Monday, July 11, 2011

The Hotel on the Hill

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.

Misty Memories, 2003

Cavalier Hotel Entrance, 2011

Cavalier Lobby, 2011

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.

Cavalier Pool Loggia, 2011

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.

Let the Light In, 2011

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.

Fresh Paint, 2011

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.


  1. Looks grand! I hope they manage to keep it afloat. Sad to see such grandeur decline...

  2. Thanks for the walk down Memory Lane! I remember this place as one of the few authentic and glamorous touchstones of the big band years at the beach which my parents delighted in. It has character and its own special style. I hope it stays around forever...

  3. Your wonderful photos make me want to go and visit too. I remember it's where we all went/stayed for the traditional Trip to Va Beach right after high school Graduation, but I don't remember anything about it! (Architecture being less on my mind then than the social aspects of being down there at 18 yrs old!) I think I probably stayed there as a child too...
    It's heart-wrenching to think that it could be lost. Let's hope not. Thanks for the history.

  4. The Cavalier is about the most interesting thing in Virginia Beach, (other than First Landing State Park). It would be a serious shame if it were to go.

  5. I bethink this abode as one of the few accurate and alluring touchstones of the big bandage years at the bank which my parents captivated in. It has appearance and its own appropriate style.

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  6. Hotel on the Hill is a wold famous hotel. It is my favorite hotel as compare to other hotel. This hotel rooms are very big and looking nice.

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