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Renovating a Landmark

New Orleans’ M.S. Rau gets a makeover

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Photography courtesy of Truitt | Brand Design

M.S. RAU HAS BEEN a landmark in the French Quarter of New Orleans for more than 100 years. What began as a humble antique furniture store has evolved to become the largest fine art, jewelry and antiques gallery in North America.

With art by Monet, Picasso and Van Gogh, antiques previously owned by Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon, and jewelry previously owned princesses and Popes, shopping at M.S. Rau is like walking through a world-class museum where the exhibits are available for purchase.

In 2016, third-generation M.S. Rau owner Bill Rau purchased two additional buildings adjacent to the existing gallery of four connected buildings, enabling them to nearly double the size of their gallery to over 40,000 square feet.

The new buildings were more than 200 years old and had fallen into a state of disrepair, with portions of the buildings in such poor condition that one could fall through the floor if they weren’t careful where they walked.

M.S. Rau partnered with our firm, Truitt | Brand Design, lead designers on the project, and Architects Office of Jonathan Tate, as well as Impetus (previously Palmisano Construction) to renovate the new buildings, combining them and joining them to the existing galleries.

The new buildings, along with the original gallery space, were stripped down to bare brick walls and dirt floors to be updated into modern, state-of-the-art gallery spaces. Design, architectural and structural plans had to be updated frequently as it was discovered throughout the construction process that very few of the 200-year-old walls were plumb, straight or parallel.

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Joining the new buildings with the existing gallery spaces required moving some of the back of house spaces such as shipping/receiving and photography into spaces that were, at the time, serving as gallery space. But not just any gallery space – this part of the gallery was only accessible through a “secret door” that gallery staff would escort special customers through. This meant losing the “secret door” that so many of the gallery’s higher-end clients had come to enjoy. It was important to Rau to find another way to make customers feel special.

The solution?  A secured, oval-shaped glass room in the center of the new jewelry gallery that is only accessible by a small number of staff with electronic key cards.  The display cases inside this glass room are visible from outside the room, but only from somewhat of a distance, piquing customers’ curiosity.

Photography courtesy of Truitt | Brand Design:

Customers are invited into the room, lovingly referred to by staff as “The Crystal Palace,” where they can relax in antique chairs under a spectacular chandelier surrounded by tunable LED illumination to examine the best pieces the gallery has to offer, with some degree of audible privacy — and  with a degree of “see and be seen” theater to the sales experience.

Several of the existing structural columns in the jewelry gallery were removed and new steel beams added to open up the space. To conceal the two remaining columns, we designed floor to ceiling oval display towers with integrated crystal chandeliers.

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In the art gallery, newly opened walls exposed a previously hidden staircase, making it the grand staircase to the three floors of fine art galleries above. Portions of the buildings previously used for servants’ quarters for 19th century residents were also opened up and adjoined with the main galleries at the street sides of the buildings; carriage ways on the sides of the buildings were converted to courtyards for special events.

Light levels in the art galleries were kept to a minimum and framing projectors were used to light the paintings, giving them a glowing effect.

A new elevator was added to the new buildings, and, as an additional means of providing a unique experience for special customers, a secret button labeled only with M.S. Rau’s fleur-de-lis logo and accessible only by electronic key cards takes customers to the Attic, where they can view new acquisitions that haven’t yet reached the gallery floors,

As lead designers on the project, our task was to help bring M.S. Rau into the 21st century of retailing by creating a shopping experience that was commensurate with the spectacular quality of the merchandise and focusing on what customers are really buying:  A story. A legacy. An artistic expression. A moment in time.

Renovating a 200-year-old building in New Orleans’ French Quarter, satisfying both modern building codes and historical registry requirements, was an incredibly complex undertaking and required the dedication and creativity of every trade on site. It was a great reminder to us, as designers, to set and communicate the vision for the team; to focus on what was critical to the customer experience, and then to get out of the way and allow each trade to contribute creative solutions to achieve that vision. The newly renovated galleries are a must-see for anyone visiting New Orleans.

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