AS MONTROSE'S STORIED La Colombe d'Or hotel readies to reopen after two years of renovation, father-son owner-operators Steve and Dan Zimmerman are reflecting on the history of the place, and its future. The Zimmermans partnered with the Hines corp in a massive project that includes revamping of the hotel and building a 32-story luxury high-rise, The Residences at La Colombe d'Or, where the hotel's back ballroom once stood.
Steve, a New Orleans native, says he came to Montrose in the 1960s as a young lawyer and poli-sci prof at the University of St. Thomas, falling in love with the neighborhood's "a little bit bohemian" vibe. He developed an enthusiasm for real estate and began buying properties around the district — for cheap. "You could buy a home for in the area for $10,000, with $500 down," he says. Through realty channels, he received a curious proposition in 1977.
"I got approached very confidentially about buying an old home in Montrose, which turned out to be the Fondren Mansion," says Steve. Walter Fondren, who built the house in 1923 in a Montrose Boulevard setting that would've been considered a bucolic suburb at the time, was the co-founder of ExxonMobil antecedent Humble Oil. The sellers were the Fondren grandchildren. "They told me you probably can't do anything with the old house, but … if you're interested, we'll sell it to you for just land value. And if you have to knock the house down, we'll give you the money to [do it]."
The only hitch was Steve couldn't take possession, or even tell anybody he'd bought it, till 1979. "They said grandma is still alive. She's 102 years old and lives in the Fondren wing of Methodist hospital, and we don't want her to know that the old homestead is being sold and might be torn down."
Steve made the deal and spent the next 18 months deciding what to do with the property, which also had a 30-year history as a Red Cross operations center. Inspired by visits to a beloved auberge in the South of France, he decided to try his luck as a hotelier. And for the last 40 years he's run the place, with Dan at his side for the last decade. Notable guests have included Walter Cronkite, archbishop Desmond Tutu and Madonna. "I had a senator from Louisiana who damn near burned the place down with cigarettes and drinking too much, and all of a sudden the curtains are on fire," says Steve. "Let's just say it hasn't been boring."
Heading into the next chapter, Steve credits Dan for the bold expansion. "This project wouldn't have happened without him and his vision," says the elder Zimmerman.
Dan is an accomplished developer, having recently restored a row of historical buildings Downtown. Still, he plays off the compliment. "Dad had the forethought to take this old mansion and turn it into this fantastic boutique hotel," he says. "My job was easier. I just had to was expound on that. And change the plumbing."
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