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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Woodville Lofts Breathes New Life into Old Hotel

Story and Photos by Elodie Pritchartt

What do you do when you want to find a cozy little getaway where you can relax, someplace pet friendly so you don’t have to board the dog?

Buy a hotel, of course.

That’s what happened when New Orleanians Jim Derbes and his wife Jan Katz found themselves making an offer on the old hotel on the square in Woodville, Mississippi back in April of 2006, shortly after Hurricane Katrina.

It couldn’t have been a better match for Woodville, as the couple hopes to breathe new life not only into the building but into the town square, too. There are plans for condos, offices, an art gallery, a yoga studio, and a coffee shop with a restaurant and music venue.

“We didn’t leave New Orleans until a few days after the storm, and we ended up in Houston staying in someone’s home who we really didn’t know very well, and they wouldn’t let us bring the dog, understandably. So we boarded him,” said Jan.

Bosco, the couple’s Labrador retriever, had greeted us at the door — a quiet, gentle creature who seemed unimpressed with all the hoopla generated by his simple needs. We sat at a kitchen table in a room that was making do as a temporary home, our conversation punctuated with the sounds of construction in another part of the building.

Jan smiles. “After the storm, I said to Jim, ‘The one thing I really would love is some tiny little apartment somewhere where we can bring Bosco.’”

One night Jim was browsing real-estate listings on the computer and ran across the listing for the old hotel located on the square in the center of town. The mid-nineteenth century building had definitely seen better days. It had served as a hotel up through World War II with a lobby downstairs and fifteen hotel rooms upstairs.

Throughout the years, many businesses occupied the downstairs spaces—several grocery stores, a Ben Franklin, a drugstore, an antique store, a boutique, even the Greyhound bus station.
Writing in the The Journal of Wilkinson County History in 1992, Stella Pitts notes:

So the old building waits, its bricks crumbling, its walls leaning, its rooms filled only with dust and memories, hoping that someone will come along one day and save it from the destruction that must surely come otherwise.

Fortunately for the building and for Woodville, Jim and Jan came along. Although the amount of work required was a bit more than they’d bargained for, they are taking pains to adhere to standards set forth by Mississippi Archives & History.

The view of the courthouse from one of the lofts.
Jim, who has practiced law in New Orleans for forty-two years, has also been active in historic restoration and preservation for over twenty years. He has restored several buildings, two of which garnered awards, including an 1858 Greek Revival Mansion on Bayou Road called The Benachi House & Gardens, now a wedding venue.

Over the years he’s restored other buildings in New Orleans and went into the B&B business. In 1973 he served in the Louisiana Constitutional Convention. He has also served as president of the Louisiana Landmark Society and the Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents & Associates, Inc., one of the oldest preservation associations located in the French Quarter.

As an attorney he was the first director of the Release on Recognizance Program in Parish Prison.
The Woodville Square is surrounded by beautiful historic structures.

“I was an attorney with the poverty program, was in legal assistance when I got out of law school…”

“And he just finished digging a trench downstairs,” says Jan of what has become his current cause.

Jim’s interest in working with his hands began when he inherited a box of tools from a great uncle when he was a child.

“It was an old toolbox with ancient tools,” he said. “Things that people don’t really use anymore. They’re collectibles now.”

He started making things, learning as he went.

“I had no mentor,” he recalls. “My father was all thumbs. For some reason, I became interested in the improvement of buildings, and at this point I’ve probably worked on a couple of dozen in some way or another.”

Shards of the past found on site.
It shows. Walking through the old hotel building, Jim points out the new cabinetry, all built on site by local craftsmen. The plans for upstairs include seven condos, one of which they will keep, five that will be sold and one small efficiency apartment for guests of the other condo owners.
All of the condos will have balcony access with treetop views.

“And the light is so magical,” says Jan, pointing out the evening light as it played through the branches.
It makes sense that the light would play a big part in Jan’s love of the hotel.  She has an artist’s eye, and has been collecting since buying her first painting at the age of fourteen.

After completing her English degree at Sophie Newcomb, Jan taught filmmaking and English for several years, which eventually morphed into a photography gallery at her home, exhibiting New Orleans photographers like Clarence John Laughlin and Michael Smith.

In the early 1980s, she closed her gallery and launched an award-winning line of jewelry, known as Alexa-Jared, sold in 550 stores around the country. She stuck with jewelry for thirteen years.
“It was wonderful,” Jan recalls, “but I was just done."
Woodville's Museum on the Square

Then in the year 2000, Jan’s first husband—the late Judge Robert Katz —died very suddenly.

“All my friends told me I shouldn’t be in the studio, that I had to get out.”

She was hired at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art where over the years she has worked in a number of positions, including the one she presently holds as founder and Curator Emerita for the Center of Southern Craft & Design.

After running into Jim, an old friend and associate of Robert’s, at a Christmas party, the two found love and were married.

Part of Jan’s plan for the hotel is to exhibit some of her collection of self-taught outsider art and crafts in the common areas.

..While the upstairs is still very much in progress, the downstairs areas are nearly complete, boasting a combination of modern lines and design, colors, and light fixtures and accessories from IKEA while incorporating the old beadboard and flooring of the original building.

“Part of our job,” says Jan, “…is that we want to bring creativity and life to downtown Woodville.  The creativity is here, but at 5:30 everything stops. And the weekends are very, very quiet.”

The coffee shop, tentatively called The Town Square Café, will be owned and operated by Chef Jason Roland and his wife Caryn of Heirloom Cuisine, a hugely popular catering company with a kitchen in St. Francisville, and clients all over the region. The café will serve as a coffee shop during business hours and a restaurant at night.

Classically trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Jason specializes in multi-regional cuisine. For eight years he was Executive Banquet Chef of the Windsor Court Hotel. He also worked at Mr. B’s Bistro, Muriel’s in Jackson Square and Beau Chene Country Club, all in New Orleans. With an eclectic, organic menu, wine, and eventually a full bar, the plan is to offer a venue for dining and live music.

“This is not a new recipe,” says Jim. “This has worked in urban areas all over the country for the last thirty years. People have rediscovered downtown.”

The couple hopes that having shops, offices, cafes, galleries, exercise studios, and more in this historic town square, considered one of the most iconic in Mississippi, will breathe new life into evenings and weekends in Woodville. It sounds like a recipe for success. And Bosco can come, too.

Photography Event November 16, 2011

Wednesday, November 16, @ 7:00 PM  “Conversation with the Artists” at the Town Square Café. Photographers Dr. Lee England, of Natchez  and Peter Verbois of St. Francisville, discuss their work now showing in the Café’s exhibit “Meeting in the Middle.” 

Moderated by Elodie Pritchartt. Free and open to the public. Regular menu plus three-course $15 supper special available. From 5:00PM. Reservations suggested but not required.    

Photo by Lee England, New Orleans Waiters
Echoes Photographic Gallery
107 North Pearl Street
Natchez, Mississippi 3910