“Um, shouldn’t we keep going?” I ask hesitantly as my husband pulls up in front of a modest door on the Main Street side of Richmond’s Hotel Jefferson. “Around the corner?”
“No, of course not,” replies said husband decisively, turning off the engine. “This is the entrance. It’s where it’s always been. Come on.”
Well, he’s the Richmonder. But I recall the entrance being a much flashier affair on the opposite side of the building. But that was quite a while ago, and memories, you know.
Anson strides up to and through the door, and, um, hmm. He stops in his tracks. “Well,” he says.
We’re standing between two shops at the front of the vast and magnificent lower lobby, a.ka. the Rotunda - look at that spectacular, enormous stained-glass skylight! - and there’s not a check-in desk or concierge in sight. We do have a straight-on view of the hotel’s famous sweeping staircase, though, the one they used to say was the model for the staircase scene in “Gone With the Wind.” Ha, not true, that’s been debunked - but it’s still one fabulous set of stairs.
I’m ready to march right up them, but my husband turns on his heel and heads back out the door. “OK, you’re right,” he says, getting back in the car. I bite my tongue to keep from saying you-know-what as we drive around the corner and up to the, yes, much flashier car-ported, door- and-bellman-staffed drive-up entrance off Franklin Street.
The Jefferson, Richmond’s bona fide, glorious grande dame of a hostelry, has experienced many changes over the years since it opened with huge fanfare in 1895. Up and down it’s gone, this grandiose, Spanish-style, betowered dream of tobacco millionaire Lewis Ginter, seesawing down the decades between good times and bad. And really bad. After a long decline starting in the 1950s, it grew shabbier and shabbier (in 1980, when I first saw it, it was a sad and seedy hulk) until it closed down altogether in the early ‘80s.
But it’s been resurrected twice since then, first in 1986 by Sheraton, and after that attempt faltered, again in 1991 by Historic Hotels. Which seems, from the looks of things, to be making quite the go of it.
The place was packed the weekend we stayed. There was a wedding on - what fancy hotel can survive without the bridal industry? - and just about every room was booked. We only got one because we called rather than take the website’s word for it that all the rooms were taken. Amazing how often hotels seem to find one if you call.
In my husband’s defense, the official entrance has rotated through the years. In the very beginning, there were even different male and female entries - ladies came in on Franklin Street, while the gents used Main, which led directly to their manly smoking quarters, barbershop, etc.
But now, the mezzanine lobby off Franklin is the official meet-and-greet area. And it’s abuzz as we walk in, with people coming and going, and guests sitting around on the elegant sofas in the Palm Court. We head over to what we assume is the registration desk, but oops, no, we’re the concierge, says a young woman manning the station. She sends us way to the back of the Palm Court, where a young fellow at a discreet recessed counter checks us in with much welcoming patter.
I’m agog at the Palm Court’s gorgeous Tiffany stained-glass skylights here, too, but the centerpiece is the life-size statue of Thomas Jefferson. Story goes that the sculptor even got hold of some of the Founding Father’s clothing to fashion the replica. And that the statue used to face in a different direction, but now it faces toward Jefferson Street (appropriate, no?).
What made the Palm Court legendary, though, were the alligators that once dwelt in shallow pools at Jefferson’s feet. At least, so they say. Nowadays, there are just a few metal replicas. There’s a small one along the staircase, and a larger, life-size one at the hotel entrance - that’s Ol’ Pompey, the last of his crew, who died in 1948. Of course we must take a picture with him. Everybody does.
The Jefferson is just drop-dead gorgeous. Those fantastic colorful skylights. The massive, grapevine-draped faux-marble columns in the Rotunda. The lush carpets. The shining marble flooring. The elegant, high-ceilinged Lemaire restaurant (where we have a very nice but not spectacular dinner).
Of course, those are the public areas. Which are really why you come here. Because the rooms themselves - well, we only stay in one, of course. There are 262, including 36 suites, and I’m sure that some, especially the suites, are swish. Ours, however, though very nicely appointed in a traditional style, isn’t particularly swanky, and quite - there’s no other word for it - small. So often the case in these old hotels, especially after renovations when all those private baths have to be put in.
The bathroom is pretty small, too, though it’s marble and has a full tub and all the amenities (Molton Brown toiletries, nice!). But then there are . . . the lights. Or more precisely, the lack of light. I keep fiddling with the dimmer switch for the recessed lamps above the sink and mirror, but they don’t get bright enough. Thanks for the makeup mirror, guys, but it’s not going to be much help in the dark.
But then again, maybe I don’t need that makeup. After evening drinks at TJ’s, the casual eatery in the Rotunda, we’re wandering around exploring (we even peer in at the wedding reception in the ballroom) and my husband suddenly remarks, “They’re big on low lights here, aren’t they?” Because every corner exudes a soft, dim romantic glow.
Aha, I think. Of course. It must be part of the plan. A kindness to guests of a certain age, perhaps. You know. The kind whose memories lead them to an entrance on the wrong side of the hotel.
Want to go?
The Jefferson Hotel, 101 W. Franklin St., Richmond
For information 804-649-4750, www.jeffersonhotel.com
Rooms from $275.