Anyone for Cards? 2011
For those of us who grew up in Virginia Beach when it was still a small town, one of our most enduring landmarks is the Cavalier Hotel. Opened just before the onset of the Great Depression, the Cavalier sits atop a natural sand dune overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. When it opened it featured such amenities as resort shops, stables, a library, kennels, a sunken floral garden, a golf course, yachting center and beach club. Back then you could step onto a train in Chicago and travel non-stop to the Cavalier’s own private rail station in Virginia Beach.
In those days, the guest room baths had different spigots for hot water, cold water, ice-cooled water and salt water. The Cavalier was the kind of place where you dressed formally for dinner. In the summer guests strolled down the hill to the Beach Club to dance and be entertained by the likes of Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, the Dorseys, Woody Herman, Bing Crosby, Artie Shaw and the Glenn Miller Orchestra. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald stayed there. Presidents from Calvin Coolidge to Richard Nixon, too.
The U.S. Navy took over the hotel during WWII for use as a radar training school. The indoor pool was emptied and used as a classroom. The stables were cleared and turned into dorms.
After the war, everything was different. The days when the well-to-do traveled with steamer trunks, hunting dogs and servants were over. Like a dowager who’s lost her wealth, the Cavalier fought to keep its face up against increasingly competitive conditions and an America infatuated with automobiles and motels.
Still, up through the years of my youth in the 1950s and early 1960s the Cavalier was the place for social events of any repute. My sister learned to swim in the Cavalier’s indoor pool. I attended cotillions in the elegant ballroom upstairs. When you drove up the hill and Carlos or one of the other doormen reached out to open the door you felt that you’d really arrived.
By the late 1960s, however, the fate of the hotel was in question. The old place was wearing out and expensive to maintain. In 1973, the Cavalier’s owners built a new high-rise hotel across the street on the oceanfront. It was nice, but didn’t set the same standard for luxury that the old place had.
Meanwhile, the old hotel on the hill fell into greater disrepair. Periodic renovations were done to keep the place open and patch together ancient mechanical systems. Every few years there was talk of some new scheme for adding a new wing or guest room tower. But all these ideas were ultimately dismissed as too costly and not structurally sustainable on the sandy dune. There began to be talk that the hotel on the hill might even be demolished.
The hotel was saved when a farmer from the rural Southside of Virginia who’d become fabulously wealthy when a very rare and valuable mineral was found on his property stepped in. The old man was a crusty dude, given to drinking and holing up in a suite of rooms in the old servant’s lodge down the hill behind the hotel. But he loved the Cavalier and refused to let the old hotel on the hill be razed.
In 2011, the Cavalier is still an independent property owned by the farmers’ descendants. The oceanfront hotel stays open year-round. The old hotel on the hill is used occasionally for social and corporate events throughout the year, but opens for overnight guests only during the summer.
I heard recently from a friend who’s knowledgeable about such things that the hotel on the hill is again at risk. This prompted me to go down and walk around its main floor once again. The hotel opened for the season a few weeks ago and sports a fresh coat of paint. The public spaces are spruced up and I could see where the ballroom is getting a decorator’s face lift.
So maybe the old hotel on the hill isn’t going anywhere for a while. And until it does, those of us with old memories of the Cavalier will continue to gather for a drink and dinner in the Hunt Room Grill, a basement space that in the hotel’s heyday was a private club for male guests. It’s only open now between New Year’s Day and Easter while the oceanfront hotel’s rooftop dining room closes for the winter. The food’s nothing to write home about. But they keep a fire going in the giant fireplace and the bar’s a congenial place to tell stories and swap memories.