When real estate developer Barrett McGuire and his wife, Jill, bought the North Star Theater complex in Old Mandeville, it wasn’t an impulse buy. Acquiring the historic property and transforming into an arts center was a long-time dream for the couple.
Jill, now a Mandeville City Council member, had majored in theater at then-University of Southwestern Louisiana, and she performed years ago on the North Star stage. Barrett had other historic renovations under his belt, including Rest A While on the Mandeville lakefront, which was also originally a hotel.
With this purchase, the McGuires now own the two remaining historic hotels in the area, and they are using the same contractor, Brad Rogers, to bring the North Star back to its former glory.
While the North Star decision wasn’t hard, the revival hasn’t been without drama. The main building, which had been converted to office space, was in some disrepair when the McGuires bought it in 2020. The pandemic had just started, and shortly after the main building was raised, Hurricane Ida swept through and twisted the 6,800-square-foot structure, requiring replacement of the structural components from the floor joists up.
“That was not in my budget or my game plan,” Barrett McGuire said.
The cost of materials has also zoomed, thanks to supply chain issues. The siding for a previous restoration, of a cottage that was part of the old Bands Grocery, had cost 98 cents per board foot, and he was able to get it locally. But this go-round, it cost $9.75.
But when they raise the curtain on their $1.7 million investment, toward the end of this year, the McGuires think the North Star will shine again.
“Office space would be the highest and best use,” Barrett McGuire said of the buildings, on Girod Street. “But we need the cultural arts, not office space, in this area.”
The North Star’s main building dates from 1927 and it’s played multiple roles in its lifetime, first as a hotel. But unlike the grand hotels on the lakefront, where wealthy New Orleanians flocked during Mandeville’s heyday as a resort town, the Allenton Hotel was a getaway for the middle and working class, Barrett McGuire said.
“Kind of like a motel,” Jill said.
The kitchen, dining room and dance floor were downstairs, and the upstairs had two bathrooms and 10 guest rooms.
When the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway was being built in the 1950s, the hotel housed construction crews, Barrett McGuire said.
After that, the building was turned into what was known as the Small Mall, with different little shops, and at some point, it was covered with gray vinyl siding.
That’s been taken down and replaced with what had originally been there: double ogee siding, made of pine. Only 10 percent of the original siding was salvageable; the rest they had custom-made in Gulfport, Mississippi, to match.
Only 10 of the original window sashes remained, so they had another 80 custom-made to match. “Windows are a defining feature,” Barrett McGuire said.
Finding the right color was also a project. “We found old pictures of the Small Mall and literally made the color,” Barrett McGuire said, something that took multiple attempts. “It’s a lot of red, but it works,” he said.
A colorful past
The property is rumored to have been a brothel for a time, and is supposedly haunted by the ghost of an old woman; some have claimed over the years to hear her voice and wheelchair moving across the floor.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the property became the North Star Theater. Actor and director Lori Taylor, now Lori Bennett Prudhomme, bought it as a home for her nonprofit, United Theatre Artists, Inc. The last production there was sometime in the early 2000s.
That incarnation is what the McGuires want to bring back, but in an expanded form that will be a convergence of all the arts. The McGuires envision keeping local artists and performers in the community.
“Too many of our artists leave. We want to keep them and give them a venue to pursue their careers,” Barrett McGuire said.
A place for artists
The North Star Cultural Arts Center will have gallery space in the main building, with regularly changing exhibits, two studios, a concessions area and a place to gather and hang out, Barrett McGuire said. Artists won’t be charged to use the exhibit or studio space, he said.
An annex building on the site is being donated to the Ozone Music Education Foundation for office and classroom space. “They’re really a cornerstone of what’s going on here,” Barrett McGuire said of the nonprofit group.
Another outbuilding, called the Green Room, will be used for that purpose – a place for actors waiting to go on stage – but Jill McGuire said it could also serve as a space for children’s theater.
The auditorium, which was built in 1990, is in very good shape, Barrett McGuire said. But it will have new lighting and sound systems as well as live-streaming capability. Plans call for using the theater for productions of all kinds, from singer-songwriter nights to plays to standup comedy.
The venue won’t charge for the use or space or take any cut of the box office, he said.
“This isn’t competition with anybody,” Barrett McGuire said. “It’s a way to bring everyone together and grow this.”