VIRGINIA BEACH — Memorable cities have architectural epicenters, those singular places you can sense are the hearts of things. In Washington, it's the National Mall. Downtown Lynchburg's heart is the Memorial Steps, a cascading outdoor staircase. Richmond has Capitol Square.
Beach towns are trickier. Consider Virginia Beach, our state's largest city. For some, the center might be the stretch of boardwalk near 31st Street with its impressive, 34-foot-tall Neptune statue. But for those venturing northward up the oceanfront, the Cavalier Hotel, at 44th Street and Pacific Avenue, is the bull's-eye. This recently renovated hostelry, a grand colonial revival concoction-- with a tower inspired by the Renaissance architect James Gibbs, and interior detailing that reflects historic house decor in Tidewater — has lorded over the Beach for 92 summers. Not everyone can afford its 85 standard rooms, and some may find it a tad elegant for a sojourn near sand and surf, but reborn, it is an exquisitely welcoming place, if only for a drink or a stroll, that exudes history.
Like the venerable Jefferson in Richmond, before its restoration the Cavalier experienced years of neglect. But this season, following an exhausting, respectful and glamorous makeover, is has become a must-visit destination. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald posited "there are no second acts in American lives" in "The Last Tycoon." But even that erudite Cavalier patron — who lodged here on occasional visits to Norfolk cousins during its jazz-age period — was wrong. Despite those wanting to bulldoze this grande dame of American hotels, its comeback is impressive. Hansbury Evans Wright Vlattas and Co., a blue-chip Norfolk architectural firm, which some years ago designed the conversion of Richmond's palacelike Branch House into the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design, has created spaces that are stylish but unpretentious.
"It is the finest resort hotel in the country and I have seen them all," J. Leslie Kincaid, president of the American Hotels Corp., proclaimed with hyperbole at its opening in April 1927. The Y-shaped, seven-story complex was designed by another distinguished Norfolk architect, Clarence Amos Neff, who had studied at Columbia University. Initially, Neff had worked in New York for Emmanuel-Louis Hasqneray, a French-born architect who instilled the beaux-arts model of design that adapted classicism to the needs of large 20th century buildings. In 1910, Neff designed the clubhouse at Richmond's Country Club of Virginia.
The Cavalier, built atop a prominent hill (actually a sand dune), initially had 195 guest rooms. It also boasted doctors' offices, a photographer and a stockbroker with a ticker tape machine connected to the New York Stock Exchange. At one time the hotel housed WSEA, one of only three radio stations nationwide that broadcasted coast-to-coast. Entertainment and sports figures who stayed here included Elizabeth Taylor, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Doris Day, Bette Davis and Muhammad Ali. It played host to every United States president from Calvin Coolidge to Jimmy Carter.
On the 1929 Memorial Day weekend, just months before the stock market crash, the Cavalier Beach Club opened at the foot of the hill on the oceanfront. It was a major stop for big bands — Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, Glenn Miller and Lawrence Welk. Frank Sinatra also performed here.
Weathering the Great Depression, the Cavalier saw its fortunes change in 1942 when it was appropriated by the Navy for radar training during World War II. Horse stables were converted to sailors' quarters and military vehicles were repaired in the hotel garage. German POWs maintained the grounds. Postwar, American vacation patterns became more informal with interstate cloverleafs feeding motels. In 1959, the Dixon family of Buckingham County purchased the Cavalier but was court-ordered to sell the property in 2012 amid a family feud.
It was purchased by Cavalier Associates, an investment group. To make the math for redevelopment work, it used historic preservation tax credits for the renovation and subdivided the 21-acre site, in an upscale part of town, for a number of stand-alone townhomes. Now, the so-called Cavalier Residences, despite tight turns in the driveway, line the greensward slope that leads to the grand hotel. These townhomes, which are designed in a range of early 20th-century domestic styles, from arts and crafts to neoclassical, are more successfully designed than comparably priced complexes being built in the Richmond vicinity today. They are well proportioned and have convincing detailing.
But despite these additions to the hillside site, the hotel still rules as a thrilling place-maker by-the- sea. I don't know what was in the water in 1927 — whether fresh, saltwater or brackish — but that year saw a slew of handsome residential high rises being built in Virginia. In Hampton, there was the Chamberlin Hotel designed by Richmond architect Marcellus Wright of Richmond, who also designed the John Marshall Hotel here that year. Meanwhile, the Tuckahoe Apartments across from the Country Club of Virginia were designed by W. Duncan Lee, and the Prestwould that fronts Monroe Park was designed by Alfred Bossom.
While the Cavalier has been painstakingly restored, there are some changes and updates. The former Pocahontas Room, the elegant dining room, has been re-christened Becca's, short for Rebecca, the Native American princess' Christian name.