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Memories Flow as Roanoke, Virginia's Signature Hotel,
The Hotel Roanoke Reaches Age 125
By Kevin Kittredge, The Roanoke Times, Va.McClatchy-Tribune Business News

Dec. 19, 2006 - There is china from the Pine Room. A marble-topped table from the lobby. An 1893 gardening bill, and a menu with the lunch special for Jan. 17, 1955 (creamed chicken and waffle with Julienne potato and cole slaw. Price: $1.25).

"The Hotel Roanoke Revisited," on exhibit at the History Museum of Western Virginia through mid-February, will jog many a memory -- and small wonder. Construction on the city's signature hotel began the year Roanoke was born: 1882. The hotel opened in 1883.

The exhibit blends photographs, furniture, bills, advertisements, silver and china, and other odds and ends into a 125th anniversary tribute to the grand old hotel, which closed in 1989 but reopened as the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center following extensive renovation in 1995.

Many of the artifacts were bought at auction when the hotel closed and loaned to the museum by private owners for this show. Some items, including the larger pieces of furniture and most of the photographs, are from the museum's own collection, said museum executive director Kent Chrisman.

All in all, it's probably not the most in-depth story of Roanoke's famed hotel ever told-- "Peanut Soup and Spoonbread," the 1994 book by Donlan Piedmont, may hold that honor -- but there is plenty here to start the memories flowing.

We see photos of the dining room staff from 1952; of Miss Virginia Patricia Gaulding beside the hotel's new swimming pool in 1962; of Patricia Burns making a room service delivery on Nov. 30, 1989 -- the night before the hotel closed. We learn the hotel's head gardener, Pat Foy, made $90 in July 1893, and that a single room cost $2.50 in the 1930s.

There is an old menu stanchion, complete with half-century old menus, which Chrisman said stood outside the main hotel dining room for years. There is china and silver from the hotel's several dining rooms -- each of which typically had its own china patterns. There is a big armoire and a long, marble-topped table, both of which date from the late 1930s and once stood in the hotel's lobby. The table helped to inspire this exhibit when it was donated to the museum in 2001, Chrisman said.

Mostly, there are pictures -- of rooms, staff, guests, Miss Virginia contestants, and the hotel itself, shown in the first photographs as a castle on an isolated hilltop, and not hemmed in by the city as it is today.

"The landscape of the city has changed so much," mused museum manager Carolyn Payne during a walk through the exhibit rooms on the third floor of Center in the Square. Payne confessed that of all the artifacts in the exhibit, she likes the photos best.

One photo doesn't show the hotel at all, but rather a 1938 billboard that makes a near-irresistible pitch to a summer traveler: "To-Night Air Conditioned Hotel Roanoke."

Hotel Roanoke claimed to be the first hotel "scientifically planned for air conditioning," which it reportedly achieved by having ice water circulate through the rooms.

Portions of the exhibit will move to the hotel in February, Chrisman said.

"I can't think of a more fascinating and informative way to celebrate the Hotel Roanoke's upcoming 125th anniversary," said hotel general manager Gary Walton in a written statement.


Copyright (c) 2006, The Roanoke Times, Va.

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