To Nick Matulich Jr., it wasn’t just an old awning.
For decades, his father spent weekends tending to the vacant building on the corner of Broad Street and Ursulines Avenue. It was painted white and red, with a Spanish-style terra cotta awning hanging over the corner entrance.
Taking care of the old building, which the family owned until 2021, was something of a hobby for his dad. And since the building was the original home of Ruth’s Chris Steak House, the New Orleans restaurant that grew from a politician’s hangout into a business empire, it was also an act of historic preservation.
After the senior Matulich’s death and the building’s sale, its fate became a scuffle that made its way from an obscure historic district commission to the City Council this week, highlighting the tension between developers who say there’s too much red tape in trying to return buildings to commerce and preservationists who fear erasure of the city’s history.
And it all centered on that awning.
Huge swaths of New Orleans’ older neighborhoods have been placed under the supervision of the Historic District Landmarks Commission, an entity that is supposed to ensure that treasured old features of the streetscape aren’t lost forever.
Unlike the famously rigid rules for the French Quarter, many neighborhoods are governed by laxer “partial control.” Developers must still seek the commission’s blessing, but they have more leeway for alterations.
That was how the building at 1100 N. Broad Street landed on the commission’s agenda. After the passing of Nick Matulich Sr., his family in May 2021 sold the building to a company called Velosity Assets, which is owned by real estate broker Max Perret.
Perret’s company had plans for the inside of the building – a real estate office and two short-term rentals. His architect had plans for the outside. The distinctive awning would come down to be replaced by a flat metal overhang.
The application was one of a number of requests in recent years from developers hoping to turn old buildings into short-term rentals, a double blow for some New Orleanians who resent the rentals in residential neighborhoods.
The commission rebuffed Perret’s first request on Jan. 5 because it called for removing more than 25% of the original facade, a cut-off triggering commission authority. Perret and his architect submitted fresh plans dipping under the threshold and won approval in April.
Still, the commission has begun the process of landmarking the building to honor its “cultural significance.”
While many New Orleanians remember the Ruth’s Chris at Broad Street and Orleans Avenue, now the site of a health clinic, that was actually Fertel’s second restaurant location.
For years, Chris Matulich, an immigrant from Croatia, had served big juicy steaks out of what he called the Chris Steak House at Broad and Ursulines. Customers included politicians like Hale Boggs and Chep Morrison, according to his grandson, Nick Matulich Jr.
By 1965, Chris Matrulich was ready to retire and placed a sale ad in the newspaper.
What happened next has become central to Ruth’s Chris lore. Fertel, then a lab technician at Tulane University, mortgaged her house to buy the business, but not the building, at 1100 N. Broad.
Sales were modest during Fertel’s early days presiding over the restaurant, her son Randy Fertel said. But they picked up after Ruth complained aloud to a heavyset patron from the oil business, who promised to bring his fellow Texans. That lured the politicians.
“You know how New Orleans is, the politicians follow the money,” said Randy Fertel.
By the early 1970s, Ruth Fertel was playing host to a revolving cast of big-wigs. In 1976, a fire gave Fertel’s restaurant chain its unusual name. Because of damage to the original location, she opened her much larger, second location a few blocks away at Orleans Avenue. But the terms of her agreement with Chris Matulich forbade her from using the name elsewhere. So she slapped her first name in front of him.
Building stayed in family
Fertel reopened in the first location after renovations, but within a few years she closed it down to focus on her burgeoning empire. She sold the chain to an investment firm in 1999, when it had an estimated $200 million in annual sales.
Meanwhile, 1100 N. Broad stayed vacant and in the Matulich family’s hands. Chris’s son, Nick Matulich Sr., treated upkeep of the building as a hobby, driving in from River Ridge on the weekends. Nick Sr. died in 2019, and his succession sold the building two years later.
Short-term rentals planned
Perhaps some day soon, the building’s culinary history will be cited as a quirky fact in an Airbnb or VRBO listing.
But as of Thursday, it appears that Perret will be allowed to strip away one of his most distinctive physical features. After the Historic District Landmarks Commission signed off on the plan from Perret’s architect for a new awning, the Matuliches appealed to the City Council.
The Matuliches still own the double-shotgun house next door, and they were incensed when the new owner tore down the terra cotta awning in April without a permit.
Eleanor Burke, the deputy director of the HDLC, told the council Thursday that staff felt they could not stop the awning’s removal.
“This is an uncomfortable position, because we endorse the restoration of the building as it was, but legally they are allowed to do what they are proposing,” she said.
The Matuliches argued that commission staff had erred in their demolition calculations. They also argued that the commission has broader authority to protect the neighborhood’s historic fabric.
Council members voted 4-2 to allow the HDLC staff’s decision to stand, with Council President Helena Moreno and Vice President JP Morrell dissenting. Morrell said he was particularly frustrated about the unauthorized removal of the tiles.
“At the end of the day, an $8,000 fine, versus not having to deal with that terra cotta awning, that might be the cost of doing business to someone. So unfortunately, I cannot support rewarding bad behavior today,” said Morrell.
The new owner’s architect, Katherine Harmon, claimed Perret was forced to take off the tiles because they had begun to fall off and posed a danger to pedestrians. She said the proposed metal overhang is “very 1940s-looking, very appropriate.”
A man in Perret’s office hung up on a reporter seeking comment. But for Harmon, the renovations are a happy story of a building finally being brought back into commerce.
Historical or not?
Nick Matulich Sr. says his grandfather didn’t always have the best relationship with Fertel. He would often drive by to offer unsolicited advice and check in on business, until Fertel told him to stop.
But Nick Matulich Jr. believes that Fertel’s achievements deserve to be recognized and the building preserved.
“I find myself doing my grandfather’s pass-by. It makes me cry when I see the condition of it now,” said Nick Matulich Jr.
Ruth’s son Randy Fertel, meanwhile, winces at the loss of the old awning but isn’t so sure the building is a landmark. There are worse fates than losing some historic touches, he believes.
“What if you preserved the building and put in a bad restaurant?” he said.