The old sanctuary was under construction, but we weren’t leaving until we found the trap door. It was August in New Orleans and, despite the crosses and stained glass, it was hot as hell.
We were there to film inside the former church and school known as Sts. Peter & Paul, nearing the end of its four-year restoration into Hotel Peter & Paul.
Phil was our guide, a former student and custodian who claimed to know where the bodies were buried, which he’d been shown by a priest decades ago. After finding a hole in the hardwoods, we realized that whoever had been in the crypt was long gone, but what remained was just as tangible: Memory.
I co-lead a studio called 1504 to create narrative experiences at the intersection of content and strategy. Often when we collaborate with real estate developers and architects, the notion of nostalgia gets brought up as an intangible marketing aspiration. But since our recent project in New Orleans, I’d suggest that memory is more powerful and the key to unlocking a narrative approach to placemaking.
Hotel Peter & Paul is a 71-room boutique hotel in the Marigny, a vibrant New Orleans neighborhood with no shortage of story material. Rooms span the historic schoolhouse, rectory, and convent, with the church serving as a venue space (see before and after photos).
After finding a hole in the hardwoods, we realized that whoever had been in the crypt was long gone, but what remained was just as tangible: Memory.
Local resident Nathalie Jordi developed the hotel with ASH, and she was remarkably persistent to earn the community’s trust and support. One effort was to produce oral histories as a way to honor those who grew up in and around Sts. Peter & Paul.
Last year, this led to The Holy Ghosts, a multimedia story series we developed that chronicles the memories of five individuals with deep ties to a place they’ve seen evolve from sacred site to abandonment to a present-day hotel.
The resulting stories, including Phil’s trap door, may provide visitors with a deeper sense of perspective on why this is a special place. A place with inherent memory that, as one congregant described, is “not what you see, but what you feel.” Isn’t this what draws us all to certain places?
Place-based storytelling can profoundly elevate a brand or experience design, but it takes time and intentionality. So here are just a few takeaways from our work on The Holy Ghosts:
Be ready for real
With authenticity comes real life, so some of the stories we share include topics like gentrification, race, and even murder. Not exactly your sugar-coated promo, so I credit the developers for being courageous and open.
Responsibility to be respectful
Anytime we go into another culture, especially with a camera, our first priority is to ensure we are being respectful with how the stories are gathered and later presented. If people feel exploited, the integrity of the work is compromised.
Our imaginations come alive when we consider: This place may have something to tell me.
Place-based storytelling is interactive
By framing a place through the lens of storytelling, you invite new modes of discovery, curiosity, and exploration. Our imaginations come alive when we consider: This place may have something to tell me.
Content can aim so much higher than drone footage of a building. When tethered to memories (whether sourced from the land, from the people involved, or from the community at large), content can actually form a narrative experience that is immersive and, ultimately, memory-making.
Our studio strives to craft human-centered storytelling, and the experience in New Orleans affirmed our desire to begin with a Narrative Strategy as early as possible in a development’s story. By taking a more journalistic approach in seeking out memories associated with a project, we believe that collaborations can ultimately be more consistent, innovative, and reflective of a deeper sense of place.
This article was written by Brick & Wonder member Tyler Jones of 1504. The Holy Ghosts was directed by Tyler Jones and produced by Mark Slagle. Photographs by Jordan Mahy.
You can see the series trailer and the story of the crypt below. To view the full series click here.