Distillery, Club set to open in early 2020

It’s an inky Friday night in downtown Shreveport. A couple, dressed to the nines, strolls down Cotton Street, casting long shadows under the streetlights. They slip through the double doors and slink down the stairway, glancing over their shoulders to ensure they aren’t followed. He whispers the password to the doorman at the foot of the stairs. The doorman ushers them inside, where they are instantly swept up in the giddy excitement of the speakeasy.

It might sound like a scene out of a gritty pulp fiction novel. But it is part of a dream that doctors Andrew Larson and Lindsey Pennington are working to make a reality.

Larson and Pennington purchased the former Arlington Hotel at 700 Cotton St. at auction. Once the title transfer is complete, they have a team of contractors ready to go to work. The centerpiece of the plan is Every Man a King Distilling, a distillery that will be built on the lot adjacent to the Arlington. Additional plans include a modern French restaurant called The Revenir, The Bottoms speakeasy, The Cotton Club event space, a courtyard and commercial office space.

“We always assumed we’d head back to New Orleans whenever (Lindsey) completed her training,” Larson said. “We lived there for eight years we love the culture there. So, when we decided to stay here in Shreveport, we wanted to reinvest in downtown. That seemed like where the most good can happen.”

When they came upon the Arlington, they were hooked.

“We would spend time just staring at it,” Larson said. “And then we would read stories about underground tunnels between there and The Strand, where, in Prohibition days, people would sneak back and forth. The longer we sat there the more we envisioned people making moonshine in that period when the building was in its infancy. So, it started with just building a distillery there, and from there we just continued to add on complementary pieces.”

Pennington said the speakeasy is a natural fit among those complementary pieces.

“The speakeasy theme is really popular in other cities, like L.A., New York, Chicago and Austin,” she said. “It’s an on-the-pulse type of thing right now. It’s a nice way to make something new and exciting that also pays homage to the history of the building. We’re planning to keep it as historically accurate as possible and preserve as many of the original features so it really fits with pop culture but also is historically accurate. It was organic how it happened. It was a very natural part in the process.”

Cotton Club and The Bottoms speakeasy will feature alcohol produced at the on-site distillery, Every Man a King Distilling. Larson said it will be a micro-distillery, operating under similar regulations to a brew pub. Their products — corn whiskey, vodka, gin and immature bourbon (moonshine), and bourbon — will be available in the speakeasy and the distillery gift shop but not for distribution to retail outlets. The permit also will allow them to serve other companies’ products on site, like a Class A general bar license.

Larson is a local anesthesiologist with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. He said he started doing general distillation as part of his undergraduate work. He said the idea of opening his own distillery began about 10 years ago.

“It started with a very small one in Virginia,” he said. “Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia. There aren’t a ton of travelers or tourists who go there, but there was this distillery nestled there that takes you through the whole process. It was a charming and visceral experience. We’ve visited at least a dozen or so distilleries since then. Each one is different, but each one seems to give you that personal experience that we got the first time. So we want to recreate that.”

The Revenir will be a modern French restaurant. It will feature locally sourced, farm-to-table ingredients. The two executive chefs, Allison Gras and Brad Jones, are coming from Baton Rouge, but Gras is originally from Shreveport. Pennington said bringing Gras back to her hometown fits with the couple’s overall mission for this project.

“She was living in Baton Rouge because she didn’t feel like she had the opportunities here in Shreveport,” Pennington said. “A major goal of this project, in sticking with our core value of community, is we want to bring everyone home who has left this town for greener pastures and prove that we can provide those opportunities here.”

Pennington added that she saw something familiar in Gras and her fiancé, Jones.

“The renovations will be very much a period-themed renovation from the 1920s and ‘30s, complete with the speakeasy. Most people don’t know the Arlington was the site of one of the first speakeasies in Shreveport during the Prohibition era.”

“We’re very excited about what they can do,” she said. “They’re both incredible chefs, and them together reminds us a lot of ourselves. They really are very different people, but they complement each other very well. It’s really fun to watch them work together.”

Larson and Pennington plan to convert the second floor of the Arlington into an event space. The space will include a built-in bar with about 5,000 square feet of indoor space that opens onto a large wooden deck, which then empties into the courtyard. Larson said the space will accommodate “as large a party as you can find.” The space will be available for rent, but Larson and Pennington plan to host their own special events there as well.

“We’re calling it the Cotton Street Club,” Pennington said. “Once or twice month we will host live music.”

Larson and Pennington said they are investing in top-quality audio and video equipment for the space and are planning to attract top-quality musicians as well. Pennington called homage to the New Orleans music scene, and Larson brought it even closer to home. He said they also are paying homage to “Shreveport’s history with the Municipal (Auditorium), to re-establish the music industry and community that once thrived here and is in a slumber at the moment.”

The event space will flow into a giant courtyard outside the distillery. Larson and Pennington are working with Michael Billings and his team at Cotton Street Farms to build a “living wall” around the courtyard.

“We envision that space as kind of a place for people to just get together throughout the day,” Pennington said.

The third floor of the Arlington will be converted into 5,000 square feet of commercial office space. Larson said they already are working on a lease agreement for the space.

Kevin Bryan, the architect for the project, said the design concept for the Arlington will be commensurate with the age of the building.

“The renovations will be very much a period-themed renovation from the 1920s and ‘30s, complete with the speakeasy. Most people don’t know the Arlington was the site of one of the first speakeasies in Shreveport during the Prohibition era.”

Designer Amanda Haynie said the interior look of the renovation will be a modern twist on the historic era.

“We want to modernize the old beauty of that building and make it also reflect the French style of Louisiana,” she said. “I think of New Orleans, with the mosaic tiles, the black and white, the beautiful greens and bold jewel tones. We are hoping to hit that a little bit, along with some of the great art deco style you see with a speakeasy. There’s going to be a lot of natural wood. It’s definitely different than what you normally see in Shreveport.”

Bryan said the distillery will be new construction, with the exception of a two-story brick wall in the alley that he plans to include in the building.

“It will not be architecturally similar to the Arlington,” he said. “It will have a more contemporary look — nothing crazy or outlandish. But we’re not doing Arlington 2.0 next door.”

Phase one of the project will include interior demolition, stabilization and cleanup inside the Arlington. That work will begin as soon as the title transfer is complete, Larson said. He is recruiting executive and middle management staff, as well as team members. They also are seeking more local investors for the project. The Arlington is in an Opportunity Zone.     Opportunity Zones are a new federal capital gains tax incentive program designed to drive long-term investments to low-income communities. The project also is eligible for historic tax credits.

Community engagement at every level is a priority for Larson and Pennington. They credit Wendy Benscoter, executive director of Shreveport Common, and Pam Atchison, executive director of Shreveport Regional Arts Council, with having a vision for this neighborhood that makes their dream possible.

“Even though we are one of the early groups to plant our flag, I think a large reason is the work they have done,” Larson said.

Pennington, who is a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon and owner of Lindsey Pennington MD Facial Plastics, said this project is part of a larger legacy for her and her husband.

“We really pushed hard for this after we had our daughter,” she said. “We love her, and we want her to stay. So now we want to make sure Shreveport is super cool. We want a reason for her to come back here after college and to provide a good family business for her to run and contribute to the community.”

Bryan said he is excited and honored to be part of this project.

“This is an important project in downtown,” Bryan said. “I’ve heard more buzz than I anticipated. It’s going to shore up one of the primary entrances into downtown and lead to something bigger than we are thinking in that corner of downtown.”

For Haynie, working on this project is a dream come true.

“My husband and I have dreamed of restoring some of the old buildings in downtown for a long time,” she said. “Dr. Pennington and Dr. Larson hired me to do their house. We worked really well together. I am so blessed. I go to bed thinking about it and wake up thinking about it. I can’t wait to see the finished project.”

Larson’s goal is to host a New Year’s Eve party in part of the building.

“The timeline is really tight,” he said. “I think we will have some of the spaces completed for New Year’s Eve. We are telling people early 2020 with the idea it would be a wonderful surprise on January 1.”