New Orleans is a quirky city full of quirky characters with lots of uniquely quirky hotels. But even but those standards, the International House Hotel stands out for its local character.
And that was true even before Banksy – arguably the world’s most famous living artist – checked in.
Let’s backtrack for a moment. Ivy League and London School of Economics educated New Orleans native – and art lover – Sean Cummings has been locally described as “the simple Buddhist real estate developer,” for his minimalist approach to reviving historic buildings without losing their character. Most of his work has been residential, creating loft apartments from industrial buildings in the Crescent City’s Central Business District and Warehouse District, but a high-profile exception was the International House Hotel.
The Beaux-Arts building it now occupies was the country’s very first world trade center, a testament to New Orleans’ long history as a vital global seaport. Even after I stayed there, it was hard to believe it has 117-rooms, since it feels like a mansion and after looking at it from outside and then standing in the lobby, I would have guessed 30-40. By any standards it was considered New Orleans’ first upscale boutique hotel when it opened in 1998, and it has remained extremely popular ever since. What really set it apart was an intense neighborhood feel and sense of place, and more than 20 years ago, that was not nearly as big a deal in the hospitality industry as it is today. To accomplish this, Cummings employed furniture makers, artisans, and vendors from the New Orleans and Louisiana arts communities to reflect the city in which it sits, then developed one of the top bars in a bar-crazed city, drawing locals.
But now the main attraction here is the work of an artist more than 4,500 miles removed from the Big Easy. And if you want to see it, you don’t need to rush, but you might not want to dally, as Cummings has received significant international offers from potential buyers.
Hailing from England’s Bristol, Banksy is an anonymous street artist, political activist, social commentator, provocateur and Academy Award nominated film director, and arguably the most famous living artist in the world. His main genre is graffiti-style wall murals, but Banksy made perhaps his biggest media splash when he built a concealed shredder into the frame of his stencil Balloon Girl, and as a prank, caused the artwork to essentially self-destruct immediately after being sold at auction in London for over a million pounds.
In August 2008 – the third anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe – Banksy visited New Orleans and did a series of seventeen of his iconic murals, mostly on abandoned buildings across the city. Just a decade later, despite his fame (and collectability), only three survived. The largest was on a warehouse co-owned by Cummings and his friend and business partner, Hill Harper, a Harvard trained lawyer turned actor who has been in numerous feature films and had major multi-year television roles on CSI: NY, Covert Affairs and The Good Doctor.
When they sold the warehouse, the duo decided to save and restore “Looters,” the stencil spray-painted scene that had been exposed to the elements for years. After cutting out the 10’x10′, 1600-pound section of exterior wall and transporting it to an indoor storage facility, it took restoration specialists five-years to remove more than seven layers of paint, glued posters and non-Banksy graffiti. This $50,000 exercise came to fruition last summer (2019) when the massive mural was put on display in the middle of the lobby of the International House, between the front desk, hotel bar and guest elevators. It is the largest Banksy work in the United States, and needless to say, if you walk in, you won’t miss it. It is there for everyone to see and experience, hotel guest or not.
Looters is a trompe l’oeil work depicting two men helping themselves to electronics during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Adjacent to the lobby is a museum-style room dedicated to the effort that celebrates both the artist and the restoration, detailing the experts, workers and techniques used to salvage and move it, set against a backdrop of Banksy quotes.
The International House sits just a block and half from the famed French Quarter in the blossoming Arts and Warehouse District (aka Warehouse Arts District), convenient to cultural and art attractions and pretty much everything else a tourist could want, but especially the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, the city’s Harrah’s casino, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the Contemporary Arts Center, dozens of galleries, many of New Orleans’ best restaurants, and my personal favorite, the stunning National World War II Museum. It’s a great location.
The International House is not a luxury hotel in the conventional pampering sense, with simple rooms, a minimalist lobby and small spa and fitness facilities. What it uniquely offers is a sense of being part of the fabric of the city, a home away from home approach that values a local singer songwriter performance series over white glove service. Besides the Banksy exhibit (and other collectible art throughout the property), the main attraction is Loa, the hotel’s intensely craft cocktail bar (think foraging), which has a strong local following (and per New Orleans standards, a killer Happy Hour), adding to the more-than-a-hotel sense of place feel. You can belly up to the bar and order a drink literally ten feet for the Banksy, and you should, as both the Times Picayune and Huffington Post ranked it one of the Top 10 Bars in New Orleans. More recently (late 2019), the hotel debuted an all new modern Greek/Mediterranean restaurant, Rockrose, which just this month, Eater.com named one of the “Hottest Restaurants in New Orleans.”
New Orleans is a great tourist town, and I never need much of a reason to visit, but I thank Cummings, Harper, Banksy and all the people who made this effort for giving me, if not a reason, at least an excuse.