Chances are if you have walked down any New Orleans French Quarter street in the last few years you have seen my friend, Ray Hostetter. He might have the phone to his ear or a tool of some kind in hand, but he always has a smile and a “Hey there” for passersby. Now that may have been the extent of our association too, except for one thing (ok, two) I love construction, reconstruction, building, renovating, decorating. Whatever name you put on it, the creative process is fascinating to me. Oh, and the second thing – I’m just nosy.
In my “ratting” around the Quarter, I had seen Ray at times working on a particularly beautiful place on the corner of Dauphine and Orleans. I could see the intensive work being done to the outside, but it was just killing me to know what they were doing to the inside. Come on, I know you know exactly what I’m talking about. I saw the nose smudges on the windows. (Oops, sorry. I guess those were mine.) Lo and behold, on this particular day a couple of years ago the door was wide open, so um, what to do, what to do? Exactly, I went in.
Ray grew up in the construction business and was working in California until a series of events changed life as he knew it. Work got scarce in big CA, Katrina hit New Orleans, a family member living in New Orleans said “Bring the wife and new baby over and work here”. After doing a couple of flood houses in mid city and a 20 unit apartment complex Ray was introduced to the owner of the Orleans Avenue project, who we will call Mr. C. It is interesting how one thing leads to another. Mr. C. had rented a Bourbon Street balcony one Mardi Gras from Ray’s relative years ago and they became friends.
While into the Orleans Avenue project, Mr. C. decided to acquire the property at 435 Bourbon and turn it from a t-shirt shop into a bar. (Incidentally, this was the same place that he had rented all those Mardi Gras’ ago.) The whole bottom floor had to be taken out for the new electrical so while Ray was digging trenches between floor joices he made a discovery, an 1850 bottle of “Dr. J. Hostetter Stomach Bitters”. This concoction of vitamins and herbs and 94% alcohol was sold to the Union army by train car from Pennsylvania during the first prohibition. Cool, huh? But it gets better. Did you notice that Dr. J and Ray share the same last name? After doing a little research Ray found he and Dr. J were actually related. That was when it all made sense for Ray, “I am in the right place doing what I am supposed to be doing.”
The Orleans Avenue project had discoveries of its’ own. The first came when removing walls, Ray came upon the initials A.H. (another relative??) carved in a board with the date 1901. Attached was a 1901 silver coin which today is worth $6,000.00. These old New Orleans French Quarter buildings are treasure troves and that is exactly what Ray thought when he uncovered the next surprise. Extensive work was being done on the previously lathe and plastered walls. Mr. C wanted the old brick walls exposed, cleaned and repointed. In the process it was noticed that there was a definite brick archway visible just above floor level in the downstairs bedroom.
At this point, you know a vision of Lafitte’s treasure was dancing in Ray’s head. The old wood plank floors were pulled out and what looked like a tunnel opening was uncovered several feet under the existing floor. Alas, the only thing inside was years upon years of mud and muck, no treasure. But could it have been a bootleggers’ tunnel from Orleans Avenue to St. Peter and Dauphine, where for years the Tunnel Bar sat on the corner? Research seems to lean more toward what was called a “cabinét”, something like a root cellar and not a tunnel at all. Rather than cover up this historic piece of architecture, lightning and special glass flooring was installed to show it off. It is breathtakingly beautiful, just like the rest of the New Orleans three story structure and “slave quarters” included in this compound.
Restoring this exquisite showplace to the splendor it deserves was a demanding, detailed project three years in the making and is today a phenomenal piece of workmanship. A credit to a man who truly loves what he does. The mastery of his craft is so obvious in even the smallest detail. Bo might know sports, but Ray definitely knows renovation. You rock Ray!
By Sharon Denise Talbot