The Gilded Age lives on

Short Hop

Richmond: Newly renovated, the grand old Jefferson Hotel knows how to treat its guests well.

June 25, 2000|By Stephanie D. Fletcher | Stephanie D. Fletcher,Special to the Sun

The Palm Court lobby of the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Va., is a prime spot for people-watching. On a recent Saturday night, my husband and I planted ourselves on a love seat and watched the show.

First, a bride and groom in full wedding regalia swept by our settee. Ten minutes later, another resplendent pair of newlyweds walked past. They descended the marble steps of the Grand Staircase to a reception party amid a volley of camera flashes and a chorus of "oohs!"

Pretty girls in pastel prom dresses and handsome boys in tuxedos crossed the Palm Court from stretch limos to Lemaire, the Jefferson's five-star restaurant. And a contingent in town for a bar mitzvah headed out the front doors in a festive whirl.

It was easy to imagine similar galas from the hotel's illustrious past, when partygoers such as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Charlie Chaplin, presidents, tycoons, socialites, diplomats, even Elvis Presley, made their way across the Jefferson's polished floors.

Southern belle Irene Langhorne and her fiance Charles Dana Gibson -- artist and creator of the Gibson Girl -- were among the first to party at the Jefferson when the hotel opened in 1895.

Since then, many grand occasions have taken place at this grand hotel.

The Plaza in New York, the Peabody in Memphis, the Fairmont in San Francisco, the Driscoll in Austin, and the Jefferson in Richmond -- all are members of an exclusive group, distinguished by noble architecture, exquisite interiors, impeccable service, exceptional amenities and fascinating histories.

Recently renovated

A white brick Beaux Arts masterpiece, the Jefferson has recently undergone a $4 million face lift. A new entry faces the corner of Adams and Franklin streets, an indoor pool and sunning terrace add comforts, and the hotel's award-winning restaurant now features a glass-enclosed Victorian-style conservatory.

The hotel entrance, moved from Main Street, now features a brick-paved plaza, fountain and overarching porte-cochere to protect guests from bad weather. A liveried valet handles parking and a uniformed doorman accompanies visitors to glass portals. Automatic doors swing inward into a reception area where staff members greet and direct guests.

The public areas of the hotel ooze opulence and glamour. The Palm Court lobby features fluted pillars, luxurious furnishings, a spectacular stained glass skylight and a complement of arched Tiffany windows.

The centerpiece of the space is an Edward Valentine sculpture of Thomas Jefferson. The life-size white marble statue stands on a pedestal in a pool of light. High tea is served under Jefferson's benevolent gaze Thursday through Sunday.

The Grand Staircase leads down from the Palm Court to the rotunda. The look is palatial -- a double tier of massive garland-swathed faux marble Corinthian columns supports a 70-foot ceiling encrusted with lavishly painted and gilded decorations and inset with a stained glass skylight.

Contrary to what its name implies, the rotunda is not round but rectangular. One corner contains a small museum where memorabilia, newspapers and photographs document the impressive 100-year history of the hotel. The rotunda furnishes a lavish setting for the hotel's famous Sunday champagne brunch.

The Jefferson's 274 guest quarters offer a variety of accommodations, from single rooms to the Presidential Suite.

My husband and I chose a double room that featured a refined color scheme of celery green, burnished gold and cranberry red and was tastefully furnished with mahogany -- a pencil-post bed, armoire, writing desk and marble-topped table.

A gilt-framed mirror, an Audubon bird print and a pair of botanical drawings accentuated the walls. In the marble was a basket of high-quality toiletries. White terry bathrobes and slippers were in the closet.

The health club at the Jefferson also rates a gold star. The basement complex offers two spaces for exercising -- one room stocked with cardiovascular equipment and a larger space dedicated to weight training. It's a plus that an attendant is on duty.

The facility also provides locker rooms, two massage rooms and a pantry area stocked with complementary bottled water and fresh fruit. In addition, Jefferson guests have privileges at the new YMCA across Franklin Street.

Dining options

If you are skeptical about hotel dining, Lemaire, the Jefferson's gourmet street-floor restaurant, will be a pleasant surprise.

Lemaire was named for Thomas Jefferson's White House maitre d'hotel, an accomplished chef who introduced the art of cooking with wine to America.

The restaurant offers eight gorgeously appointed intimate dining rooms, solicitous service and superb New Southern Cuisine.

My husband and I loved the cornmeal-crusted oysters on a bed of creamy grits, chilled vichyssoise and sauteed Virginia crab cakes served with fresh vegetables and saffron rice.

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