For this week’s Favorite Building Friday, we return to the Central Business District to learn about the Hennen Building, also known as the Maritime Building. This building is located at 800 Common Street. I am having a hard time shaking my sadness about losing the Grace Montgomery house, so I thought I would research another Thomas Sully design. For more information about that devastating loss, please be sure to check out https://nolatours.com/2525st-charles/.
The Hennen Building is also referred to as New Orleans 1st high-rise, and is noted in the Times-Democrat (September 1, 1895) as being the “tallest building ever erected on Louisiana soil, its observatory being 165 feet from the ground”. It would remain New Orleans’ tallest building until 1904 when it was surpassed by the Carondelet Building (now known as the Hampton Inn). It was financed by the Morris Building and Land Improvement Association, headed by John A. Morris, but named Hennen as that was his wife’s maiden name. Her father was Alfred Hennen, veteran of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 and famous New Orleans lawyer. John Morris, well known as the “lottery king”, never lived to see the completion of the building as he passed away just months before its opening. (The Montgomery Grace house is also called the Morris Montgomery house because it was built for John A. Morris.)
As common to many structures in New Orleans, this building rests on cypress pilings, but in a radical departure from the long popular brick and timber construction, the Hennen building is supported by a steel frame. The first skyscraper in the United States to use a steel frame was Chicago’s Home Insurance Building built in 1885. Designed by William LeBaron Jenney, steel frame provided a strong structure while also scaling back on weight. It is estimated that the Home Insurance building was actually a third of the weight that it would have been had it been all masonry. We are getting lighter so we can get taller!
Another added bonus to switching to steel frame construction is it would allow for more windows – in a strictly masonry building, the exterior walls had to be stronger and thicker to carry the weight of the whole structure. According to the Chicago Tribune, “The building’s outermost iron columns were clad in masonry, but solely to fireproof them. The exterior now could be nothing more than a “curtain wall,” made almost exclusively of glass.” Lots of Natural light!
After the Home Insurance Building, new Chicagoan edifices such as the Reliance Building, Fisher Building and Marquette Building sprung up rapidly. This collection of early skyscrapers were referred to as the “Chicago School of Commercial Construction” or “Chicago School” for short and while they were not all exactly the same, they all had important similarities – steel frame as mentioned above, soaring height, and a new aesthetic. Many of these buildings appear to have abandoned adding decorative columns to the exterior, instead turning the whole building into a column- three separate, distinct parts reminiscent of the base, shaft and capital.
What is surprising to me is that Sully adapted this technology so quickly. According to the Daily Picayune (17 Dec 1893), “extensive travel which the designer of the building has accomplished has made him familiar with all the requirements of similar structures in the north. In New York and Chicago long study has familiarized him with the thousand and one details, in themselves trivial but in the aggregate of immeasurable importance that go to making an office building perfect. ” This leads me to wonder if he made these trips in the summer, “Oh well I guess I have to go to Chicago…for business. See you later – sweltering, hot, New Orleans.” It is known that Thomas Sully and his wife did in fact travel to Chicago to witness the World’s Fair, as this news was published in the Times Picayune’s Society Pages.
Technological advances did not end with steel frame construction. The opening day advertisement in the Times Democrat boasted “steam heaters, gas and electricity, mail chutes, barber shop and bathrooms” And even special restrooms for the ladies. The article goes on to state further that “it is replete with everything which serves to make its quarters desirable.” No expense was spared, and the building’s final cost was $300,000.
As mentioned above, one of the key aesthetic switches included a creating three separate levels to give the impression of a column. The Hennen building definitely follows this pattern: the bottom two floors were given a rustic look and pierced with arched windows, the next seven floors have a smoother texture and bay windows common in the Chicago School, and in the top floors are where one finds most of the decorative features of the building including reliefs and modillions giving it an almost busy appearance. As a column capital is more exuberant than the shaft that supports it, it is typically the top floors of these buildings contain the most decoration. Overall, the decorative features seem to suggest a heavy influence of the Beaux Arts Style which was becoming quite popular in the United States at the time. A blend of older decorative motifs (Greek Key Window surrounds most notably) and the addition of sculpted terra cotta ornaments (medallions, wreaths, pelicans) fit together to create an eye-catching edifice.
Initially a state of the art rooftop garden and restaurant were planned to cap off the building, but as early as April 1895, the garden was scrapped for a theater for plays. Observatory views of the city from our tallest building were offered for $0.15.
In 1922 an 11th story was added by the Commercial Trust and Savings Bank, at a cost of a million dollars. Emile Weil was the architect in charge of the renovation. Just five years later, the Maritime Building Corporation bought it. The Maritime Building Corporation only owned this building for 14 years out of its 124 year existence but for some reason that name stuck. It was added to the Historical Register in 1986. Just last month, the building was sold to Orange Lake Resorts, an Orlando based timeshare developer.
While this building may look like the standard turn of the century structure that one can find in many other towns throughout the United States, the Hennen Building is New Orleans’ first high rise- our first attempt to reach the stars. Thank you Thomas Sully for bringing this new tech to the South.
- “An Ideal Roof Garden To Be Placed on Top of the Hennen Building.” Times Picayune (New Orleans), June 20, 1894. Accessed April 19, 2019. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=AMNEWS&docref=image/v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX- 1228BA7CC3D988E0@2413000-1226829EC9351228@8- 125D8418E16E514C@An Ideal Roof Garden T o Be Placed on T op of the Hennen Building.
- Calder, Chad. “Maritime Building in New Orleans CBD Sold; Will Reopen as Timeshare Operation in 2020.” New Orleans Advocate, March 13, 2019. Accessed April 19, 2019. https://www.theadvocate.com/new_orleans/news/article_c46f415e-45d8-11e9-961f-0bee2b0386d6.html
- “Commercial Trust to Have New Home.” Times Picayune (New Orleans) April 20, 1919. Accessed April 19, 2019. https://infoweb.newsbank.com
- Kamin, Blair. “The Home Insurance Skyscraper.” Chicagotribune.com. December 18, 2007. Accessed April 19, 2019. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/politics/chi-chicagodays-homeinsurance-story-story.html.
- “The Hennen Building Now Approaching Completion.” Times Democrat (New Orleans), April 28, 1895. Accessed April 19, 2019. https://www.newspapers.com/image/138245820/?terms=Hennen Building Completion.
- “The Hennen Office Building Plans.” The Daily Picayune (New Orleans), December 17, 1893. Accessed April 19, 2019. Newspapers.com.
- “The Hennen Building.” The Times Democrat (New Orleans), September 1, 1895. Accessed April 19, 2019. Newspapers.com
- “THE MARQUETTE BUILDING.” The Marquette Building-MacArthur Foundation. Accessed April 19, 2019. https://marquette.macfound.org/slide/tripartite-facade.html.
- Wilson, Samuel, Bernard Lemann, Mary Louise Christovich, Roulhac Toledano, and Betsy Swanson. New Orleans Architecture: The American Sector. Vol. 2. 8 vols. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 1998.