Lake Providence Natives Transform the Historic Southern Hotel in St. Tammany Parish to a Dream Destination
article by Mary Napoli
photography by Martin G Meyers
The best thing about Covington is that it is in a certain sense out of place and time, but not too far out,” Walker Percy once said. “One can sniff the ozone from the pine trees, visit local bars, eat crawfish, and drink Dixie beer and feel as good as it is possible to feel in this awfully interesting century.”
Percy, celebrated Southern author and award winning literary genius, was not a native of Covington, Louisiana, but it was the city he chose to call his hometown. Under the canopy of stories high pine trees, he fell in love with the picturesque, historic town located 30 miles north of New Orleans and founded over 200 years ago. Although the landscape has evolved and expanded since Percy’s day, what is most enthralling about Covington remains the same–the storybook-like timeless beauty that resists surrendering to the hands of the clock. And at the center of it lies The Southern Hotel, surrounded by a quaint downtown area draped in Spanish moss and laid-back Southern charm.
The Southern Hotel originally opened its doors in the early 1900’s. On June 1, 1907, Covington’s elite attended the grand opening in their finest livery to see and be seen. The hotel, which then featured retail space on the bottom floor, was the first of its kind in St. Tammany Parish. Exquisitely modern, guests marveled at the state-of-the-art facilities that offered electricity and indoor plumbing. It was an exciting addition to the quaint downtown area, which was founded in the early 1800s by European settlers.
At the time, Covington, located at the fork between the Bogue Falaya and Tchefuncte Rivers, was known for its mineral springs and expansive piney wooded areas that produced an amazing quality of ozone to the air. Residents of the coastal South who suffered from respiratory illnesses flocked to the area to breathe easier. The Southern was a respite for those in search of fresh air and quiet civility. The area was also a major attraction for residents of New Orleans, who often summered in Covington and the nearby towns of Mandeville, Abita Springs and Madisonville. Later, New Orleanians would purchase summer houses and camps on the then rural Northshore. During this time, the small towns flourished, and the Southern Hotel solidified its reputation as a residence of elegance and contemporary style. It continued to welcome guests until the late 1960’s, and later functioned as the St. Tammany Parish Court House, among other things.
“I had my first trial in this building,” recalls attorney and Lake Providence native Lisa Condrey Ward. “We moved nearby not long after, and this building (The Southern Hotel) looked so sad. It had such potential. I thought that Covington was such an awesome little town and really needed something enjoyable in this space.”
In 2011, the building became available and Condrey Ward, along with her husband Joseph Ward and brother Rickey Condrey and his wife Gayle, purchased the property. While maintaining her law practice in New Orleans, Condrey Ward began an extensive renovation of the interior. As with most structures of its age, it was in need of a great deal of attention. Undaunted, she addressed each aspect of the reconstruction with keen attention to detail. The mission style design of the hotel offered multifarious possibilities to the interior while maintaining the integrity of the exterior.
“We started with a great shell, but we were able to completely renovate the inside. We altered what needed to be changed, but were able to keep some of the original details, like the exterior windows on the second floor,” says Condrey Ward. The delicate etching on the windows is one of the many marvelous details that whispers of craftsmanship of bygone days. “The exterior was in great shape, but we had free reign on the interior. We really had the best of both worlds.”
Within the span of three years, she transformed the structure into a modernized version of its original grandeur with countless artful improvements. Great care was taken to preserve as many architectural elements as possible in the mission revival structure, including brick work and the original corridors. Condrey Ward felt strongly about creating an interesting, elegant atmosphere that contained elements that would continuously remind its guests of the unique history and character of Covington.
The Southern Hotel opened its doors to travelers once again on June 1, 2014, exactly 107 years from its initial grand opening. Guests enter through the large pier arches as sunlight pours into the strikingly sleek lobby. Refined and polished but comfortably casual, guests can relax in the several enclaves of seating designed by Condrey Ward. The neutral color palette highlights the large-scale canvases and sculptural pieces, many created by local artisans, that adorn the walls and add an artistic edginess throughout. The focal point of the open and airy lobby is a double-sided fire place, which guides guests to additional seating nooks, perfect for reading or enjoying a cocktail. Guests can gaze out to an open courtyard that contains lush foliage and an elegant fountain. Hidden among the greenery is a plunge pool and entrance to a fitness facility.
Steps away from the retractable glass doors that border the courtyard is the Cypress Bar, which offers a chic spot to imbibe in one of the many delicious cocktails created. It is also where guests like to greet the sun and enjoy delicate pastries and incredible coffee made from local coffee roasters. Although the bar alone is a thing of beauty, the artwork commissioned for the space is breathtaking and unforgettable. Murals depicting historic postcard scenes of Covington were hand-painted by world-renowned mural artist Grahame Menage. Each stunning scene, saturated with an otherworldly glow, is a captivating depiction of antiquated days when residents traveled by horse and buggy. In ways like this, Condrey Ward pays homage to the community she has grown to love deeply. The community has responded and enjoys the hotel bar, among other spaces, each day.
“This place has become Covington’s living room,” says Condrey Ward.
The Southern offers 40 handsome deluxe and king rooms upstairs and two luxurious suites, the Walker Percy and the Thomas Scully, located on the ground floor. The rooms are bright and fresh with architectural elements that echo the structure. Simply elegant and welcoming, the rooms provide all the comforts one hopes to enjoy. Ridiculously comfortable beds and sumptuous linens are incredibly tempting, but sunshine from the large windows, original to the building, fill the room with a vibrant energy. Bathrooms contain ample space with abundant natural light. Showers and lavatories are gleaming and generously sized, and fluffy linens are gently fragrant. These sleeping spaces feel more like a plush spa retreat rather than a hotel room. The upscale atmosphere at the Southern is relaxed and effortlessly stylish.
Other spaces within the hotel are equally as inviting. The Camellia Ballroom and connecting Camellia Sunroom are classically elegant spaces with stunningly beautiful lighting and furnishings. These areas, often used for weddings and formal events, provide memories for generations of Covington residents. Many locals stop in to reminisce about their sweet sixteen birthday parties or debutante balls that took place at the original hotel.
The Josie and Olympia meeting rooms are popular spaces for locals to hold business gatherings or social club meetings. The Josie Room is named for the steamboat that once traveled between Covington and New Orleans. Photographs of the steamer taken in the early 1900s are displayed on the walls. The Olympia Room references Covington’s Mardi Gras Krewe, which boasts a long and illustrious history. Memorabilia from the Krewe’s kings and queens of decades gone by are visible in specially made display cabinets. Those who visit the room marvel at the intricately beaded headdresses and stately scepters. Vintage sketches of carnival floats from over 100 years ago are framed on the walls for viewing, in addition to fascinating photographs of masked revelers celebrating the season. The Olympia Room is a favorite of many and a must see for anyone interested in Louisiana’s unique history and European influence.
“I knew that we wanted to provide a restaurant, and I wanted it to be special. I wanted to bring someone in who had that level of experience and expertise that we needed. Think about it, we follow chefs and dining trends like other cities follow sports teams,” says Condrey Ward. The clouds seemed to part when executive chef Jeffery Hansell walked in. A Gulf Coast native, Hansell had established himself as a presence in the culinary world early in his career. He has worked under Chef Tory McPhail at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans and served as sous chef at the Little Nell’s restaurant, Montagne, in Aspen, CO. While he was Executive Chef at Veranda on Highland in Birmingham, Hansell garnered a great deal of attention from his peers and was named one of the “Best Chefs in America” by American Chefs Magazine.
Hansell’s cooking style is eclectic and exciting, yet contains definite southern influences that diners will recognize. A frequenter of farmer’s markets, Hansell enjoys using fresh produce and seafood from local sources. His commitment to local, quality products leads him to change his menus frequently. His dishes reflect the seasons and availability of local seafood, fruits and vegetables, and herbs. His food is thoughtful, inventive, and many dishes are simply unforgettable.
Another nod to Covington’s unique history is contained in the restaurant’s name, which refers to the public lots that contained oxen during bygone days. The Ox Lot 9 experience begins as soon as a guest walks through the door. The restaurant, accessible from within the hotel or from the street, has an open, lively atmosphere that instantly lifts the spirits. From the hostess to the wait staff, each helpful member of the Ox Lot tribe appears relaxed, knowledgeable and genuinely interested in providing guests with a dining experience that will be pleasurable from beginning to end.
The reserved beauty of the restaurant can not go unnoticed. The design elements, such as the intricately tiled floor, comfortably rustic seating, expertly organized bar area and ambient lighting show that the proprietors of Ox Lot know how to make their guests comfortable. In the airy dining space, guests will find a source of entertainment by watching the flurry of white coats prepare dishes in the exposed chef’s kitchen.
The menu, which is updated at spontaneous intervals, is presented in sections, shared dishes for the table, small plates and large plates. Standout items include the Southern Cheese Plate, OL9 Charcuterie Board, Royal Red Ceviche and Oyster Patty, with poached oysters wrapped in delicate puffed pastry and finished with a Pernod sauce. Large plates are enough to share and hard to choose between. The Seafood Ribolitta presents scallops, Mahi Mahi, mussels, LA shrimp, Little Neck clams, marinated tomatoes, baby squash, limas, leeks and arugula served with fried bread. Lovers of duck will not be disappointed in the half duck dish, which offers a seared breast and leg confit accompanied by a heavenly carrot soufflé, roasted shallots, rainbow chard and satsuma gastrique. The Choucroute Garnie is another dish to marvel at. It contains roasted garlic sausage, hickory smoked ribs, crispy boudin, pork skins, house pickles and Abita Beer mustard.
If possible, leave room for dessert. Try a slice of a seasonal pie or the crème brûlée, in all its delicate, sugary perfection. Relive your childhood and order the “campfire” for a truly unique experience. A globe of hickory smoked ice cream with a soft chocolate core is contained in a layer of charred marshmallow resting on a buttery graham cracker crust. The combination is sensational and must be tried to be believed.
Sunday brunch is worth the wait. This menu offers savory and sweet dishes that will end the weekend on a high note. Delight in the flap jacks, with OL9 thick cut bacon, berry cane syrup and brandy whipped cream. Enjoy Hansell’s take on traditional Louisiana brunch dishes like grillades and grits or shrimp and stone ground and grits. For a meal to last all day, order the steak and eggs, which offers a petite filet, fingerling potatoes, grilled vegetables, farm egg and hollandaise sauce.
The Ox Lot 9 experience is the perfect accompaniment to a stay at this artful hotel. Diners will enjoy each tempting choice on the menu while enjoying fabulous cocktails from the talented mixologist behind the bar. Settle in to a table at Ox Lot 9, gaze at bustling downtown Covington through the large windows and open your mind to the culinary possibilities.
“There is so much to put your arms around in Covington,” says Condrey Ward. And so much of what the lovely little town has to offer is within the reach of the Southern Hotel.
Many an adventure has begun at Covington’s Trailhead, an entry point to the St. Tammany Trace. The Trace, as it is referred to by locals, is a 31 mile hike and bike trail that leads through the heart of Covington and the surrounding towns of Abita Springs, Mandeville, Lacombe and Slidell. The earth-friendly, paved trail began as a corridor of the Illinois Railroad, but now provides luscious green space and fresh air. Observe locals powering through their cardio or walking slowly to take in all the natural beauty. Hear live music on the bandstand or in the outdoor amphitheater at the Trailhead on weekends. The Trace is a perfect way to get a feel for the laid back culture of the Northshore.
The community has never endeavored to receive the attention of its neighbor to the north, New Orleans. In fact, residents are happy to remain one of south Louisiana’s best kept secrets, even though the area has so much to offer. The downtown area of Covington is welcoming, quaint and the perfect place to wander as each turn produces another interesting place. It would take days to fully explore downtown, which houses art galleries, interiors, antiques and jewelry shops dotted among coffee and tea houses. The area has functioned as something of an artist’s colony in years past, attracting painters, musicians and writers to quietly craft and contemplate. Downtown contains several outstanding galleries owned by local artists who are committed to maintaining the vibrant presence of arts and music in the area. Look for Tripolo, Brunner, and Savoye Originals, as well as the St. Tammany Arts Association, which features multiple exhibits and offers classes in various art-forms.
Hydrate at the English Tea Room, which offers an authentic tea time experience not often found in the South. Stop at the Covington Brewhouse, also located downtown, to learn how the micro brewery creates its finely crafted ales and lagers. Coffee shops like Coffee Rani offer a various delicious ways to get your caffeine fix. Build your strength at any of the local eateries, like Boule Bistro or Winos and Tacos, which provide an eclectic mix of tasty fare. Most of the local cafes shop at the impressive Covington Farmer’s Market, which is open to the public on Saturdays and Wednesdays.
Located 30 miles north of New Orleans, the town of Covington was founded over 200 years ago. Unlike many southern towns, Covington has managed to grow while respecting its areas of antiquity. Aside from the shops, eateries, and galleries, there are plenty of other diversions. One of the town’s unique characteristics is that it has many of the local businesses and the families that own them have make the area their home over the last century. For instance, The Farmer, Covington’s community newspaper, has been owned and published by the same family for over 150 years. H.J. Smith and Son’s General Store, which offers odds and ends, hardware items, and everything in between, is a town landmark. The establishment provides a glimpse into Covington’s history and even contains a museum, that reflects the history of the past. It contains oddities that range from a petrified rodent to a small stagecoach to a iron coffin from the days of the yellow fever epidemic. This local wonder has remained under the ownership of the Smith family since the day it opened its doors in 1876, and it is still the place that locals go to look for, well, just about anything.
It is no wonder that generations of families choose to keep their roots in Covington. It is an attractive town in many aspects, one of which is the relaxed yet refined culture of its residents. They take pride in maintaining the natural beauty and dignified aesthetic of their community. Lisa Condrey Ward is a prime example of such. She is a multifaceted powerhouse and pure force of nature. Not only does she balance a law practice, motherhood, and possess a brilliant talent for interior design, the entrepreneur is a whole lot of fun to be around. However, her passion lies in her earnest dedication to preserving the historical aspects of Covington that make it a unique community. Donna Duffy of Tripolo Gallery, located within walking distance of the Souther Hotel, gushes over Condrey Ward’s addition to downtown.
“The renovation is incredible. She went about it in such a smart way. It has done so much for this area,” she says.
It seems that the stunning renovation of the Southern Hotel may not be the last of her local endeavors. Condrey Ward’s niece, Cassie Condrey, who has recently relocated to the area and assists in the management of the Southern reveals what drives her talented aunt. “Lisa has a real commitment to this area. She truly finds it gratifying to give people a connection to the history of their community and to each other. That is exactly what she is doing at The Southern Hotel,” says Condrey.
After a lifetime in the shadow of New Orleans, Covington and the Southern Hotel are finally having their well deserved day in the sun.
To book your stay, visit the Southern Hotel’s website at www.southernhotel.com or call the reservation line at (844)866-1907. The hotel is located at 428 E. Boston St., Covington, LA. Make plans to dine at Ox Lot 9 and view their seasonal menus at www.oxlot9.com, or reach them at (985)400-5663.