As The Jefferson moves into its second century, we take a reflective look at all that has gone before and salute a building that has, perhaps more than any other, become an integral part of the social and cultural history of Richmond.
WALKING THROUGH A GLORIOUS HISTORY
The Beginning - Lewis Ginter
Opened in 1895, the hotel symbolized a dream for the man who was, simultaneously, one of Richmond's most modest and most colorful citizens and also Richmond's wealthiest citizen. Lewis Ginter was born in New York of Dutch immigrant parents. He came to Richmond in 1842 at the age of eighteen and made a fortune in the import business before losing it to the Civil War. He served in the Confederate Army, and then returned to New York, where he made a second fortune in the banking industry and lost it to a recession.
At age fifty, Ginter returned to Richmond and entered the tobacco business. He made millions marketing the pre-rolled cigarette and became a civic leader and philanthropist. He then sold his interest in the tobacco company and entered his fourth career, land development.
A classic Jeffersonian, cultured, gifted and widely traveled (he crossed the Atlantic thirty times, and went around the world several times), Ginter was interested in the arts and architecture. He also had a strong, abiding love for his adopted city.
To create this dream, he commissioned Carrere and Hastings, a renowned architectural firm from New York. The firm designed the Fifth Avenue Public Library and Henry Frick House (later the Frick Museum) in New York, as well as portions of the Commonwealth Club in Richmond.
Ginter's wishes were followed and the hotel was built incorporating Renaissance and other forms of architecture that he admired, creating a composite, eclectic style popular at the turn of the century. When The Jefferson was elected in 1969 to the National Register of Historical Places, it was considered to be among the finest examples of Beaux Arts style in existence.
THE OPENING - HISTORIC VIRGINIA HOTELS TAKE SHAPE
It is estimated that between $5 and $10 million went into planning, building and furnishing the hotel, with nearly $2 million of this amount spent on construction. The planning and building process took nearly three years with Ginter supervising every detail. As a centerpiece for the upper lobby, The Palm Court, Ginter commissioned Richmond sculptor, Edward V. Valentine, to create a life-size image of Jefferson from Carrara marble. The statue cost $12,000 and took two years to complete. Valentine was able to borrow clothing actually worn by Jefferson, which he copied for the statue.
That was just the beginning. Ginter imported exotic palm trees from Central and South America and purchased hundreds of valuable antiques here and abroad. He saw to it that the hotel had billiard rooms, a library, ladies' salon, grill room, Turkish and Russian baths, plus every contemporary convenience: electric lights, electric elevators, hot and cold water in the bedrooms, and a Teleseme (predecessor of the telephone) for room service.
Major Ginter's dream was fulfilled on October 31, 1895. The Jefferson opened to an awed and delighted public and was enthusiastically proclaimed to be the finest hotel in the country. Despite heavy rain, thousands of people came through the doors, beginning at 7:00 am.
Within a week, the Jefferson had lodged its first distinguished guests. They were in Richmond for the wedding of Irene Langhorne, who had led cotillions in New York, Philadelphia, Richmond and New Orleans. An elegant party, held in the hotel's Roof Garden, was given by the noted New York architect, Stanford White of the firm of McKim, Mead, White, in honor of Miss Langhorne and her husband-to-be, Charles Dana Gibson. Gibson, an illustrator and satirist, created the Gibson Girl look at the turn-of-the-century. Irene's younger sister, Nancy, who was an attendant in the wedding, eventually married Waldorf Astor and became "Lady Astor", the first woman elected to the British parliament.
The hotel, which contained 308 guest rooms, as well as thirty-four rooms reserved for employees, soon became known as "The Belle of the '90's".
FIRE & RESTORATION
Unfortunately, the Major's enjoyment of his accomplishment was short-lived... he died less than two years later. In 1901 the hotel itself came close to being short-lived. A defective wire started a fire that demolished three-fifths of the building. There were no fatalities, however, there was a narrow escape for one famous occupant of the hotel, the statue of Thomas Jefferson.
A rescue crew, including the sculptor himself, was hurriedly summoned to help. The men pushed the statue onto strategically placed mattresses and carried it outside. Then they accidentally dropped it, and the head struck the ground and broke off. For a while, the headless statue stood in the front yard of a neighboring home. (The head was kept in the vault of Henry Valentine, a relative of the sculptor and a member of the rescue crew.) Eventually it was taken back to the sculptor’s studio, where repairs were made.
One hundred guest rooms fronting Franklin Street were intact and reopened in grand style in May 1902. Major reconstruction was required in the portion facing Main Street. The hotel languished in this condition for several more years, as Richmonders began to dream about restoring the magnificent structure. One day a group of citizens - including Major James Dooley and Joseph Bryan, two prominent Richmond millionaires, Captain Joseph Willard, Lieutenant Governor of Virginia and principal owner of the Willard Hotel in Washington, D. C., and David Lowenberg, principal owner of the Monticello Hotel in Norfolk and Director-General of the forthcoming Jamestown Exposition, - decided to restore the hotel before visitors started arriving in Virginia for the 1907 Jamestown Exposition.
In 1905, the Jefferson Realty Corporation was formed, and for the second time, a dream was becoming reality. Furniture and accessories were replaced, Edwardian and rococo touches and the faux marble columns 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. The wing to the east, including The Grand Ballroom, was added.
In May 1907, the enlarged hotel was reopened. The restoration was designed by architect J. Kevan Peebles, who also designed the then new wings of the Virginia State Capitol. Although the interior of the hotel looked very different from the original, it was still magnificent.
ALLIGATORS IN THE FOUNTAIN - A VIRGINIA HOTEL RARITY
The alligators that soon came to live in the marble pools in the Palm Court became a source of much interest. Numerous Richmonders and hotel guests enthusiastically donated pet alligators to the hotel. Several alligator tales are still told regarding absent-minded visitors who stumbled into the pools and frightened the inhabitants. There's also an anecdote about one alligator, more venturesome than his brothers, which crawled out of the pool and wandered into the library. The sole occupant there was an elderly clubwoman who mistook the alligator for a footstool. When the "footstool" began moving toward the door, she became hysterical and ran screaming out of the library. By the time she returned with some lady friends and attendants, the alligator had already slithered back to his watery domain. Due to the poor woman's reputation for being highly imaginative and somewhat of a tippler, nobody believed her. It is said that she never drank sherry again.
The last alligator, named Old Pompey, remained at The Jefferson until he died in 1948.
The new Jefferson resumed the grand tradition of its forerunner and once more became the hub of Richmond society, a place for elaborate weddings, cotillions and banquets, as well as a gathering place for informal social events and meetings.
A SLOW DECLINE
During World War II, the management had a government contract to lodge transient recruits. In those years there were more than 100 permanent residents in the hotel, and one of them recollects that the recruits "were not a quiet crowd"; and that the stained-glass skylights and windows were taken down not only to conform to blackout requirements, but to prevent breakage from empty bottles tossed by the rowdy crowds.
In March 1944, another fire broke out. This disaster took the lives of six persons and saddened the community.
Necessary repairs and replacements were made and the tempo of the hotel was re-established. But the pace slackened and gradual decline set in, due perhaps to a series of ownership changes, inept management, maintenance neglect and distaste in the 1950's and '60's for historic architecture.
The end came in 1980. The hotel was closed to everyone except an occasional moviemaker who used it as a set. One of these was Louis Malle, who filmed his masterpiece My Dinner With Andre in The Ballroom.
Richmonders again began to dream of the possibility of a grand reopening one day.
MODERN RECONSTRUCTION - RICHMOND HOTELS TAKE SHAPE
Three years later a local developer took the lead. He organized a group of investors, which was one of two bidders on the property when the owners decided to sell. The other bid was from the Federal government, which wanted to level the hotel and build the new Federal Reserve Bank on the site.
Reconstruction began in 1983. Three years and more than $34 million dollars later, the hotel was reopened on May 6, 1986. The restoration showcased the superior skills of all the designers, decorators, technicians, artisans and construction crews who performed the demanding, dual task of restoration and modernization. Every effort was made to bring back the best of a bygone era and introduce the best of today.
Glorious stained-glass windows were retrieved and refurbished. Decorative carvings on ceilings and gold leaf ornamentation were renovated. Layers of paint were removed from walls to reveal mahogany paneling and from exterior columns to uncover pure marble. Original wood and marble floors were cleaned and polished. Colors and motifs, coated by years of dust and grime, were brought back to their former beauty.
Although many valuable pieces had been auctioned off over the years, many more were stored in the hotel's basement. Items such as hand-carved fireplace mantels, ornate ceiling fixtures, wall sconces, ladies' writing tables, and assorted bric-a-brac were resurrected. A mail box in which guests dropped their letters and postcards long, long ago -- a receptacle with a heavy brass door embossed with an eagle, rosettes and lettering -- now decorates the registration area. Even some of the items sold in the auction were returned - poignant proof of the community's concerned interest.
Original oil paintings were taken out of storage, and may now be viewed throughout the hotel. Of special importance is "The Soap Bubbles" by Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau. The painting was exhibited at the World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 before being purchased by Lewis Ginter. The 64-inch by 46-inch oil still hangs in its original location in The Library in Lemaire Restaurant.
The widespread treasure hunt also uncovered some interesting bits of trivia. An invoice dated 1901 indicates that the hotel's provisions buyer paid $3.75 for five pounds of lobster. According to a menu dated Sunday, April 20, 1930, a guest could partake of the following dinner at a cost of only $2.50: Oysters, Consomme Printaniere Royal, Filet of Sole Marguery, Sirloin Steak Saute Chasseurr, New Asparagus, Potatoes Au Gratin, Romaine Orange and Grapefruit Salad, Old Fashioned Strawberry Short Cake, and a pot of coffee.
THE MODERN JEFFERSON - THE ULTIMATE VIRGINIA HOTELS EXPERIENCE "REBORN"
On July 2, 1991, The Jefferson was sold to Historic Hotels, Inc., a Richmond based group of investors. In January 1992, a multi-million dollar renovation began which included redecoration of all guest rooms and suites, The Rotunda and The Palm Court, enhanced parking and improved amenities. Architects for the project are the Washington, D.C. interior architecture and design firm of Copeland Krieger Associates. By September of 1993, it was ready to welcome the Southern Governors' Conference and The Fortune 500 Forum, which arrived in November.
In 1994, The Jefferson was honored by the AAA organization as a Five Diamond award winner. In an effort to continually improve the services and amenities available to its guests, The Jefferson underwent further renovation in 2000, including the addition of an indoor swimming pool and the redesigned Franklin Street entrance. The following year, 2001, The Jefferson was honored by Mobil with the coveted Five Star award, making the hotel one of only a handful in North America to receive both prestigious awards. Later that year the hotel was recognized by Forbes Magazine as the "Best Hotel in America", again realizing Major Ginter's dream.
The Jefferson's history would not be complete without mention of the numerous dignitaries, celebrities and notables to visit over the last century.
No less than thirteen Presidents. Harrison, McKinley, Wilson, Coolidge, Taft, both Roosevelts (Theodore and Franklin Delano), Truman and Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton and Obama have stayed at the hotel. Also among the rich and/or famous guests were: Admiral Dewey, Sarah Bernhardt, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Vanderbilts, Whitneys and Barrymores, Gertrude Stein, Sir Edmund Hillary, Charles Chaplin, Nelson Eddy, Robert Mitchum, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley who enjoyed a breakfast of bacon, eggs over easy, milk, no coffee, and home fries, capped off with a scoop of ice cream in cantaloupe. Sergei Rachmaninoff played in The Grand Ballroom and one of the world's most famous dancers, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, was "discovered" as he waited tables in the dining room.
In recent years, a wide variety of actors, musicians, politicians, professional athletes, foreign dignitaries and other luminaries have visited. Members of the media have also taken an interest in The Jefferson, broadcasting live from the lobbies. ABC Weatherman Spencer Christian stayed at The Jefferson and broadcast his portions of "Good Morning, America" on December 4, 1992 and again during the spring of 1994. CBS news commentator, Charles Kuralt, filmed a segment for his "Sunday Morning " show on November 29, 1987. The Jefferson and its statue of Thomas Jefferson was backdrop for another segment of “Sunday Morning” in December 1994. The subject was the Statute for Religious Freedom.
For many guests and visitors -- the famous, near-famous and just plain folks -- the majestically carpeted, 36-step, polished marble staircase has always been a stellar attraction. Since the advent of the movie classic, Gone With the Wind, something almost akin to a mystique has surrounded it. There are those who firmly believe this staircase was the model for the one featured in the Atlanta mansion sequences of that film. True or not, it's difficult to stand before it without experiencing instant recall of Scarlett O'Hara being carried up those stairs in Rhett Butler's arms, or tragically tumbling down them on her own.