Like so many other historic New Orleans buildings, the Orpheum Theater sustained catastrophic damage during Hurricane Katrina and the floods that followed. As was the case with the nearby performing arts venue the Saenger Theatre, the wait for the Orpheum to reopen was a long one, and the iconic Beaux-Arts building sat vacant for ten years before finally reopening in August 2015.
Built in 1918 and designed by architect Gustave Albert Lansburgh, the theater opened its doors to the public 1921. Helmed by the Orpheum Theater and Realty Company, which operated a national chain of vaudeville playhouses at the time, the theater was later converted to a movie palace before becoming one of the city’s premier destinations for classical ensembles.
In 1979 the building was saved from almost certain demolition by the New Orleans City Council and in 1982 the structure was put on the list of the National Register of Historic Places, a saving grace for historic structures in the city.
When Hurricane Katrina struck in August of 2005, the theater wasn’t spared. The building suffered roof damage while floodwaters ravaged the bottom portion of the building, temporarily forcing its long-time tenant, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), to relocate to other venues.
The LPO later played a big part in the redevelopment of the iconic structure, which was purchased by developers and Tipitina’s Foundation founders Roland and Mary von Kurnatowski, as well as business partner Dr. Eric George, in February 2014 for $1.5 million. The building’s massive renovation was aided by Louisiana’s live performance infrastructure tax credits, and the building was refurbished at a total cost of $13 million.
On August 27, 2015—ten years to the day after the venue shuttered—the champagne bottles were popped and the theater officially celebrated its long-awaited homecoming. Though less flashy than the nearby Saenger, the Orpheum’s revival was a key element to completing New Orleans’s downtown theater district. The charismatic structure sits across from the Roosevelt Hotel, on Roosevelt Way, just steps from the bustle of Canal Street.
It’s at first hard to believe the building stands just four stories tall. The steep climb of the auditorium is unique to itself, and it is one of the country’s few remaining vertical hall theatres, which were fashioned to improve sight lines and amplify acoustics. The new state-of-the-art audio and lighting systems now help to boost the theatre’s original acoustic layout.
The building’s color scheme now mimics the original paint from 1921, with hand-restored ornate plasterwork and a terra cotta ceiling in the expanded marble-paved lobby. The sprawling 1,500-seat auditorium features new, larger seats and an adjustable auditorium floor that can be raised to level, allowing for standing-room concerts, seated dinners, and large parties. Finally, the building’s eight bathrooms, six permanent bars and elevator services offer patrons easier access to the theatre’s amenities than ever before.
Almost immediately after the grand reopening, the legendary theater again joined the top ranks in the league of performing arts venues in the city. It now hosts everything from rock shows and classical music performances to film festival screenings, galas, ballets, and more.