Here now, Past Lives, in which Curbed contributor Chris Berger explores what some of the country's most interesting residential buildings used to be before they became livable homes. Care to suggest a building with a fascinating past life? Do drop us a line.
New Orleanians probably don't know what a Falstaff beer tastes like, but they know where it was once made. For 60 years, an iconic, 11-story Falstaff sign has topped the brewer's one-time home in the Mid-City area. Now, three decades after Falstaff shuttered its New Orleans operation, the former brewery has helped turn around its depleted surroundings in its new role as residences.
? In 1936, Falstaff Brewing Corporation purchased the brewery at the corner of Gravier and Dorgenois streets from the National Brewing Company for half a million dollars. After a series of slapdash additions in the 1940s, the brewery's contours resembled logs tossed on a pile. But it wasn't without its charms. A statue of King Gambrinus, aka the Beer King, stood above the main entrance and toasted all who entered. The seven-story brew factory was topped in 1952 by a 108-foot tall sign that read "Falstaff." A weather ball capped the three-sided sign and was lit according to the conditions: green for fair weather; red for cloudy or overcast; flashing red for rain; and flashing red and white if storms were on the way. Further, the blinking neon Falstaff letters lit up top to bottom if the temperature was dropping, vice versa if the temperature was climbing. At the sign's foot, a rooftop beer garden hosted parties.
? St. Louis-based Falstaff, named after a Shakespeare character, was once the third-largest American beer producer. The brewer also had ties to cultural icons: Hank Williams downed a few before his sudden death in 1953; Eric Clapton's band Cream recorded a radio ad for the company in 1967; and Beat writer Jack Kerouac was quite a fan. Poor business decisions in the 1960s and 70s ultimately led to the company's extinction. The last Falstaff bottle was capped in 2005.
? Falstaff's presence in New Orleans ended in 1978 shortly after a worker strike. In the swift closure, female employees reportedly were forced to leave their purses behind as they were escorted out by guards. The brewery sat largely vacant over the next 30 years amid a scuzzy part of town. The beaten up complex survived Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters in 2005, but the homes of many lower income Mid-City residents were not so lucky. In the recovery, financial incentives were offered to those who built new homes for the displaced. Developer David Miller grabbed the opportunity. He bought the 210,000-square-foot brewery for $1.1 million in 2006 and drafted HMS Architects to plan its conversion into the Falstaff Apartments.
? HMS dug out a central courtyard, necessary to bring light into the interiors, and added an elevator shaft. Windows were replaced in kind. The rotted Falstaff sign was reconstructed, and the letters and weather ball were relit for the first time in three decades. Today the rooftop beer garden is once again available for party rentals, and King Gambrinus stills toasts all who enter. The residences, which span in size from 550 to 1,100 square feet, cling to their past with exposed brick walls and concrete supports. The $29 million rehabilitation received $12 million in low income housing tax credits; $6 million in historic tax credits; and $1 million in federal affording housing funds. Half the 147 units are rented to residents who make 60 percent or less of the area's median income. The subsidized homes cost from $632 to $860 a month, and the market-rate apartments range from $830 to $1,085.
? The Falstaff Apartments opened in 2008 with 10,000 square feet of commercial space. The development's next phase—the 20-unit Dorgenois Lofts with 4,000 square feet of commercial space—followed in 2011. Meanwhile, hundreds of new apartment units have popped up in Mid-City, and an increasing number of single-family homes have been restored. Two new hospitals under construction along Tulane Avenue are expected to lead to more growth after they open in a few years. But, despite all the changes, the Falstaff Apartments ensure that a landmark will contribute to Mid-City's future, all while providing homes to those who may otherwise be squeezed out.