By Stanley Turkel, CMHS
1. Hotel History: The Jefferson Hotel (155 rooms) Tobacco baron Lewis Ginter began building the hotel in 1892 and opened it in 1895. Designed by Carrère and Hastings, the same architecture firm that designed the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, the Ponce de Leon Hotel (St. Augustine), Flagler's Whitehall Mansion (Palm Beach), the House and Senate Office Buildings (Washington, D.C.) and many more.
As a centerpiece for the upper lobby, Ginter commissioned Richmond sculptor Edward V. Valentine to create a life-size image of Thomas Jefferson from Carrara marble. Ginter imported exotic palm trees from Central and South America and purchased hundreds of valuable antiques. The hotel had electric lights, electric elevators, hot and cold water in the guestrooms and a Teleseme (predecessor of the telephone) for room service. Other unusual amenities were a grill room, ladies’ salon, a library, Turkish and Russian baths. The hotel opened on Halloween 1895 for the engagement party for Charles Dana Gibson, the famous illustrator and Irene Langhorne, better known as the Gibson Girl.
In 1901, a fire demolished three-fifths of the building. One hundred guestrooms fronting on Franklin Street were intact and reopened in May of 1902, but major reconstruction was required in the portion facing Main Street and the hotel languished for several more years. Then, in 1905, the furniture and accessories were replaced and marbleized columns and Edwardian and rococo touches were added. The Grand Staircase and the Mezzanine, both formerly enclosed behind arched walls, were opened and the hotel expanded to include 330 new rooms in addition to the 100 remaining from the original structure. In May, 1907, the enlarged hotel was reopened in time for the Jamestown Exposition. The restoration was designed by architect J. Kevan Peebles, who also designed the new wing of the Virginia State Capitol. At about this time, alligators were placed in the marble pools in the Palm Court. Many Richmond citizens donated pet alligators to the hotel. One apocryphal anecdote tells the story of an alligator who crawled out of the pool and into the library where a senior-aged guest mistook the alligator for a footstool. When the “footstool” moved, she became hysterical and ran out screaming. By the time she convinced hotel attendants, the alligator had already slithered back to his watery pool. The last alligator, Old Pompey, remained a guest at the Jefferson pool until he died in 1948.
During World War II, the hotel lodged transient U.S. Army recruits. The stained-glass skylights and windows were taken down not only to conform to blackout requirements, but also to prevent breakage from empty bottles tossed by rowdy soldiers. In March 1944, another fire broke out which took the lives of six people. Soon after the war ended, a gradual decline set in. By 1980 the hotel was closed to everyone except the occasional moviemaker.
After acquisition by the New York-based Sybedon Corporation, renovation began in 1983 and $34 million later, the hotel was reopened on May 6, 1986. Old paint was removed from walls to reveal mahogany paneling and from exterior columns to uncover pure marble. Hand-carved fireplace mantels, ornate ceiling fixtures, wall sconces, writing tables and assorted bric-a-brac were cleaned, polished and restored. Beautiful stained-glass windows were retrieved, refurbished and restored. Decorative carvings on ceilings and gold leaf ornamentation were renovated. An original heavy brass mailbox with an eagle, rosettes and lettering was refinished and placed in the registration area.
Disclosure: I served as hotel consultant to the Sybedon Corporation
On July 2, 1991, the Jefferson was sold to Historic Hotels, Inc., a Richmond-based group of investors. In the next year a multi-million dollar renovation began, which included redecoration of all guestrooms and suites, the Rotunda and the Palm Court, enhanced parking and improved amenities. The hotel's 155 guestrooms and suites come in 57 different styles, all outfitted with high ceilings, large windows and custom furnishings. A full-service health club is on-site, and the Jefferson Hotel also boasts two of Richmond's finest restaurants and a Champagne Sunday Brunch.
Among the list of celebrities and notable guests who have visited here are: 13 U.S. Presidents, Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, Charlie Chaplin, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Anthony Hopkins, Whoopi Goldberg, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Gertrude Stein, General John J. Pershing, Marshall Foch, William Jennings Bryan, Sarah Bernhardt, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Sergei Rachmaninoff played the piano in the Grand Ballroom and Bill (Bojangles) Robinson was “discovered” as he waited tables in the dining room.
For many guests and visitors, the dramatic 36-step polished marble staircase has been the cynosure of all eyes. Since the film classic "Gone With the Wind" was allegedly filmed on the Jefferson Hotel staircase, it is hard to stand at the base without visualizing Rhett Butler carrying Scarlett O'Hara up those stairs.
The Jefferson Hotel is one of only 27 American hotels with both the AAA Five-Diamond and the Forbes Five-Star ratings. It is a member of the Historic Hotels of America and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
*Excerpted from my book “Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi (AuthorHouse 2013)
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