The Cavalier Hotel Reopens
After An $80 Million Makeover, The Historic Hotel On The Hill Is Set To Offer Guests The Epitome Of Style, Substance And Five-Star Service
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Photos by David Uhrin
On Valentine’s Day, 2018, a new chapter in Coastal Virginia’s love story with Virginia Beach’s famed, historic hotel-on-the-hill officially began. To mark the grand unveiling of this 90-year-old grande dame, 75 couples with a love connection to The Cavalier Hotel—a wedding or a honeymoon—were treated to a romantic night of dining, dancing, decadence and deluxe overnight accommodations along with a vow renewal ceremony officiated by Governor Ralph Northam and a commemorative book.
Couples gathered in the Crystal Ballroom to renew their vows followed by dinner at
Becca and dancing to big band music.
Tommy and Cid Griffin were one of 85 couples featured in the book The Great Love
Stories and Weddings of the Cavalier.
Three weeks of self- and docent-guided tours followed and, then, on March 7—some three years and $30ish million beyond original projections—the shimmering reimagined Cavalier Hotel reopens to the public, her more than $80 million makeover apparent in every lovingly tended detail. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” recalls developer Bruce Thompson. But, this Gold Key | PHR property and distinguished member of Marriott’s Autograph Collection is set to, once again, offer its guests the epitome of style, substance and five-star service. It’s a grand hotel on a human scale.
The storied Cavalier Hotel dates from 1927 when it opened after 13 months of work amidst great fanfare, fast becoming a landmark and luxurious destination without equal on the East Coast. Wealthy mid-westerners arrived at the foot of the terraced lawn having departed Chicago aboard the Norfolk and Western Railroad’s “Cavalier” train before switching to Norfolk Southern; New York City and Washington, D.C, were soon to follow. Limousines transported guests arriving by train and steamer ship to the hotel’s front entrance, a replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
Designed by prominent and prolific Norfolk-based architect Clarence Neff, the hotel was, at the time it opened, a marriage of Roaring Twenties glamour and neoclassical design which draws its inspiration from ancient Greece and Rome. According to Greg Rutledge, historic preservation architect for the project—who worked in tandem with Richard Rusinak, architect and project manager—, the building’s distinctive Y-shaped floor plan was widely considered to be the most efficient hotel design of its day and its architectural features a celebration of Virginia’s architectural history. Besides the Monticello reference, the serpentine walls of the motor court were inspired by the Range at UVA, the lacey rotunda medallion just inside the main entrance is an enlarged copy of the one in Norfolk’s Moses Myers House, and, before being painted white, the dark stained lobby paneling echoed that of Stratford and Gunston Halls.
With its porticoes, classical columns, simple cornices, quoins, scrolled keystones, parapets with balustrades, symmetrical façades, a Palladian-inspired entrance, bas-relief panels at the entrance and garland ornamentation in the pediment of the east façade, the bell tower-crowned structure could have read like a treatise on the neoclassical. But Neff’s skillful and inspired reinterpretation of these iconic elements rendered the treatise a love song.
The new lobby houses a cozy check-in area, reinventing the way guests are
welcomed. This sitting area, void of clunky computers, showcases vintage
telephones from the past century, plush red velvet chairs and an overview of the
iconic indoor pool.
Terrazzo stairs leading down to The Hunt Room, distillery, fitness room and spa.
Today, as a result of the ambitious vision of the Cavalier Associates—developer Bruce Thompson and his five partners—and the work of a team of Hanbury Architects (formerly Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company), along with legions of designers, artisans and both business and civic leaders, this celebrated hotel is once again the belle of the debutante ball. Only this time, she curtsies both to the past and to the present, a stunning amalgamation of the finest that the early 20th and 21st centuries have to offer.
When the Associates purchased the property in 2013—the result of a family feud among the previous owners and a judge-ordered auction—their $37 million bid was, according to Thompson, the only one that included saving the Cavalier. It also included an incentive package from the City and both state and federal historic preservation tax credits which, asserts Thompson, represented “the largest historic tax credit deal ever done in the commonwealth.” Those credits were predicated on the hotel earning a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, which it did.
Something to write home about: Vintage postcards depicting the iconic Cavalier.
Images courtesy of Gold Key | PHR
The bones of the hotel’s former grandeur were all but hidden beneath layers of defects, deterioration and disrepair. No mere facelift could save this fair lady. As costs mounted, the partners remained resolved to repair, restore and rehabilitate this landmark with respect and reverence in order to leave behind the legacy that drove the project from the start. But before any work was initiated, 4,000 people streamed through the hotel over the course of two weeks on a shopping spree of sorts. A New York-based liquidator sold virtually everything not of historic significance, grossing $600,000. Thompson’s take was $200,000, four times more than he estimated.
While maintaining the historic shell of flooring, wood moldings, pilasters, doors, window frames and more—the entrance rotunda boasts all of its original paneling, handrails and terrazzo stairs—all electrical, mechanical and plumbing had to be replaced and new cabling, including Wi-Fi, added. Where possible, new systems were integrated into old spaces. In the Raleigh Room and the Ballroom, new HVAC equipment was inset into existing wall pockets that had held the original radiators. The old grille covers were cleaned and reinstalled to preserve the retro appearance.
In the process, Hanbury discovered a five-foot interstitial floor—essentially, explains Rutledge, “a catch basin for what happened above”—which became the mechanical space for the new hotel. One of the team’s greatest challenges—and there were many—was a water mitigation strategy necessitated by rain penetrating the hotel’s brick masonry veneer and mass masonry walls to the point that it had rusted and expanded the building’s structural steel frame, which, in turn had begun pulling the building apart at its corners.
Experts spent an entire year on swing scaffolding inspecting every square inch of the exterior with the result that each corner of the building’s three wings had to be rebuilt—though all materials that could be repaired were salvaged—and any compromised head joint replaced. Of the seemingly “never-ending process,” says Rutledge, they took “every preventative measure to stop corrosive damage for the next 100 years,” including painstakingly sealing the bricks.
The Raleigh Room
The Cavalier Hotel is part of a $350 million total project, which includes an extensive
Oceanfront development featuring a new Beach Club, slated to open in summer
2018, condos, hotels and a parking garage.
With 62 guest rooms and 23 suites—down from the original 195 rooms on five or six floors depending on the wing—the resplendent hotel, situated on 21 acres—down from the original 350—reflects the interior design vision of Stonehill & Taylor, executed on-site by Patricia Timm, following an extensive branding study. That study defined a “cavalier” as a gentleman-rogue, pulled a signature color palette from historic paintings and even determined a signature aroma.
The overall design simultaneously embraces both the old and new and the formal and the casual, giving birth to the tastefully edgy 21st century lovechild of a flapper and a cavalier. Throughout the lower and main levels, the gleaming original terrazzo floors laid in a checkboard pattern of warm neutrals established the color palette of whites, creams, taupes and browns. Pops of gold, apple green and red-violet provide rich elements of the unexpected. Gold gilt frames cozy up to whimsical occasional tables that look like gold-dipped tree stumps. Furnishing and accents with historic styling canoodle with sleek contemporary pieces.
Beach and nautical references are almost non-existent—after all, the actual ocean is visible through the expansive windows—limited to a trio of lanterns here or a globe-inspired chandelier there. The selection of chandeliers and fixtures in public spaces, driven by Kugler Ning Lighting, the project’s lighting design firm, is a glittering array of vintage-meets-contemporary illumination, all on dimmers to allow custom scene-setting throughout the hotel.
With an unchanged footprint, the hotel offers interwoven formal and casual, as well as indoor and outdoor, spaces, all of which are designed to convert to flexible event space. The Dining Porch, South or Raleigh Room Porch, the East Porch and the Pool Loggia all retain their original broken quarry tile flooring which signals each as a transitional space. One of the most enticing outdoor event spaces is the southern-facing Sunken Garden or Grotto. More intimate than its historic predecessor, this coveted wedding venue features “embracing arm” brick stairs, a central landing and landscaping lush with white-blooming plants.
The new incarnation of the hotel’s celebrated indoor saltwater pool belies its historic roots. Originally filled with salt water piped in from the ocean and referred to as “The Plunge,” this popular spot was pressed into service in 1942 as a classroom when the Navy took over the hotel to use as a radar training school until the end of WWII. Today’s sophisticated and sleek natatorium—an appealingly warm and humid space—stretches beneath an expansive skylight—its trusses and beams all original—half of which had been covered over during a previous unfortunate remodel.
A raised loggia stretches the length of the pool, its exterior wall punctuated by a long row of rhythmic arched windows and potted trees in white urns. Casual chic furniture upholstered in white forms conversation groupings overlooking the 72-foot-long rectangular pool with its new spa at one end and its tiled Cavalier monogram sparkling from the bottom. Though the beloved plaster lion head water spouts crumbled during the renovation, they have been replaced by nearly identical stone versions.