A French Quarter Jewel Unveiled: The Monteleones’ Bienville House Hotel

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When dawn rises over the French Quarter, it sends sunbeams into the cascading foliage that hangs from the facades of buildings. The Bienville House Hotel’s much photographed flowering balconies are bathed in the morning sun, illuminated brilliantly until cool shadows creep over them. As the dawn rises over the rooftops, flickering over flower petals and old iron railings, it scatters a delicate peach colored light throughout the violet morning haze of the stirring city to blush the river beyond with a warm glow.

When the Monteleones (known as the most prominent hotel family in New Orleans) decided to buy the Bienville House in the 1970s, they knew it had potential. Located on the edge of the French Quarter adjacent to the Mississippi River, one can hear the songs of the steamboat calliopes clearly from the rooftop gardens of the quaint hotel. Originally the site of an old grain house almost 200 years ago, it was converted into the fashionable North American Hotel in 1835, catering to elite travelers. Today, it has been gradually transformed by the Monteleones into a posh boutique hotel with historically appointed details and contemporary amenities.

The successful transformation of the Bienville House under the watchful care of the Monteleones left one treasure untapped, though. The lush inner courtyard of the hotel had all the makings of a perfect French Quarter setting, yet it was rarely used.

When the Monteleones contacted French Fountains, a gallery of ancient garden elements, to discuss the rejuvenation of their courtyard, they were in search of an original water feature to add a key focal point to their pool area. There were also a few constraints in the garden that they wanted to address: the pool was rather small, and the patio was divided in half by a low brick wall.

The landscaping in the garden was lush and tropical; however, its volume obscured the view upon entering the courtyard and minimized the size of the space. Glass tables that were tucked away in stucco archways appeared lonely and uninviting. A wonderful old brick wall was covered in a sparse collection of staghorn air plants; and a brightly colored Pop Art sculpture of a fish served as a focal point over a bricked basin.

Brothers David and William Monteleone, both avid travelers and knowledgeable collectors, addressed the dilemma in their hotel garden. They wanted to bring a sense of openness to the space and to introduce elements of classical garden design. The pool needed to be reframed as well, and its surrounding coping piece updated.

Although the old brick was typical of a French Quarter courtyard, the brothers wanted to go beyond the popular use of this well-known look. They requested drawings that could show better use of space, a strong focal point, and a solution to the untamed palms and ferns that draped the patio. They were hands-on, working through every detail of the designs, and confident that their dreams would be realized.

The French Fountain design team developed a series of alternatives, mixing formal elements and informal designs. The thought was to rise above the casual decadence of a typical New Orleans patio and to introduce symmetry and order found in the Italianate garden design. Ornamentation with historical references would define the theme. The patio not only needed a bold point of perspective to bring the viewer back to its farthest plane, but it needed variations of height and structure to keep the space interesting. Instead of the light pink that covered the stucco walls, a subdued color palate of sage green and ochre was suggested to create a soothing summer hue.

As the owner of French Fountains, I worked with our chief designer, Christine Lauthe, and our artistic designer, Simonette Berry, to create a portfolio of historic garden ornaments and designs that would lend elegant forms and symmetrical rhythms to the garden. I employed landscape architect, David Tureau, ASLA, to develop the CAD drawings and introduce a new theme for year-round plantings. Together we worked to offer a vision for the Bienville pool and patio, aspiring to infuse new life into this hidden French Quarter jewel.

The final plan was agreed upon, and we all knew it was the best solution for the space and would make an important statement in this historic property. The key fountain element at the end of the pool was the main piece. An exact casting of a rare Antoine Durenne (1847-1911), this Pan figure is lithely perched on a conch shell, as if he is dancing to some forgotten ancient rhythm. His graceful pose creates striking directional lines; he is perfectly balanced on the conch shell by the ball of his foot, and he casually holds a pipe in his hand. Bearing the distinctive 1880s Parisian foundry stamp “A. Durenne Paris,” this important fountain creates a reference to the history of Bienville House, as it is located on the site where a 19th-century New Orleans hotel once stood.

The fountain was only seven feet and six inches tall and needed to be raised to define the center of the garden space. We wanted the viewer to look upward and beyond towards the backdrop of the garden gates and flanking columns. To achieve this, a large planter basin was constructed at the end of the pool, achieving the elevation that was needed for the fountain. The planter basin also provided a place for vertical and cascading plantings that would further enhance the presentation of the fountain.

The patio’s bricks and pool coping were pulled out and replaced with a rich, grey colored slate with green undertones. The Monteleones chose the slate and the green glass tiles for the steps and sides of the pool. The variations of green in the iridescent glass created a dreamy setting for the softly splashing water from the fountain into the pool. The sides of the pool were squared off with the slate, creating a natural pond effect.

One of the concerns discussed before the renovation of the patio was the lack of space available for large parties. To open up the space, the low brick wall and the back and side planting beds, which housed large ferns, were removed. The patio appeared larger with the muted tones of the new slate throughout and the confining wall removed, leaving no physical or visual obstructions. The fountain at the end of the pool drew the eye to this focal point immediately upon entering the courtyard, giving the illusion of grandeur and openness.

To further direct the eye to the back gate and to enhance the importance of the Durenne fountain, two mammoth 19th-century egg-dart cast iron urns in a lead finish were placed on each side of the back wall. In the spirit of the Medici gardens found in Florence, large, succulent Loquat trees with orange fruit were planted in the urns. This created a very dramatic effect, framing the fountain figure and creating the symmetry found in the Italianate school of garden design. Smaller cast iron planters with two-tiered topiaries were added on both sides of the pool mimicking the imagery of the promenades found in the Tuileries gardens in Paris. The space became clean, classic, and elegant with these revisions.

To open up the alcoves and induce guests to spend time in them, we placed three large 19th-century ochre glazed pressed-tin mirrors against the walls. The reflection from each mirror created the sense of another portal that went beyond the garden. The mirrors also offered a reflection for guests of the restaurant through its French windows that were recently installed. Bronze-finished wrought iron chandeliers were hung in each of the alcoves overlooking the pool; each of these spaces became a special place—a spot to linger, leisurely sipping a glass of wine and looking out at the courtyard from a cozy niche.

Cast iron benches in the style of the 19th-century Colebrookdale design were placed in two of the alcoves, offering bathers a space to enjoy the pool. In the center alcove, a French-style white marble bistro table with two wrought iron chairs was placed as a centerpiece, offering an intimate place for a midnight rendezvous.

We wanted to offer privacy for the patio but at the same time create an air of intrigue for those looking into the space from the lobby windows. Large custom-made French cast iron window boxes were designed to hold tall stalks of bamboo reaching up to the sky. Chinese jasmine vines were also planted in the boxes and attached to metal supports on the brick wall. This treatment created a light and airy screen in front of the windows.

Two large French topiaries made of cast iron were painted deep ochre and placed in front of two of the columns overlooking the seating area. The topiaries allowed for the continuation of the theme of Italianate symmetry giving balance to the patio. We opted to plant climbing sasanqua camellias in the topiaries because of their beauty at this time of the year. The abundant white blossoms of the climbing camellias again resonated the simple elegance of the space.

Along the brick wall, which once was decorated with staghorn plants, we staggered faux-finished sections of cast iron on the wall. Vines of evergreen wisteria, clematis, and cape honeysuckle were planted in a large brick planter that was constructed at the base of the wall. The centerpiece of this new brick planter became a mature Louisiana sweet orange citrus tree with its low hanging branches and thick trunk. The idea was to create a lush yet tailored garden, similar to those found in Rousseau’s garden paintings. Tables and chairs were placed in the center of this newly created paradise. The sound of cascading water and the view of the Durenne Pan create an environment worth visiting for a cool dip or a toast of champagne.

The Bienville House courtyard renovation was a great success due to the collaborative work of the team involved. French Fountains saw the vision that the Monteleones wanted and worked with the skillful David Tureau to achieve their objectives. The design team at French Fountains provided expertise in the procurement, placement, and research of historical garden ornaments. The Bienville House’s historic setting provided an inspirational environment for the design of this project.

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