Beginning this fall, the legendary Dew Drop Inn in Central City is set to host live music for the first time in more than half a century.
The city’s leading Black music venue for three mid-century decades, the club billed as “the swankiest spot in the South” holds a hallowed place in New Orleans cultural history and in rock ’n’ roll and rhythm-and-blues history.
Lead developer Curtis Doucette Jr. told Uptown Messenger they are planning a mid-October opening for the music club. No word yet on the opening act, but he said he wants to bring back as many of the original Dew Drop musicians as he can.
Of course, the Dew Drop community of musicians dates from the 1940s to 1970, so few remain on the scene. One, Deacon John Moore, is already providing developers with insight on the historic property. And Doucette said he also hopes to book Irma Thomas in the club where she got her start.
Sadly, the Dew Drop can no longer book Allen Toussaint, Earl King, James Booker, Charles Neville, Earl Palmer or most of the other New Orleans luminaries who regularly graced the stage, along with international stars such as Ray Charles, James Brown and Little Richard.
This history is what attracted Doucette to the building, he told a crowd gathered to tour the renovated Dew Drop on Wednesday (Aug. 23) at the Preservation Resource Center‘s Beams & Brews event.
Doucette has been bringing blighted buildings back to life for the past 20 years, but the Dew Drop project stands out, he said. “I have to say, this is the very first time that I’ve fallen in love with a building,” he said. “Before I fell in love the building itself, I fell in love with the history that was made in this building.”
The club played an integral role in forming the distinctive New Orleans R&B sound. And its owner famously defied the era’s Jim Crow laws, even going to jail for the crime of allowing Black and White patrons in drink and listen to music together.
The jumble of structures at 2836 LaSalle St. once held a barbershop, a restaurant, an entertainment venue and bar, a hotel and a thriving community of entertainers. When it reopens, it will hold all of the above except the barbershop, Doucette told the PRC guests.
The Dew Drop Inn began as a barbershop. Dew Drop founder and proprietor Frank Painia was a barber working across LaSalle Street in the 1930s, said Gabrielle Begue, a historic tax credit consultant who researched the property for a successful application to the National Register of Historic Places.
When the barbershop was slated for demolition to make way for the Magnolia housing project in the late 1930s, Painia saw a space across the street was available. He opened a barbershop in the two-story then-residential building.
“He soon opened, in addition to the barbershop, a little bar called the Dew Drop Inn,” Begue said. “That’s the predecessor to what ended up happening here.” Another addition, a 24-hour restaurant, was operated by Painia’s brother, Paul Painia.
With money from a side gig as a booking agent, Painia bought the building next door and then the building next to that one, a one-time double shotgun. Painia raised the former shotgun to create space beneath for a cabaret and adjoined the two structures, creating hotel rooms on the second floor.
The cabaret was so successful that Painia added another building (razed in the 1990s) in the backyard as a second stage, called the Groove Room. Other expansions added more hotel rooms in the 1950s and ’60s, when the Dew Drop Inn was listed in the Green Book, a guide for Black travelers during enforced segregation.
“So we’ve got a real hodgepodge that shows Frank’s ingenuity and desire to just keep expanding and making this incredible venue the best it could be,” Begue said.
Doucette described watching workers pull down layer upon layer from the building’s facade, starting with some late-1960s Permastone, then aluminum, then wood siding. Eventually the Mission-style parapet, fronting the raised shotgun double and its sister building, was unveiled. “We saw signs of a project that was real,” Doucette said.
Beams & Brews visitors toured the second-story hotel with 17 rooms, about half the number of rooms in Painia’s hotel, where Ray Charles once took up residency.
The new Dew Drop Inn is designed as a boutique hotel with a pool in the back and a few suites with balcony views, providing a private area to enjoy the bands onstage.
Construction materials are still piled in the building and finishes have yet to be applied, but the developers and contractors are confident opening is just around the corner.
“So the hodgepodge that Gabrielle described, in various stages of collapse, is what we’ve been propping back up and making better than ever,” said Kristian Sonnier with Ryan Gootee General Contractors. “It’s been a real kind of labor of love to breathe new life back into these historic buildings.”