The Jefferson Hotel Elegance of A Bygone Era

Allison Chase Sutherland Features

The graceful circular drive at the entrance to the historic Jefferson Hotel welcomes you to a most remarkable place. Attentive valets greet you with gracious efficacy, and you begin to experience the gentility that awaits you. The grand lobby, also known as Palm Court, with its imposing marble statue of Thomas Jefferson, is overseen by a magnificent Tiffany stained-glass ceiling, capturing the fascination of guests for a truly incomparable reception.

The Jefferson Hotel, built in 1895 by Major Lewis Ginter, who named it after his hero, Thomas Jefferson, is brimming with history. A registered National Historic Landmark, this breathtaking neoclassical Beaux-Arts queen has reigned on her throne at the center of Richmond’s social life ever since its inception, having been graced by visits from thirteen presidents, as well as multitudes of celebrities and notables, including the Vanderbilts, Charlie Chaplin, Sir Edmond Hillary of Mt. Everest fame, and famed pianist Rachmaninoff, who tickled the ivories in the Grand Ballroom. Fortunately for us, the talented Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was “discovered” here as well, as he waited tables in the dining room. When it first opened, lavish galas were held in the rooftop garden by the iconic clock tower. We only dare imagine.

You will be drawn irrevocably to the Grand Staircase, which descends majestically to the ornate Rotunda Lobby, with its towering 70-foot-high ceilings, as you step into one of Richmond’s most sought-after locales to mark an important event. You may wish to celebrate just being here.

The hotel features 181 recently renovated rooms and suites. The Grand Premier room is more like the microcosm of a mansion. Enter the vestibule with smoke-mirrored minibar and proceed to the grand main room with high ceilings and windows, opulent draperies, elegant décor, antique furniture reproductions, crown molding, and black and white art deco photography. Crystal chandeliers grace the ceilings. The palatial bath is painted a fine hue of bluish-greenish-grayish Wedgewood, like the seaside in winter, with gray marble baths with separate shower and soaking tub to create an ideal space for relaxation. Guests also enjoy luxury bath linens, exquisite Molton Brown bath amenities, and plush bathrobes and cozy slippers. Even the towels bear the insignia. One unexpected detail was the TV seamlessly embedded in the vanity mirror. I was for the first time compelled to hang up my clothes at a hotel, but the setting calls for multiple wardrobe changes, nicely facilitated by the spacious adjoining dressing area.

The Jefferson Suite (1,400 sq. ft.) enjoys a marble balcony, or loggia, overlooking historic Franklin Street, as well as a grand piano. From this view overlooking the city, you may experience a golden moment as we did as the sun gilded the skyline of the Financial District and the buildings below.

The enchanting indoor swimming pool, lined by palm plants and wicker furniture, is reminiscent of another epoch. Guests may unwind in this haven beneath sun- or star-lit skylights. Modern folks may visit the extensive health club with its massage facilities and locker rooms.

Take time to visit the precious floral and garden shop, Blooms at the Jefferson. Off to the side you’ll chance upon a tiny shop called Gators Gifts—a “nod to whimsy,” as the Jefferson’s Jennifer Crisp so poetically describes, as she vividly recounts the riveting history of the property. Legend has it that people would vacation in sunny Florida—harkening to the days of tycoon Flagler’s railroad—and bring back baby alligators, who, up until 1948, came to live in the marble ponds in the Palm Court lobby. “After all, what do you do with a baby alligator when it starts to grow?”

Every time of year has its moment here. The Christmas tree lighting brings the joy of the holidays and children in their nicest sweaters and velvet dresses. Of course, weddings are always special. Really, just being here is special.

Culinary Jefferson

New American Cuisine with a Southern Accent

The mellifluous voice of your wake-up call even includes the weather—mostly sunny, maybe a little windy. Spa sounds emanate from the iHome clock radio to set the mood. Head down for breakfast in the Valentine Room with its original fireplace mantel. When they were passing out personality, they clearly gave cheery server Moude Osei a double dose. Highly recommended are the bacon cheddar stoneground grits with creole gravy. “Add blackened shrimp to the grits. It’s a serious game-changer.”

Did someone mention tea? A grande dame such as the Jefferson would most certainly adore Southern Afternoon Tea. Pastries, scones (with Devonshire cream), and finger sandwiches. Oh my! Speaking of grandes dames, if you’re lucky, you may just chance upon the queens of the Red Hat Society, or some Sassy Ladies of the South, sipping tea in dainty Villeroy & Boch teacups in their glorious hats at the Chocolate Lover’s Tea, as they hold court in Palm Court. Glamorous and fashionable—and as charming, hilarious, and life-embracing as can be—these delightful dignitaries know how it’s done.

Your next indulgence will be to experience yet another true Richmond tradition. Be serenaded by the velvety smooth jazz stylings of the Randall Pharr Trio as they cast a chill groove over Sunday Champagne Brunch, set among the massive marblesque Corinthian columns of the Rotunda Lobby at the foot of the Grand Staircase. Gaze over the realm from your perch on the Mezzanine, with portraits of our Colonial forefathers for company. With ice sculptures and Mr. Lunsford’s grand floral arrangements, it is the very definition of a level refinement reminiscent of a bygone era.  Feast not just your eyes upon Jefferson Benedict (with country ham and a flaky biscuit,) hickory-smoked bacon, Bananas Foster waffles, Southern Comfort & Cinnamon French Toast, oysters on the half shell, Tuscan kale soup, tender and juicy Thanksgiving carved turkey, signature spoonbread, fresh fruit, and tortes and tarts of all sorts.

The intimate TJ’s, a Southern American-style bistro, serves breakfast and lunch on the weekdays, but take a deep breath and revel in anticipation, as the best is yet to come. The jewel in the culinary crown, Lemaire Restaurant, with its eight distinct nooks, is named after the maître d’ to Thomas Jefferson when he was serving at the White House. Upholding the culinary standard is Chef Bundy, as he creates his own New American cuisine with versions of Southern classics within a seasonal menu offering a delicious foray into Virginia’s bounty from the farms of the Blue Ridge and the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

Start with house-cured pork belly carbonara with gnocchetti sardi, butterbeans, and soft egg in a savory parmesan broth. Next up, a most succulent certified Angus beef tenderloin in a green pepper demi-glace, accompanied by broccolini, beech mushrooms, and garlic butter mashed potatoes.  For dessert, feast your eyes and your palate upon an artful presentation of roasted peaches and cream panna cotta with miniature lavender meringues and blueberries.

After dinner or anytime, Lemaire Bar and lounge is the perfect spot to enjoy fabulous hand-crafted libations and modern twists on classic cocktails. The extensive wine list features award-winning Virginia wines from Barboursville and White Hall, as well as many an international varietal, with a robust selection of bottles under $30. You might even get to rub elbows with bigwigs the likes of Chrystal Neal, Senior Vice President of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, or the RVA, as it is affectionately called.

Richmond & Vicinity

Chrystal of the RVA has her finger on the pulse of this continually emerging urban landscape. She communicates clearly the accessibility and livability of the city. A lot of students from VCU and the University of Richmond who come to school here end up staying. “It’s convenient and comfortable. If you commute more than 20 minutes, that’s outrageous!” Tell that to a Northern Virginian. Yikes!

Richmond Magazine says the music around town is really happening, and Chrystal describes a “thriving restaurant scene,” with events such as Fire, Flour & Fork, which bring in guest chefs, who, along with local chefs, create collaborative thematic food-centric dinners around town. Other beckoning quarters of town include the quirky and eclectic Carytown with its vintage bookstores, clothing boutiques, and playful destinations like For the Love of Chocolate, with its nostalgic candy. Let yourself wander. You never know what you might find.

Natural havens within the city limits include Byrd Park, named after William Byrd II, considered to be the founder of Richmond. This extensive green sanctuary features several lakes and a Virginia War Memorial Carillon. Just to the north, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens is yet another beautiful expression of the generosity of The Jefferson’s founder. Also recommended by Richmond visitor and savvy traveler Deb Haag of Fairfax is the Riverfront Historical Canal Cruise close to the Canal Walk in historic Shockoe Slip. Some places are cool to visit and fun to say!

Along the way or on the way back, James River Cellars Winery is just 15 miles to the north In Glen Allen and produces a dazzling array of flavorful varietals. And the scenic James River itself offers wonderful opportunities for whitewater rafting and tubing, as we so thoroughly enjoyed on day trips from Charlottesville while students at the University of Virginia back in the day.

Footsteps on the Cobblestones of History

Nowadays I always seek out the old city center, the heartbeat of the city. Church Hill is another historic area with many restored buildings, according to locals Vishwa and Eric Link. Patrick Henry gave his famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech at nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church, built in 1741. On a personal historical footnote, my dad recounted the story of his great-uncle Jeremiah  Chase, a member of the state legislature, as were his brother and father, who was present during arguments before the Supreme Court of Appeals at the State Capitol in April 1870, and was seriously injured when the floor of the third-floor courtroom collapsed and crashed down into the chamber of the House of Delegates below. On a brighter note, his Aunt Ruth, who was great friends with the governor’s daughter when Governor Peery held office from 1934-1938, got to stay on occasion at the Governor’s Mansion.  I like to imagine our footsteps walking the same cobbles.

“It sweeps you away to a different time and place—a magical nearby staycation—grandeur, fine dining, museums—hospitality for days. I can’t believe we’re in Richmond. I feel like we’re somewhere in Europe,” noted astute Jefferson guest Dr. Wendy Leonard.

And in this genuinely genteel yet cosmopolitan context, the Jefferson Hotel represents a beacon across time, a pinnacle of artistic vision, a work of grace and beauty. A destination of discernment for centuries of well-heeled travelers, the Jefferson was not surprisingly recognized by Forbes magazine as the best hotel in America. It has been termed “historically significant and eternally relevant.”

Known at the time as Richmond’s wealthiest citizen, Lewis Ginter was born in New York and came to Richmond to determine his destiny. Having seen his fortunes turn on more than one occasion, he was replete with resilience. A classic Jeffersonian, he was cultured, gifted, and widely traveled, traits which I, of course, greatly admire. “This was his dream,” revealed the Jefferson’s Jennifer Crisp in all sincerity of philanthropist and hotelier Lewis Ginter, who imparted all that he loved of art and architecture to us. And, oh Mr. Ginter, what a dream it was.

Jefferson Hotel
101 West Franklin Street, Richmond, VA 23220

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Beyond Magnificent

With a treasure trove of 33,000 works of art in its permanent collection, the impressive galleries of the world-class Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, housed in a stellar masterpiece of modern architecture, run the gamut from Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman, Byzantine, Medieval, Renaissance, Indian, Nepalese, Tibetan, Pre-Columbian, Native American, and African, to the more recent schools of French Impressionism, including Monet, Renoir, and a bronze cast statue of Degas’s Little Dancer, to Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles, including a continuous Fabergé exhibition. You’ll find every unique trinket and keepsake imaginable in the thoughtful gift shop. The museum even includes its own comprehensive art library.

On the way back to the hotel, be sure to ask the shuttle driver to head down Monument Avenue, the only grand residential boulevard designated as a National Historic Landmark. Behold Colonial Revival, Spanish Colonial, Tudor Revival, French Renaissance, and Italian Renaissance mansions. Not only that, the driver will gladly drop you off anywhere along the designated route, as the hotel’s complimentary transportation service covers all of the city’s most popular shopping, entertainment venues, museums, and restaurants. Leave the keys in the room. You’re all set.

Fitting of a founder so fond of the arts, from January 1—February 20, 2017, the Jefferson Hotel’s Virginia Fine Arts Package includes two tickets to the VMFA exhibition, traditional Southern breakfast for two in the restaurant, valet parking and complimentary transportation to and from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch: Love, Loss and the Cycle of Life Exhibition displays more than 120 paintings, drawings, and prints. Amuse Restaurant overlooks the loveliest of city parks, where you can take a leisurely stroll by the fountains. In temperate weather, you might chance upon health enthusiasts doing yoga in the sculpture garden.  Allow yourself to enjoy the inspiration to be gleaned from every aspect of this exceptionally creative space. v

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
200 N. Boulevard, Richmond, VA 23220