For more than 125 years The Jefferson has welcomed visitors to the Richmond Region and served the city’s residents as a gathering place for social, business and charity events.
THE HOTEL’S BEGINNING
Opened in 1895, The Jefferson Hotel was the dream for a man who was recognized as one of Richmond's most modest and generous citizens. Lewis Ginter was born in 1824 in New York to 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 during the Civil War. After the war, he returned to New York where he made a second fortune in the banking industry only to lose it to a recession.
At age fifty, Ginter returned to Richmond and entered the tobacco business. He made millions marketing the pre-rolled cigarette before selling his interest in the tobacco company and entering his fourth career, land development.
To create this dream, Ginter 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, the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, Florida, as well as portions of the Commonwealth Club in Richmond.
Per Ginter’s wishes, The Jefferson 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 Hotel 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 HOTEL’S OPENING
It is estimated that between $5 and $10 million went into planning, building and furnishing the hotel, with $2 million spent on construction. The planning and building process took nearly three years with Ginter supervising every detail. He imported exotic palm trees from Central and South America and purchased hundreds of valuable antiques domestically and abroad. He saw to it that the hotel had billiard rooms, a library, a wine cellar, 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. The Jefferson has also been credited with introducing the “trunk rest” which was a small stand for guests to rest their suitcase or trunk for unpacking and packing.
Ginter's dream was fulfilled on October 31, 1895. The Jefferson opened to an awed and delighted public. 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".
THE EARLY YEARS
Sadly, Ginter passed away on October 2, 1897 at the age of 73. His legacy includes The Jefferson but also Ginter Park and the parcel that now serves as one of the city’s most popular attractions, Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens.
In 1901, a defective wire started a fire that demolished three-fifths of The Jefferson. 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. A group of citizens, including James Dooley (Maymont) and Joseph Bryan (Bryan Park), 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 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 massive faux marble columns were added in Rotunda. The Grand Staircase and The Mezzanine, both formerly enclosed behind arched walls, were opened and the hotel expanded to include 220 new rooms, in addition to the 110 remaining from the original structure. A 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. The new Jefferson resumed its grand traditions 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.
The Jefferson’s alligators that soon came to live in the marble pools in the Palm Court became a source of much interest. Richmonders and hotel guests enthusiastically donated pet alligators to the hotel as they became too large to occupy sinks and bathtubs. The last alligator, named Old Pompey, remained at The Jefferson until he died in 1948. Today you will find whimsical references to these legendary reptiles throughout the hotel.
A SLOW DECLINE
During World War II, the hotel had a government contract to lodge recruits and served as a permanent resident for more than one hundred occupants. In March 1944, the hotel had another fire, this time tragically claiming the lives of six people. Necessary repairs and replacements were made a gradual decline began.
In 1980, the Jefferson Hotel was closed to everyone except an occasional movie maker who used it as a set. One of these was Louis Malle, who filmed his masterpiece My Dinner With Andre in the Grand Ballroom.
Richmonders again began to dream of the possibility of a grand reopening one day.
Three years later a local developer took the lead, organizing 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.
Glorious stained-glass windows were retrieved from storage and refurbished. Decorative carvings on ceilings and gold-leaf ornamentation were carefully restored. 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 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 and furnishing were resurrected. The hotel’s original mailbox, embossed with an eagle, rosettes and lettering, remains beside the Concierge Desk today. Even some of the items sold in the auction were returned - poignant proof of the community's concerned interest in preserving the landmark.
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 JEFFERSON TODAY
On July 2, 1991, The Jefferson was sold to the Richmond-based Historic Hotels of Richmond, LLC. 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 The Jefferson was honored by Mobil (now Forbes Travel Guide) 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 Ginter's dream.
In March 2013, The Jefferson Hotel began a 3-phase reconstruction project. The hotel's 262 guest rooms were quietly transformed into 181 spacious new rooms and suites, featuring entry foyers, dressing areas and luxurious new marbled baths. Each of the magnificent public spaces within the hotel also received a refresh, including new furnishings in the Rotunda and Palm Court lobbies that convey the residential feel found in the new guest rooms. The ceiling of the Rotunda lobby was restored and repainted to preserve it for generations to come. Lemaire Restaurant was also refurnished and the hotel's signature ballroom spaces - Grand Ballroom, Empire Ballroom and Flemish Room - received fresh color palates, LED lighting and carpeting.
The Jefferson's history would not be complete without mention of the numerous dignitaries and celebrities to visit over the last 125 years.
No less than thirteen Presidents- Harrison, McKinley, Wilson, Coolidge, Taft, both Roosevelts (Theodore and Franklin Delano), Truman and Reagan, both Bushes (George H.W. and George W.), Clinton and Obama - have stayed at the hotel. Early in the hotel’s history, there were visits by John D. Rockefeller, Sarah Bernhardt, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Lady Nancy Astor, Sir Edmund Hillary, Charlie Chaplin, Nelson Eddy, Robert Mitchum, Ray Charles, Charles Lindbergh, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. In more recent years, a wide variety of actors, musicians, politicians, foreign dignitaries and other luminaries have visited including legends such as Prince, Charlton Heston, James Brown, General Norman Schwarzkopf, Paul Newman, Rosemary Clooney, Charles Kuralt, Margaret Thatcher, Robin Williams, Jerry Garcia, Carol Channing, John Denver and Mary Tyler Moore.
During your stay at The Jefferson Hotel we invite you to visit our museum located at the bottom of the legendary Grand Staircase. The museum was established in 1985 in celebration of the hotel’s centennial anniversary and we continue to add to the collection of interesting artifacts from the hotel’s rich history.