Camellia Grill applies for landmark status
Published: Friday, September 20, 2013
Updated: Friday, September 20, 2013 18:09
In 1896, the building located at 626 South Carrollton Avenue housed nothing but a small store — a store that would later be replaced by The Camellia Grill, a recent historic landmark applicant.
On Aug. 15, Hicham Khodr, the owner of Camellia Grill, sent a request for the nomination of his restaurant to the Historic District Landmark Committee.
“It’s a well-known fact that without landmarking, the vast majority of the historic buildings in the city would be gone by now, including those in the French Quarter,” John Stubbs, the director of preservation studies at Tulane University, said.
This nomination comes at a pressing time due to the recent legal battles between Khodr and former Camellia Grill owner, Michael Schwartz.
According to Justin Nystrom, assistant professor of history at Loyola, over the past couple of years, Khodr and Schwartz have been in and out of court over some licensing disagreements regarding the Camellia Grill brand. Schwartz claims that Khodr violated their licensing agreement by changing the restaurant’s logo.
In May 2012, a local judge ruled in Schwartz’s favor and demanded that Khodr rename and change everything about the restaurant that remotely resembled Camellia Grill. Khodr has appealed the decision to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
This recent nomination was a clever way for Khodr to regain some control over the restaurant’s image — something he would have had to change entirely according to the May 2012 ruling.
“I think Khodr is being very savvy in pursuing this, because I think everyone would agree that we equate that building with Camellia Grill,” Nystrom said.
According to the Historic District Landmark Committee, there has to be committee approval before any changes are made to the façade of registered historic landmarks. Therefore, if Camellia Grill is granted landmark status, Schwartz won’t be able to force Khodr to change the building.
Nystrom said that business owners often times shy away from historic landmark committees, because if their building is deemed a landmark, they may have difficulty re-selling the property since it cannot be reconstructed.
“It’s actually really unusual for somebody that’s running a business to want their business to become a historic landmark,” Nystrom said. “Khodr is going nuclear on Schwartz in doing so.”
Officially opened on Dec. 21, 1946, Camellia Grill has been a fixture among locals and tourists alike. However, the building it’s housed in is actually much older.
“Neither Michael Schwartz nor his predecessors designed that building, and I doubt the building was designed to somehow represent a diner,” Nystrom said. “It doesn’t even look like a diner. It’s a diner that was put in a building that was already there.”
According to city layout documents at the New Orleans Public Library, the building can be found all the way back in 1896; that’s three years after electric streetcars began operating in New Orleans and back when South Carrollton Avenue was still an unpaved road.
Stubbs believes that a rich history like this is what ultimately merits landmark status.
“Our historic buildings, along with other things, like food and music, are the international brands of our city,” Stubbs said.
Some New Orleans locals are all too familiar with the absence of Camellia Grill. After Hurricane Katrina, the restaurant remained vacant and desolate for two years until Khodr reopened the establishment in 2007.
“If Camellia Grill was ever changed in any way, it would be truly heartbreaking,” Liz Nolan, a senior marketing major at Loyola, said. “I’m sure there would be some angry locals, too.”
Stubbs said that the nomination is some very good news amid the court battles between Khodr and Schwartz. He hopes that Camellia Grill will achieve landmark status to attract even more tourists to the city.
“What’s interesting is that it’s not just about locals. People from all around the country who have only been to Camellia once want to add it to their list of to-do things when they’re back here,” Stubbs said. “I live not too far from there, and I see them coming up and down St. Charles all the time. They go up for breakfast and sometimes are right back for lunch.”
Nia Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org