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HDLC to consider original site of Ruth’s Chris Steak House for landmark status

1100 N. Broad on May 22, after the clay tiles were removed (Courtesy of the Matulich family)

The Historic District Landmarks Commission will decide Wednesday whether to approve the nomination of the building that contained the former Chris Steak House and the first Ruth’s Chris Steak House for landmark status.

It was nominated by Nicholas Matulich Jr., the grandson of Chris Matulich, the original Chris of Chris Steak House. The building, known as the site of much political deal-making during its steakhouse days, more recently spurred a historic preservation battle in City Hall over a plan to remove the red tile from the building’s awning.

Chris Matulich bought the turn-of-the-century building at North Broad and Ursuline streets in 1930, according to the HDLC staff report. It had served as a radio shop with a soda fountain and lunch counter until its owner died in 1927.

Matulich opened a series of restaurants at the spot. He also partnered with John Vojkovich in 1934 to open Crescent City Steakhouse across the street (that business remains in the Vojkovich family).

In 1953, Matulich opened a competing restaurant in the building at 1100 N. Broad: Chris Steak House. It became a gathering spot for local politicos under his watch. Matulich then famously sold the business to Ruth Fertel, a lab technician and mother of two, for $18,000 in 1965.

1100 N. Broad was Chris Steaks before it became Ruth’s Chris Steaks in 1976. (Courtesy of the Matulich family)

After Hurricane Betsy struck that year, Fertel had a freezer full of high-quality beef and no electricity. So she fed stranded residents and relief workers, endearing her and the restaurant to the community, the HDLC report states.

Fertel soon began building on the restaurant’s popularity. In 1969, she opened Chris II in Gretna, prompting a lawsuit by her Broad Street landlord over the use of his name.

A fire at 1100 North Broad prompted Fertel’s move down the street to Broad and Orleans Avenue in 1974. She changed the name of that restaurant to the tongue-twisting Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

She kept the Broad and Ursuline location, however, until 1983. By that time, she was franchising her formula and had nine other Ruth’s Chrises across Louisiana.

The Times-Picayune reported on the closing of what was then Ruth’s Chris Steak and Lobster House at 1100 N. Broad. A black wreath hung on the door, and the regulars at the bar wore black arm bands. The yellowed list on the wall of the first charge-account customers, the reporter noted, included Al Hirt, Sidney Besthoff, John Schwegmann and other familiar New Orleans names.

Former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu has been quoted as saying: “Everything I learned about politics (was) from years of dining at Ruth’s Chris. In New Orleans, Ruth’s Chris has become not only a place of business but also a way of life.”

1100 N. Broad in November 2019, with the red tile awning (Assessor’s Office photo)

Fertel — who has won numerous awards for her culinary and entrepreneurial skills — sold the business in 1999. By 2005, it was listed on the Nasdaq under RUTH. It now has more than 150 locations in 24 countries.

While Fertel moved on to build a steakhouse empire, Matulich kept the building. It passed to his son Nicholas Matulich Sr., who maintained it until he died in 2019. Then his estate sold it to Velocity Assets, an LLC operated by realtor Max Perret for $300,000.

Perret and his architect Loretta Harmon drew up plans to renovate the two-story building into short-term rentals and an office his business, Slate Realty, without preserving the entire façade.

Those plans involved removing the clay tiles from the wraparound awning, a move that angered local preservationists and the Matulich family.

Perret and Harmon revised the plans so that only 16.8% of the façade — the tile on the awning — would be significantly altered. The HDLC staff issued a Certificate of Review letting the renovation move forward, and the City Council upheld the approval on appeal.

1100 N. Broad on May 22 (Courtesy of the Matulich family)

Renovation activity on the building has since halted, however, and 1100 N. Broad was listed for sale.

If the HDLC approves the nomination on Wednesday, the building will be placed under the jurisdiction of the commission while the staff of the HDLC performs comprehensive research into the site.

A detailed report will be presented to the commission with a recommendation for or against the designation of the property based on the four criteria set forth in Chapter 84.-21. The commission will then vote on the designation of the building as a landmark.

Due to annual budget hearings taking place in the City Council Chamber, the Nov. 2 HDLC meetings have been relocated to the 21st floor Conference Room in Orleans Tower, 1340 Poydras St.

The New Orleans HDLC meeting, at which the 1100 N. Broad nomination will be heard, begins at 1:30 p.m.

These meetings will not be live-streamed or televised.  They will be audio recorded.

Written public comment on the nomination will be collected until Tuesday (Nov. 1) at 4 p.m. Send written public comments to esburke@nola.gov. Written comments will not be read aloud during the meeting.

Public comment may also be submitted in person, with a limit of two minutes per speaker.

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