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Virginia's Genteel Charm

By EARL SHORES

© St. Petersburg Times


We pulled off Franklin Street into the Jefferson Hotel courtyard -- and into another world.

Vines climbed on brick columns and latticework, forming a green canopy that covered the sidewalk, where bellhops and parking attendants hustled baggage onto sturdy carts and through the hotel's front door.

The massive, white-brick building rising behind them took up an entire city block, and I barely had time to admire the hotel's majestic clock tower before I was greeted.

"Checking in, sir?"

In a flash, our baggage was wheeled through the door.

"Is this your first visit with us, sir?"

After my affirmative nod, I was led through the lobby to the front desk. And what a desk! Handsome dark wood, with an ornately carved lower panel supporting a green-marble top. A tall Gothic column guarded each side.

We had, indeed, found what we had hoped for: a charming, historic, southern city with a hotel to match.

We had arrived in Richmond well before our 3 p.m. check-in, and after getting our bearings, we headed for the revitalized and historic Shockoe Slip area along the James River. Because of its site, Shockoe Slip was Richmond's center of commerce from the early 1600s until the Civil War, when it was burned by retreating Confederate troops.

The area was rebuilt after the war but declined during the next century as commercial water transportation was replaced by railroads and tractor-trailers.

The contemporary rejuvenation of Shockoe Slip began in the early 1970s and was clearly evident as our car rumbled over the narrow, recobbled streets. Once-rundown warehouses and taverns were now tidy brick buildings, housing an eclectic assortment of upscale shops and restaurants. We parked on a side street, next to a restored warehouse converted to an apartment building, and followed the brick sidewalk to the heart of the Slip, Cary Street.

There we stood goggle-eyed in front of the Toymaker of Williamsburg, and we window-shopped for clothing at several shops. The smell of food filled the air, but the Tobacco Company and the Queen's Arms Pub were still bustling with the lunch rush, so we put lunch on hold and made our way to the state Capitol.

Although it was only two blocks to Capitol Square, they were uphill, and then another climb to the summit of the square to reach the Capitol. With the sun still high, the white-columned building glowed as we huffed our way toward it.

From the deserted marble steps, the view was magnificent. The tall buildings of the financial district were to our right, the squat cluster of Shockoe Slip was to our left, and beyond both was the James River. Capitol Square itself was gorgeous; a more appropriate name for the six square blocks of pastoral landscape containing the Capitol, the Governor's Mansion and the Old City Hall might be Capitol Green.

When we walked up the steps and past the great columns to the entrance of the Capitol, we could sense history. The central part of the building was designed by Thomas Jefferson and completed in the late 1780s.

The wave of history grew as we opened the doors to find a life-size statue of George Washington staring from the rotunda. The striking statue is an original by Jean-Antoine Houdon (a copy is at Valley Forge) and is surrounded along the walls of the rotunda by the busts of the several other presidents from Virginia.

But to get a complete history of Richmond you need to wander into the Old Hall of the House. Not 10 yards away from the Father of Our Country stands the statue of another famous general from Virginia: Robert E. Lee.

We caught the last part of a guided tour and then strolled back down the square to Shockoe Slip for a tasty lunch at the Tobacco Company, a three-story restaurant occupying a renovated tobacco warehouse.

Then we headed to the hotel. But once past the check-in point, there was a glitch: Our room wasn't ready. We sat down and scoped out the lobby.

Our eyes immediately moved to the statue of the hotel's namesake, Jefferson, which stands in the center lobby. But we soon noticed the large, round, stained-glass ceiling. It was beautiful, and bathed the entire lobby in warm light (aided by 12 smaller stained-glass windows along the upper walls), inviting guests to sit on the groupings of elegant French provincial furniture and bask in its grandeur.

It was tea time, so we joined other couples in the lobby for tea and petits fours, on the house.

Soon our room keys were hand-delivered, and we were led down a long, second-floor hallway by a white-gloved bellhop. After opening our corner suite, he hung up and laid out our luggage and explained the evening's dinner possibilities, including the hotel's acclaimed Lemaire restaurant. (Lemaire was the name of Jefferson's White House chef.)

Our high-ceilinged, two-room suite was elegant and, more important, comfortable. The furniture continued the French provincial motif of the lobby, with two overstuffed sofas flanking a square coffee table in the living room. A nonfunctioning fireplace occupied the wall opposite a tall window overlooking Franklin Street. The bedroom held an armoire containing a television and wet bar, a round marble table with two upholstered chairs, and another window that looked out onto the hotel courtyard and the city skyline.

A call to the concierge got us reservations for Lemaire, where we dined later on black-bean crab soup and red snapper with orange sauce over angel-hair pasta. The wine list was extensive and well-priced, and the service and presentation were impeccable.

The next morning, we took a post-breakfast walk down tree-and-rowhouse-lined Franklin Street, which displays Richmond's grace. The walk back, on West Main, however, showed empty storefronts and buildings in need of repair. Reinforcing this urban reality were three groggy homeless men, walking from behind the public library.

Back at the Jefferson, the desk clerks were gracious at checkout, and our car was waiting at the door. As we drove out of the city north toward our home near Baltimore, thoughts of dirty laundry and a trip to the supermarket invaded my head. But I fought them off until the Richmond station faded from our radio, fittingly, during a song by Bruce Hornsby, Virginia native son:

"Yeah, some fine day. . . ." If you go Getting there: Several airlines serve Richmond, with connections, from Tampa International Airport. Staying there: The Jefferson Hotel, (800) 424-8014, regular weekend rates run from $130 up to $155 for a suite. A Romance Package, including dinner for two at Lemaire with wine or champagne, plus breakfast in bed, is $325. In the Shockoe Slip area, the intimate European-style Berkeley Hotel, (804) 780-1300, weekend rates are $119 or $125. Richmond also has a full inventory of chain hotels and motels. Eating there: The Jefferson's Lemaire is perfect if you're looking for a special-occasion dinner, but dinner for two will run at least $100 with wine, dessert and tip. More reasonable are the Berkeley Hotel restaurant and the Tobacco Company right across the street. Don't miss: Free guided tours of the state Capitol and the Canal Walk, which combines a pleasant stroll along the James River with a history lesson. For more information: For other information about Richmond, contact the Metro Richmond Visitors Center, (804) 358-5511 or (800) 370-9004. Earl Shores is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.

Originally published March 2, 1997



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