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.
Each guest room is a luxurious and subtlely whimsical mix of clean, contemporary lines and curvy arabesques punctuated with distinctly contemporary art that nods to the past. Lavishness bubbles just below the surface of design restraint. The six “Legacy Suites”—one per floor—represent a dramatic departure in that each was named after and appointed by one of the Cavalier Associates who had free reign over the interior design. Historic photographs of some of the hotel’s most famous guests, including 10 presidents and celebrities such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, grace the corridors between rooms as well as other public spaces.
The gracious baths are clad in sophisticated Carrara marble. Double console sinks with chrome bases and hardware and clawfoot tubs are vintage chic, while frameless oval mirrors with integrated lighting inject 21st century style. White bed and bath linens, robes, slippers and high-end bath products provide pampering at its purest.
Helping to fashion the Cavalier as a dining destination with a broad reach are Becca, the Hunt Room and The Raleigh Room, which is referred to as the heart of the hotel. A parlor by day and a lounge by night, guests can enjoy breakfast in the morning, tea and scones in the afternoon, cocktails in the evening and board games by the fire any time of day or night. The Cavalier’s culinary program—including all banquets, catered functions, weddings and events—is the purview of Executive Chef Dan Elinan, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, New York. Locally of Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront fame, Elinan earned his national and international fine dining chops in some of the world’s most sophisticated food cities.
Becca, the Hunt Room and Tarnished Truth Distillery—the only distillery fully integrated into a U.S. hotel—were redesigned by JC Schaub, formerly with Streetsense, where he did most of the work for the Cavalier, and now on his own as 5th Edition Design. According to Schaub, Becca, a nickname for Rebecca, which was Pocahontas’s Christian name, occupies the space that was the Pocahontas Room, so named for a large painting of the historic Powhatan princess. Schaub based his design on the popular garden-to-table movement explaining that, “The design of the restaurant centered on the idea of a functioning chef’s garden.”
The focus of his design is the outdoor garden where he describes the lush functioning herb gardens as “dining rooms themselves.” Inside, overlooking the garden is the historic veranda, which brings the garden elements indoors. In contrast, the main dining room is much more intimate with dark perimeter walls played off against the historic white moldings, antiqued mirrors and white tablecloth service. “This space is very much about the food and the celebration of the herbal English garden,” Schaub notes.
Tarnished Truth Distillery
Courtesy of Gold Key | PHR
The hinge of an old boiler door is now on display in The Hunt Room.
The Hunt Room
The Hunt Room—a Prohibition-era tavern with its renowned fireplace dismantled, repaired and rebuilt brick-by-brick—projects an entirely different vibe. According to Schaub, “This ‘room’ with its huge historic fireplace and hunting theme was, back in the hotel’s heyday, very much the spot to come and drink whiskey after a hunt. This feel and nostalgia of a communal pub was the driving design idea of the Hunt Room. Images of hunting dogs, equestrian scenes and foxes are surrounded by hunting paraphernalia and trophies. Backdropped by the functioning Tarnished Truth Distillery, the space renews the evening gathering spot with copper, walnut trim and deep forest green.”
Offering distinctive libations and a unique experience worthy of this iconic destination, Josh Canada and Andrew Yancey opened Tarnished Truth Distilling Company (what really went on at the Cavalier?). The operation includes on-premises processing, bottling, tastings and sales in handsomely designed spaces with a vintage vibe. Steel-framed blast-proof windows allow guests ample views of the copper still and vodka tower, both works of art in their own right. A retrofitted piece of the hotel’s old boiler serves as a viewing window from the Hunt Room. Tarnished Truth’s system design, including the still, mash tank, fermenters and vodka tower, is the work of Vitok. Vendome Copper & Brass Works fabricated all of the distillery’s process equipment, including the copper still and vodka tower.
The renovated pool area includes a jetted hot tub and infinity edge pool.
Adjacent to the lobby on the lower level, the SeaHill Spa is the ultimate in tranquility. Designed by Retnauer Baynes Architects, the space’s 6,200 square feet of serenity features nine treatment rooms, soaking tubs, a full-service salon, a retail boutique and an ocean of marine- and even bourbon-inspired massages, body wraps, facials and more. Guests can slow down the pace in the Himalayan Salt Room, the hydrotherapy pool, sauna and steam rooms or the Serenity Lounge. Intersecting curves and natural materials in soft sea glass tones are the epitome of a pristine and soothing cocoon-like respite.
A pair of state-of-the-art meeting rooms, pre-function space and the Crystal Ballroom join a gift shop, the Cavalier Museum and a fitness center to round out the hotel’s multiple uses, helping to insure that there is really no reason to venture off site, unless of course it is the lure of the sea just across Atlantic Avenue.
Though long gone are the hunting preserve, lodge, manor house and more which once occupied the Cavalier parcel, the winding present-day approach to the hotel and new 2.5-story parking garage through The Cavalier Residences is nonetheless enticing. Comprising this charming gated community are over 80 homes whose coastal vernacular recalls a bygone era in accordance with the Cavalier Residences Pattern Book. Snugly situated among the native live oaks and new landscaping are brownstones, bungalows, cottages, carriage houses and estate homes ranging in size from 500 to 4,000 square feet, many with ocean views. The appealing neighborhood is woven together by brick paver-lined pedestrian walkways, alleyways and streets named after jazz and big band performers who frequented the Old Beach Club.
But if you can’t live here, you will want to stay here. Or, at the very least, dine, drink and indulge here … often. Prepare to fall in love with the Cavalier Hotel all over again.