Having breathed new life into classic properties in the Midwest and the Caribbean, hip hotelier Ben Weprin has a new vision for New Orleans.
Resurrection is a time-honored tradition in New Orleans, and the city’s latest renaissance is happening now at the Pontchartrain Hotel, a 106-room, 88-year-old property in the Garden District. The fags above its awnings still droop and its Venetian-style plaster façade has faded from its former glory. It’s what a Realtor might market as a fxer-upper, one with plenty of character. Back in the day the Manning family used to go to the Pontchartrain for holiday dinners, Archie suiting up his boys in jackets and ties. Tennessee Williams lived in the hotel while writing A Streetcar Named Desire; the city’s green trolleys still rumble past on St. Charles Avenue.
The man responsible for renovating the Pontchartrain for a June 2016 opening couldn’t be more excited at its potential. “Dude, the history of New Orleans is amazing,” says 37-year-old Ben Weprin, winding through the construction consuming the hotel’s interior. “New Orleans is just f--king cool. Lil Wayne grew up around here!”
Weprin, founder of Chicago-based AJ Capital Partners—“aj” stands for “adventurous journeys”—is one of the hottest young hotel developers in the country. He specializes in buying a run-down gem and giving it a new shine, a task undoubtedly made easier by his irrepressible midwestern optimism. Armed with $800 million in equity raised from the likes of billionaire John Pritzker, he has successfully rejuvenated resorts and hotels in the Caribbean, Miami, Napa Valley and, of course, Chicago. AJ Capital’s portfolio contains 18 hotels, including the iconic Mal- liouhana in Anguilla and the more reasonably priced Graduate hotels (upscale lodging in much-visited college towns). “He’s aggressive and knows what he wants,” says Pritzker, who was an executive at his family’s Hyatt Hotels before launching the Joie de Vivre, tommie, Alila and Thompson boutique hotels. “There’s no stopping Ben if he wants something.”
Weprin needed to think that way when he got started—in the fourth quarter of 2008 (the characters “Q408” partially form AJ Capital’s ofcial logo). After working as a real estate broker and for Chicago developer and restaurateur Larry Levy, Weprin set out to raise his own capital to buy luxury resorts, fguring the crash would make them less expensive. And if the properties had the right provenance, he reckoned, people would eventually return. He scraped together funds from “whoever would invest in me,” he says, even hitting up his childhood dermatologist (who contributed a small amount).
Much of Weprin’s time has been spent in Chicago. There he has renovated and reopened three hotels: the Soho House Chicago, Hotel Lincoln and the Chicago Athletic Association, which as its name suggests was once a private men’s club. He has a schmaltzy line about what he does—“we’re not owners; we’re stewards”—but he does tend to look at a new property with a preservation archi-