try to snag the marble banquette table in the front window for the best people-watching.) Across the lobby is a cozy space dressed in scarlet Venetian chandeliers, dubbed the Burgundy Lounge (pronounce it like a local: bur-GUN-dee), which serves up cocktails from a menu organized by “Seven Godly Virtues” or “Seven Deadly Sins.” This spring, you can get more libations on the hotel’s coming rooftop lounge, Halo.
“The whole idea is the saint and sinner. Good and evil. Naughty and nice,” says Mark. “We’re trying to present a playful atmosphere that relates back to the city. The food is excellent and rich, maybe a little more than you should eat. And, of course, everyone knows about Bourbon Street.”
Mark even tried to infuse that NOLA atmosphere into the music. He created a hotel playlist that, from 6 to 10 each night, is composed of vintage jazz tunes by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, who grew up two blocks away. Later at night, expect to hear more eclectic tracks, including bands lifted from Starck Club days: Vicious Pink, Book of Love.
According to Mark, a hotel is theater. “Like a Broadway play, all of the piece have to be in place: music, sound, smell, sight.
This is about having an experience.”