The mayor, the press, many big shots, and all the tenants were on hand to celebrate the grand opening of the Blue Plate Artist Lofts, formerly the site of huge vats of eggs, oil, vinegar, salt, and sugar being whipped up into New Orleans’ favorite mayonnaise.
Tara Carter Hernandez, President of JCH Development, and Pres Kabacoff, CEO of HRI Properties, were co-developers of the building described as “streamline moderne,” designed by local architect August Perez Jr. in 1942. Everyone is settling in to the solar-paneled 72-unit, very green building where applications topped 1,000 just two months after opening.
Pres and his long-standing team (Tom Leonhard, Eddie Boettner, and many others) have been imagining and completing visionary buildings and neighborhood rehabs for more than 40 years. Kirsten Vasaalar, project manager of Blue Plate from the HRI side, said that when the Reily family moved its mayonnaise production from New Orleans to Knoxville after Hurricane Katrina, the building was so empty that one could see from one end of the first floor to the other, with all the equipment gone.
That gave the in-house HRI architectural team a clean start. They maximized the space by building an inner wall that formed a central atrium, which houses a Madeleine Faust sculpture near the ceiling, made of fiber optics and LED lighting and looking very celestial. A big ball with planetary spikes absorbs daylight and glows at night. In fact, the ball used to hang in the freezer of the Blue Plate test kitchen and the spikes were mayonnaise-tasting pipettes.
For Tara, always interested in historic renovation, from a community-minded family, concerned with the post-Katrina housing shortage, and convinced that artists were key to rejuvenation, Blue Plate fit the rebuilding bill perfectly.
“Artists make a neighborhood hip and cool, gentrified,” she said. “Then they can no longer afford to live there, the place that they created and poured their heart and souls into.”
Major steps were taken to insure that artists on the way up could live in the Blue Plate Artist Lofts, as well as those still making a typical (i.e. low) artist income.
“Best of both worlds is to have it mixed-income,” said Tara of the new apartment complex.
Via the Louisiana Historic Preservation Office, she was able to get the Blue Plate building listed on the National Historic Register and worked to have it included within the State Cultural District, giving artists who create artwork here the great advantage of being able to sell their artwork tax free (music excepted).
Her baseline question in renovating, she says, has always been, “What would I want if I lived here”?
So, for the music rehearsal room, she talked to someone with a recording studio: What did it take to be sound-proofed enough for a 2 a.m. rehearsal, connected to the Internet, and a space that was cool for musicians to hang out in?
Same for the gallery space. “We wanted it to be very multi-functional; if you wanted to just have a party and drop your ipod, or have a digital media presentation, I wanted it to be an opportunity for community and to link people up.
“I wanted to also have the traditional amenities like a fitness center and to create inspirational outdoor spaces.”
The cross-pollinating has begun, as more and more artists meet up to walk their dogs in the back garden (including a dog wash station), hang by the Madeleine Faust bubbling water sculpture, or have a drink on the rooftop with spectacular NOLA views.
Aesthetics rule here, guided by the motto, “Live, Create, Inspire.” Cool poetry benches designed by Barbara LeBlanc dot the hallways, along with vintage Blue Plate photos brushed onto aluminum.
Bicycle racks are pipe-bent into the letters B and P, artists hang their work outside their apartment doors, and the S-shaped stairwell bannisters read like a grand treble clef note.
On the night of the opening, “Voice,” who’s about to go on tour to Berlin, held an impromtu concert in her apartment, with everyone from little kids to oldsters sitting on the floor for her groovy, jazzy, hip hop.
It already feels like a community.
Some thingsYou Didn’t Know About Artist Tara Hernandez:
She’s a jock: She cycles long distances (68 miles for the Diabetes Ride).
She went to MIT: Who knew there was a Real Estate Center at the famous school for the very brainy? She was chosen as one of only 33 participants from applicants around the world to learn how to collaborate on projects like Blue Plate, standing in the shoes of the architect whose name would go on the building, the contractors, who had to worry about costs, and the developer, who like a movie producer controls all the moving parts keeping an eye on the big picture.