Bringing down the Bellemont - WAFB 9 News Baton Rouge, Louisiana News, Weather, Sports

Bringing down the Bellemont

The PanAmerican room at the Bellemont The PanAmerican room at the Bellemont

Along U.S. Highway 190 on Baton Rouge's north side, among the rundown grocery stores and pawn shops, sits a relic of the neighborhood's once-glorious past. The Bellemont Motor Lodge. "Luxury accommodations for discriminating guests," is how its owners described it back in the day.

And The Bellemont was, if nothing else, luxurious. Crystal chandeliers, marble floors, and antique and French provincial furniture set the standard in affluence. In the 1950's through the 1970's, The Bellemont was the first and last name in Elegance. Today, the old hotel is falling in on itself, and it sets a new standard – one for austerity and decay.

Earlier this month, Bare Knuckles Field Services began tearing down the seven-building complex for The Bellemont's current owners. Today, the complex looks like the set of a tornado movie -- bricks and rubble piled two stories high. It's hot, sweaty work, and to hear Bare Knuckles boss Patrick Jeansonne tell it, "You either got to love it, or you got to hate it."

Love and hate might be the best way to describe how folks who remember The Bellemont feel about what is happening to her.

Even though Jeansonne is bringing down The Bellemont, it's a job he's regretting. He has his own memories of the hotel. "I stayed here twice," he says. The most memorable was Valentine's Day 1989. He stocked a room with stuffed animals, balloons, can champagne then carried his then-wife across the threshold of a first-floor room.

Twenty-three years later, that building was the first one he knocked down. "A lot of people say, ‘That's where you and your ex-wife stayed, and that's the first building you took down?'" he chuckles. "Well see it how you may."

On the other side of the property, Becky Ford is racing to save a little bit of history. Hers is also a hot, sweaty task, crawling over rock piles bigger than her house, grilling Bare Knuckle workers about what's left. "The pool is there, but the building is gone," one tells her of The Bellemont's signature suite, The Pan American Room.

"No! Really!" Ford had hoped to scavenge the room of souvenirs – a scrap of paper, an old logo – anything that tells the Bellemont's story. With that news, she settles for picking her way through the main building.

The glass in the front doors is busted out, probably by the homeless or drug dealers Jensonne say he and his crew have run off nearly every day since they arrived on site. Dust and mud cover the green Italian marble floors in the main entry and water rains from a hole in the roof. The front desk sits much as it did the day The Bellemont closed. A roster on the floor shows that "Miss A" left at one. It does not say if she returned.

Built in 1946, by A.C. Lewis II, The Bellemont quickly became the place to see and be seen. It's friendly staff and lush rooms attracted attention from around the country. "They were known, over time, as a place where Carey Grant stayed, Jane Fonda stayed." says Ford. She refuses to call herself an expert on the old hotel. Since hearing it was coming down, she's read everything she can get her hands on. "If you were filming a movie and came through Baton Rouge, and needed a place to stay, The Bellemont was where you went.

Dan Williams remembers shaking John Wayne's hand in the hall while working one day. "His hand wrapped all the way around mine."

Williams worked in the hotel's maintenance department from 1969 to 1982. He also remembers the splendor of The Bellemont's lounge, Magnolia Room, in its heyday. Real leather chairs, a padded bar, glass chandelier, and a party every night that boasted the best in local and national entertainment.

Today, the chandelier lays broken on the floor amid construction debris and parts of the ceiling. "Looks just like garbage," Williams says. "It was a beautiful place and they let it run down like this.

Ford wanders into The Magnolia Room with a copy of an old newspaper article. "That's the bar from the picture!" The picture in her hand shows a bar that spans one end of the room. Above the bar, a hand-painted mural of jazz musicians spans the back wall. The room is filled with neatly arranged tables and chairs.

The bar still stands, the mural replaced with a sign for the bar's 1980's name, Brella's, and a Jose Cuervo poster announcing drink specials. Ford cannot believe it. "It's like they had this monster party. Kegger! And everybody just left, and nobody cleaned up. To see what was left in there to just go to waste to just be knocked down by bulldozers is heartbreaking."

On the far end of the property, Jeansonne and his workers empty The Great Hall. It's the one part of the hotel he thought he would be able to save, but time and vandals have taken their toll here, too. There is no electricity, no water, in the building. That's because vandals have ripped every inch of copper right through the walls. They've also stripped every door of its brass handles and the brass fittings in the restrooms.

Jeansonne estimates it would cost nearly $4 million to bring the building up to code. That price was too steep for The Bellemont's owners, so Jeansonne is selling everything inside, from the grand columns and winding staircases, to the chairs, tables, and even the kitchen sink.

"The Great Hall was . . . amazing," remembers Ford. She attended a history conference there when she was in high school in the late 1980's.

The Great Hall was added to The Bellemont in 1984. It played host to high society parties, class reunions, and weddings offering some of the finest food in Baton Rouge. "Once the Great Hall was built," Ford says, "it was sort of an admission that the rest of the hotel was not really relevant anymore. It was more of a meeting center, not so much a place to stay."

Behind The Great Hall was an amenity that attracted even the working folks from Baton Rouge who wanted to live like a king – the pool. In its day, palm trees shaded the deck around the pool. A bar sat just off the shallow end serving icy drinks to sunbathing guests. Poolside rooms rented for $15 to $20 per night.

It's sad says Ford, "Movie stars stayed here. They probably sat right here. They probably enjoyed a sunny day just like this. Not anymore."

What little water remaining in the pool is murky green. Weeds have overtaken the deck. The windows on the expensive, poolside rooms are broken, and many of the doors have been knocked off their hinges. Inside, curtains, bedding and old clothes are thrown in piles like someone was recently living there. "I don't want to be here anymore. It's makes me sad."

But Ford pushes on, over the last pile of brick and debris. She spots the rusted iron frame of an awning, and her eyes light up. The green tarp that once covered the frame hangs limp from one corner. Ford grabs a stick and tries to lift the tarp. She smiles as she reads the script scrawled across it, The Pan American Room.

"This is where the stars stayed when they came to The Bellemont," she explains as she pushes through the front door. The suite consisted of a kitchen, dining room, a couple of bedrooms, and a huge sitting room that overlooked its own private swimming pool. In 1957, it rented for $150 per night.

"It had velvet and just thick carpeting and it was very very modern," Ford explains. "It had Italian travertine tiled marble outside in the patio by the private pool."

Today, weeds and vines have overtaken the marble mosaic by the pool, and there's something growing in the pool.

Probably the saddest for people who remember The Bellemont is that the razing of its walls is a concrete sign of the end of that era. An era when Baton Rouge's north side was the place to be. And many who remember, like Dan Williams, are stopping by to pay their respects. "It hurts me to see it go down. I made some money here. They treated me nice."

Or the original desk clerk who opened The Bellemont 65 years ago, that Jeansonne met the day he started demolition. "She's 93, or maybe 92. Shed a tear and wanted a brick for memories. We gave her two."

The hotel should be gone by the end of June. The Bellemont's owners hope to build something on the spot where this ode to extravagance once stood. But to those who worked and played there, nothing will equal The Bellemont Motor Lodge of the 1960's and 1970's.

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