By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany West news
COVINGTON – The historic Southern Hotel in downtown Covington holds special meaning to many residents. But to Lisa Condrey Ward, there is one particular vision she keeps thinking about.
“I want to see the lights on at night,” she said.
The statement may seem simple, but for the Covington attorney-turned-contractor, it will be neither a simple nor inexpensive proposition.
She and her brother, Ricky Condrey, purchased the 37,000 square foot building in Nov., 2011, following almost 10 years of interest from Ward.
“From the time I moved here in 2004, I always loved the building,” she said. “At first, I didn’t know it was a hotel. I would drive by and imagine the lights on at night.”
Even though the current budget to renovate the Southern Hotel is over $13 million, it is quite clear Ward will have her dream come true by December of 2013—the estimated opening date for Covington to have the former center of social activity on the North Shore return to commerce.
Ward said the response from local residents has been overwhelmingly positive, as word slowly spreads the majestic Southern Hotel is being renovated in a grand way.
“There is a real sense of community ownership for this building,” Ward said. “It is the anchor of our downtown, but I still didn’t anticipate how strongly people wanted to see the lights on at night. I was totally not prepared for the reaction.”
Ward said it took “about a month” for the realization of purchasing the hotel to hit her.
“Since we bought it, I’ve been inundated with positive reaction. When I walk on the sidewalk outside the hotel, people honk their horns,” she said. “It’s been fantastic.
The Southern Hotel was built in 1907 and was the social center for the North Shore during the early part of that century. This region was a tourist destination, with New Orleans residents coming across the lake for a cooler time in the summer, while residents from far north came here during the winter to escape the bone-chilling cold.
That heyday of activity slowly slipped away over the decades until the parish bought the building in 1983 and used it for parish offices. It was put on the auction block in 2003, when Dr. Michael Pittman purchased it for $885,500.
Ward and her husband moved to the North Shore in 2004 and since that time, she has kept her eye on the building. Even though she and her husband have worked professionally as lawyers for 20 years, Ward has had a second love from the time she was young.
“I’ve always loved renovating older homes. My husband and I did it with two homes in New Orleans, but my first venture was with my dad when I was still in college,” she said.
Originally from Lake Providence, La., she remembers her father, a cotton farmer by trade, take a pair of abandoned silos on his property in St. Francisville, and renovate them into a hunting lodge overlooking the Mississippi River.
“My dad did that with no plans. He kept seeing those silos on his property and envisioned a hunting lodge, which he slowly built by telling a welder where to cut the holes for windows. It was amazing. There is no doubt it’s where I got this passion to renovate old buildings,” she said.
As a college student, she remembers a house on Lake Providence that had been abandoned for years, before she drove by one day and noticed all the trees and bushes had been cut down around it.
“I had never been able to see that house, but one day it was beautiful to see after everything was cleared away from it,” she said. “I was only 21 and I was so concerned about what might happen to the house, I called the owner and said ‘you won’t let that house fall down, will you?’”
A year later, the man called her father about selling the house, all because Ward had inquired about it. Her dad ended up buying the house and together, they renovated the old house on the lake.
However, taking on the Southern Hotel is an immense project that even has Ward almost laughing about the magnitude of her new undertaking.
“My brother and I jumped off the bridge when we bought this,” she said. “And now we are asking how deep the water is.”
Ward may joke about this renovation job, but the 51-year-old is more than aware of what she is doing. For that matter, her passion for the City of Covington, and what a renovated Southern Hotel will do for it, are beyond inspirational.
“Why would I take on something this big?” she responded. “I believe the aesthetics in a town affect us all more than we think. To have a beautiful hotel in downtown Covington will spur more of what we have.
“I believe Covington is a great town and I want my kids to come back here,” she said. “The city needs this to help it be all it can be and I feel lucky to be the one who gets to do this.”
Ward has had a marketing study completed and received confirmation the hotel, with its restaurant and conference room amenities, can be a success, especially since the plan is to make the Southern Hotel something far more than the chain hotels along the interstate.
“This will be such a special place to come,” Ward said. “We knew we couldn’t build a chain hotel and we’re certainly not doing that.”
The hotel will offer 40 rooms, plus conference and banquet rooms that can accommodate small groups, and up to 250.
“We are already getting at least one call a week to book weddings, so that’s exciting,” she said.
Ward also said the renovation went so far as to redo all the footings in the building and reconstruct many areas of the foundation and initial structure.
“We knew the parish already had it so it was in good shape, but to do this right we have to spend the money, and that’s what we are doing. You can’t put a band-aid on something like this or it will cost you later,” she added.
Ward said she is ready to transition from her 20-year law career to spend more time with renovation projects, especially historic structures.
“This is such a great opportunity for us to do this,” she said. “But for me, I feel like Cinderella right now. Of course, I’m still not sure if I will get the prince in the end, but it certainly feels very exciting right now.”
Anyone interested in more information on the Southern Hotel can go to their website at southernhotel.com, or call 871-5223.