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Viewpoint: Plundering of original Ruth’s Chris Steak House reveals problems with partial-control historic districts

1100 N. Broad on July 10 (Photos courtesy of the Matulich family)

Editor’s note: The City Council hearing on 1100 N. Broad was delayed after this column was published. It is now scheduled for Aug. 4. 

By John L. Schackai III, guest columnist

Commercial development in historic neighborhoods — in a bullish real estate market — is causing a crisis for familiar landmarks of traditional New Orleans culture. 

A case in point is the aggressive renovation of the historic building at North Broad and Ursulines, the location of the former Chris Steaks and, later, also the original home of the now internationally franchised Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

Once the favored spot of politicos and powerbrokers, the steakhouse put this distinctive building on the map. It has a double-door corner entrance, a wraparound terracotta-tile awning, and a gable with decorative wooden overlapping “fish scale” siding inherited from the old French Opera House, as legend has it.

1100 N. Broad was Chris Steaks from 1953 to 1976 and Ruth’s Chris Steaks after 1976.

The new owner is developer Max Perret, dba Velosity Assets LLC. Perret bought the property in May 2021 for $300,000 from the succession of Nick Matulich Sr., son of the late original owner, Chris Matulich. 

Perret wants to use 1100 N. Broad as the new office space for his business, Slate Realty. And that’s not all. The building will be mixed use: The architect’s plans provide for two rental units on the second floor, one of which (at least) will be a short-term rental. 

For the past few months, the case of 1100 N. Broad has been cycling through a series of appeals before the Historic District Landmarks Commission and its advisory committee of architects, the Architecture Review Committee. The appellants are the grandson of restaurateur Chris Matulich, Nick Matulich Jr., and his wife, Nancy Matulich. The couple still owns the residential property next door and a commercial property across the street. 

This Thursday (July 21), the appeal advances to a hearing by the City Council.

The problem started when Perret and his architect, Loretta Harmon, filed a set of plans with the city to demolish over 25% of the historic materials on the primary façade of the building — including the distinctive terracotta-tile awning. A 25% primary façade demolition is a trigger point for oversight by the full HDLC.

On Jan. 5, HDLC commissioners unanimously denied Perret’s application. 

1100 N. Broad on May 22
The plot thickens

1100 N. Broad is in a section of the Tremé Historic District (the upper side of North Claiborne Avenue) where the HDLC’s jurisdiction is just “partial control.” In the city’s partial-control historic districts, the HDLC’s primary job is to review demolitions.

The developer modified his design and managed to avoid further oversight by HDLC commissioners by recalculating the demolition percentages on a revised drawing set so that they covered less than 25% of the primary façade on the Ursulines Street side of the building. 

It was HDLC staff — the commission’s support staff of preservationists, historians and plans examiners — who approved the new percentages on Jan. 31. Staff issued a Certificate of Review on April 22, and the owner started demolition with only this approval — and without the required building permit from the city. 

Nick and Nancy Matulich filed an appeal of the Certificate of Review. It was denied by the ARC at a hearing of May 17. On the next day, however, Safety and Permits issued a stop-work order at the request of HDLC Executive Director Bryan Block.

A yellow stop-work order notice was posted at the building site and then reposted on May 23. Max Perret was fined $8,280 for the building permit violation. 

1100 N. Broad in November 2019 (Assessor’s Office photo)
The heart of the matter

The Matulichs appealed the ARC decision to the full HDLC Commission, which heard their arguments on June 1. The commission voted 8–2 to uphold ARC’s support of the actions of HDLC staff. Now the appeal will go to the City Council on Thursday.

The following is a list of the core issues. The first three points speak to general principles; the last two are specific to the problem of 1100 N. Broad. 

HDLC staff has the jurisdiction to deny any aspect of the application per the HDLC’s six partial-control demolition criteria — six clear reasons, including consideration of “the condition of the building or structure.” In other words, “If it ain’t broke, don’t tear it down.” This includes any part of the demolition below the usual thresholds for full HDLC oversight.

HDLC staff denies it has jurisdiction over removal of weatherboards; yet removal of weatherboards and fish scales requires a permit for commercial and multi-family dwellings according to the International Building Code, which HDLC staff also denied upon appeal to the HDLC (June 1). Staff members may have confused the leniency of the residential code with the stricter commercial building requirement. Since the building codes are enacted by the state Legislature, the city has no authority to limit or ignore a requirement. 

Also, as a practical matter — no historic material should ever be removed from any historic building, residential or commercial, unless it is defective, or unless an addition, such as a camelback conversion, requires the removal of walls or roof.

In the case of 1100 N. Broad, for example, HDLC staff could have rejected the request based on the building’s condition. It had been maintained pristinely by the Matulich family. There is absolutely no reason to replace the terracotta tiles, the weatherboards or the antique fish scales

The most important architectural element on the primary façade of 1100 N. Broad is its terracotta awning — but the HDLC staff allows removal because it erroneously claims the awning is a roof.

An awning is specifically defined in both the zoning code and the building code as an “architectural projection” over windows and doors, whereas “a roof . . . is constructed on top of the exterior walls . . . for the purpose of enclosing the story below.” This is important because the HDLC’s partial-control demolition criteria allow up to 50% of the roof to be demolished; and if an awning is a roof, the misinterpretations of HDLC guidelines appear to allow for its total removal. 

Finally, the calculation of percentages of the primary façade that were approved by HDLC staff is inaccurate. Since the weatherboards, fish scales and awning must be included in the calculation, the total demolition amount would be approximately 94% of the primary façade on Ursulines.

In their overzealous removal of historic fabric, developers are ignoring the cultural imperative to preserve New Orleans architecture.

The implications for historic New Orleans neighborhoods are profound. Without the strict interpretation and implementation of demolition criteria — strictly limiting the removal of sound historic material from contributing- and significant-rated buildings — the partial-control historic districts of New Orleans could be transformed within a generation. 

So much of the original fabric could be destroyed in the current real estate Gold Rush that historic buildings may be stripped bare of their major architectural features — and to such an extent that those New Orleans districts without design controls could lose their National Register designation

Next steps

In the ongoing debate about the decline of historic fabric in New Orleans, politicians and city officials inevitably reassure concerned citizens that partial-control historic districts can be converted into full-control districts. But this is a protracted process involving extensive public participation and consensus-building.

And as I have argued from the 1100 N. Broad Street case, much can be accomplished and preserved by the strict observance of partial controls already in place. Yet full-control districting also offers control over the design of new and historic buildings, not just demolition review — and is therefore the better choice. So what’s to be done? I suggest the following:

  • Considering the seriousness of the problem — the rapid destruction of historic fabric and potential for loss of credentials with the National Register — the city should begin holding public meetings across the partial-control districts to discuss the adoption of full control.
  • In the meantime, the City Council can help uphold the integrity of established ordinances and confirm to the HDLC that its staff has the right to refuse demolitions of any degree in the partial-control districts by a precise reading of the guidelines and the Building Code. 
  • In the case of the Matulich family’s appeal for 1100 N. Broad, this means that the terracotta-tile awning must be restored — and the original weatherboards and fish scales must be preserved from demolition. 

Laws have been instituted for a reason. It’s the city’s job to create and enforce them; but it’s up to all of us — the city, developers and citizens — to follow them.

Guest columnist John L. Schackai III was the architect for the first major historic conversions in the Warehouse District, the Federal Fibre Mills and Woodward Wight buildings, and for the award-winning historic conversion of the Orphanage. He served 12 years on the New Orleans Historic District Architectural Review Committee and six years as trustee for the Louisiana Landmarks Society. 

3 Replies to “Viewpoint: Plundering of original Ruth’s Chris Steak House reveals problems with partial-control historic districts

  1. Very well written piece. In most articles, I have questions about several important issues. Everything was very well explained, with great detail. Bravo.

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