Our “Meet the Neighbors” series gives you a closer look at the people and businesses that make us proud to call downtown New Orleans home.
The CBD’s historic Swoop-Duggins House, built around or before 1830, has many stories to tell. Its current storyteller is Gregory Gremillion, owner of both the building and CellarDoor, an “arts-themed craft cocktail lounge and small plates restaurant” located on the first floor of the house. Greg talked to us about the building’s history and current tenants, his inspiration for CellarDoor, and why he’s excited about the future for his corner of downtown New Orleans.
Also: Cool event alert! If you’re looking to have a classy Halloween celebration, check out CellarDoor on October 31st. A $15 advance ticket gets you a burlesque show, a costume contest, and a complimentary absinthe tasting.
Tell us a bit about the history of the space.
The history of the building is somewhat of a mystery – it goes back a long, long ways. It might be the oldest building in the CBD! The carriage house was built before the main house, around 1825, 1830. The main house was built around 1850 and has been so many different things.
Originally it was just a big mansion, and then a writer by the name of Christopher Blake – he was from New Orleans, one of Gertrude Stein’s last protégés – he owned a restaurant here. I found one of their old menus in the Tulane archives – cocktails were 50 cents, that’s how long ago it was. He had a lot of artist friends that would come into the restaurant, and they had an old Victorian bathtub that they would fill up with Bloody Marys. You would pay your money at the door and dunk in the bathtub. Good idea!
It was a brothel for a very long time. And before 2005, it was two different café/bar spots. One of the places was called The Velvet Room, the other was called the Sporting House. I’m in the process of employing a historian to do an official history of the building – it’s passed through so many hands and I’m sure there are so many stories, but it’s still a bit of a mystery. The design and architecture is very unique – we were the first ones to really gut the place to the studs and try to bring it back to its original state. Our concept is to let the building speak for itself, and showcase the architecture and bones of the place.
Why did you choose this neighborhood?
It was more to do with how special I thought the building was, but it had a bit to do with the neighborhood, too. I bought it in 2011, before most people really knew what was going on. Rouses hadn’t opened, the Hyatt hadn’t reopened, Walk-On’s and Happy’s weren’t open. I had read a few articles about the South Market District, and I talked to a few of my friends who knew what was going on. That gave me the faith to pull the trigger early. But it also took me three years to develop it from the top-down. You know, downtown New Orleans is really taking off. We’re a whole different city, it’s a whole different ballgame right now.
I love the fact that we’re amongst all this modern development. That we’re this classic, historic New Orleans building, but we’re showcasing contemporary art from London, we have a nice craft cocktail menu, our food is contemporary, international cuisine. It’s marrying classic New Orleans with a modern, minimal aesthetic. I just don’t think you see that in the city very much.
What’s been a memorable moment for you since opening?
I think more than anything just the amazing response that we’ve had from the neighborhood. That’s really what it is. We’re becoming somewhat of a destination place – you gain a bit of earned PR in an article here and there, you get people from Uptown, the Marigny, the Bywater – they come in to check out the new spots. But we’ve also got our regulars already. That’s great to think we have regulars when we’ve only been open for a few months.
On opening night, we had no idea what to expect. We had yet to drop a dime on marketing or advertising, but here were people turning themselves away at the door because we were so slammed on opening night! I think that night acted as a catalyst for us. But yeah, having this idea in your head for a decade and seeing it come to fruition, it’s a pretty amazing thing.
There’s an interesting mix of tenants in this building. Can you explain the makeup?
Well people typically develop buildings from the bottom-up, and I just kind of did it backwards. I started developing it from the top-down, just because when I got in here I didn’t have the financing yet for a traditional type of development, so I just started doing it myself. I built out the second and third floor – there was an apartment up there that was really outdated, and then I got down to the second floor and ripped out the floors.
I was very fortunate to be introduced to some great young professionals and entrepreneurs who are now tenants on the second floor. It’s a really cool workspace now. I think that’s the story more than anything. It’s not just CellarDoor, we’ve got a bigger picture thing going on here.
Evacuteer, which is a nonprofit in charge of evacuations for the City of New Orleans in the event of a hurricane or any kind of disaster, they’re upstairs. Robert Fogarty, who happens to be one of [Evacuteer’s] board members, also has his own nonprofit called Dear World – you’ve probably seen his photographs. His studio is upstairs and he goes around the world to photograph people in conflict zones with messages written on their arms. We’ve also got great filmmakers like Ben Reece, who’s the Principal of Deltree, and Brandon Baudier with implictedSTUDIOS.
So from the top-down, I kind of built in this infrastructure of young professionals that then helped me out. They became advocates for the place and started spreading the word. Once we opened, we had this sort of built-in, target market already in place – I know those guys really helped us get started.
What has inspired you the most as you developed CellarDoor’s concept?
I would have to say my experience completing my MA and living in London for a few years. Ninety percent of the artwork in here comes from a gallery I partnered with in London. More than anything, I like to think it gave me an international perspective. I think New Orleans is in love with itself, and that’s great because I’m in love with it too, but I do think there’s room to be progressive. I just wanted to try and do something a little different.
How do you see the neighborhood evolving?
Well, we have about 30% less parking lots right now! Which I’m all for – parking is something that every major city has a problem with, and I think if the development here is approached smartly we’ll have spaces to park.
I was coming back from a meeting earlier, driving up O’Keefe, and for the first time it’s just … I mean, the buildings came up so fast. A year ago, you would come down and it was just a wasteland. Now I feel like I’m coming down a major avenue in a major city. I’m excited about this area of New Orleans. I think it’s going to be a very modern, progressive piece of the city. I think there’s a way that you can protect your cultural integrity without being so ridiculous as to not let progress happen. I think we’ve been scared to move forward, and I’m glad that this is the area that it’s happening in. I think it’s great.