Farewell, Lady Bellemont
Former five-star Baton Rouge hotel demolished
By Mark RedmondPosted Jun 6, 2012
The Bellemont Hotel on Airline Highway weathered a great deal of evolution and change in Baton Rouge during the years between its 1946 opening and the gradual decommissioning of its various internal spaces in the middle of the 21st century’s first decade.
In that gloriously nostalgic era, in which Florida Boulevard was Baton Rouge’s main drag, the Bellemont was a place where magical things happened: Alabama’s Crimson Tide celebrated their narrow football victory over the Tigers by attempting to abscond from the hotel with 85 different items from the Bellemont’s linen collection, including towels, pillowcases, and bed sheets; Orson Welles lodged there during the filming of The Long Hot Summer in 1957, and his poolside photo was published in The Advocate; throughout the 1960s, “Catfish Bill” Carrigan hosted his radio broadcasts from behind a large window in the hotel so that guests and other curious individuals could watch him operate his turntables. Then, one magical morning in 1996, yours truly – age 9 – met the wonderful George Takei at my first and only Star Trek convention in the hotel’s Great Hall Convention Center.
The days when movie stars could be seen wandering the halls and musical celebrities could be found lounging around the Bellemont’s pool are long gone now, and, with the hotel’s recent demolition, those halcyon days are gone forever.
In the past 10 years, the hotel transformed from a vibrant five-star hotel into a deserted and desolate façade haunted by echoes of long-forgotten music and inhabited by transients and the homeless. As late as 2006, the hotel was still functional and operational, as evidenced by online reviews from various sources. These reviews vary wildly in their content. For every visitor who complained about Bellemont’s deteriorating structure and failed amenities, there was another review singing the hotel’s praises.
The problem? This praise was not directed at the Bellemont as it had become, but as it had once been. “I was in junior high when I stayed here,” one review said, “everything was beautiful and gorgeous. It’s so sad to see such a beautiful place just sit and rot.”
“I stayed here in the early 80s,” another reviewer wrote, before noting that the Bellemont had become dilapidated. “The hotel is in deplorable shape and probably past the point of being able to be renovated.”
What happened? How did a Baton Rouge landmark with so much history become so withered that tearing down the building was the best possible solution?
In short, time makes corpses of us all. There was nothing wrong with architect AC Lewis’ design, nothing that would indicate that the site’s decadence was restricted to a 60 year timeframe. Due to Baton Rouge’s expansion into suburban neighborhoods and its outward growth, commercial outlets and socialization spaces began to move to different parts of the city. The closing of the Bon Marche Mall in the early 1990s and the construction of the Mall of Louisiana in the latter half of the decade sounded the final death knells for Florida Boulevard and Airline Highway as cosmopolitan centers. Development in Baton Rouge instead began to center around the areas that were most easily accessible from I-10, and the area around the Bellemont turned into a veritable ghost town.
The hotel had already fallen into disrepair by 2005, when it was used as a “turnaround oasis” and headquarters for New Orleans firefighters and police following Hurricane Katrina, and 2006 saw the old girl’s final visitors. Even after the hotel proper was closed, the convention center remained open for a few years. Aerial photographs taken in 2007 show that there were still FEMA trailers in use on the property after the hotel became defunct. A 2008 photo essay for the blog “Abandoned Baton Rouge” showed how quickly the hotel had, like Tintern Abbey, been retaken by nature: collapsed columns revealed that they had never been load-bearing at all, trees growing inside of ground-level rooms burst forth from collapsed roofs, and squatters engaged in a constant battle with mold spores for dominance over the space.
Ultimately, Joseph Calloway bought the Bellemont, the Great Hall, and 18 acres of land in 2009 for $535,000, and told he told The Advocate in December that he had no idea what to do with the property. In May 2012 he made his decision, and now all that remains of the Bellemont is a pile of rubble.
“Farewell, Lady Bellemont,” one online reviewer closed by saying. “You were a beauty. Thank you for allowing me such great memories from childhood.” This sentiment is echoed on The Bellemont’s Facebook fan page, where devotees and former patrons share stories, memories, and photos of the hotel’s glory days.
All is not lost, however. A second, identical Bellemont Hotel, built by a friendly competitor of AC Lewis, still exists in Natchez, Mississippi. It is preserved perfectly, save for the name on the sign, which now announces to visitors that it is a Days Inn. It may not be the same, but those who would like to walk through the Bellemont lobby one last time can experience the next best thing.
For those of us who know that the experience just wouldn’t be the same, however, I too say, “Farewell, Lady Bellemont.”
Drop us a line to Editor@DigBatonRouge.com.