Virginia Beach’s Landmark Cavalier Hotel Nearly Collapsed; Now It’s Ready for Another 100 Years

Although the Cavalier’s bones needed radical reconstructive surgery, the grandest public spaces only needed cosmetic attention.
Although the Cavalier’s bones needed radical reconstructive surgery, the grandest public spaces only needed cosmetic attention.

Upstairs, the team received permission from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Richmond, to make one major change: combining two rooms into one (as long as the original circulation path was maintained) to substantially increase the size of each room. But it took a more than 200-room hotel down to 85 rooms. “You almost never want to reduce the number of rooms in a hotel. Most people are fighting to get more rooms,” Cuffee explains. “But we felt we had to deliver the guest experience that we wanted.” Despite the added space per room, general contractor W.M. Jordan Co., Newport News, Va., and subcontractor JRC Mechanical, Chesapeake, Va., also faced a kind of Houdini act to give the Cavalier all new plumbing and electrical wiring without disturbing the rooms’ historic ceilings.

According to Nathan Berryman, vice president of operations for JRC Mechanical, in the hotel’s heyday, the water tower on top of the building had a vat in which maintenance workers tossed blocks of ice. The water then was gravity-fed into the building so guests would have cold water. During the renovation, a flexible PEX product was run through the interstitial space between the hotel’s irreplaceable ceilings and its floors. “When it comes to a plumbing and mechanical system in this type of building, one of the largest challenges is the space constraints,” Berryman states. “We had to run large diameter piping throughout the entire build- ing, and we wondered how we would be able to do that given the space constraints. It is one of the reasons we [used PEX].”

The Cavalier Hotel’s basement level also has been brought back to its original splendor, anchored by the Hunt Room, which began as a Prohibition-era social lounge for men but is now the hotel’s primary res- taurant. Its signature oversized hearth was substantially deteriorated, but the team carefully dismantled the fireplace brick by brick, gave it a new foundation and carefully mortared all the bricks back into place. Adjacent to the Hunt Room downstairs is what may be the first distillery in the U.S. within a hotel: Tarnished Truth Distilling Company, which specializes in small-batch bourbon and vodkas. Luckily, the truth is this is the only tarnish left.

During its illustrious history, the Cavalier has hosted a succession of U.S. presidents, as well as celebrities, like Frank Sinatra. But as recently as a few years ago, its future was in doubt. Zoning would have allowed hundreds of new condos or apartments to be built on the site, seemingly a more lucra- tive endeavor. And clearly the old beauty needed a lot of work. Gold Key | PHR was the only bidder for the Cavalier that intended to restore the hotel. “I honestly think if they weren’t the successful bidder, the hotel would have been lost,” Rutledge says.

But as the rave reviews have poured in, betting on the hotel’s matchless presence seems to be paying off, as does the decision to rebuild it the right way. “I’ll tell you right now, if the Big Bad Wolf or another big storm comes through, that’s where you want to be,” Cuffee says with a laugh. “It’ll be there for another 100 years. That we made sure of.”

PHOTOS: Robert Benson Photography

The Cavalier’s basement is home to what may be the first distillery within a U.S. hotel: Tarnished Truth Distilling Company, which specializes in small-batch bourbon and vodkas.
The Cavalier’s basement is home to what may be the first distillery within a U.S. hotel: Tarnished Truth Distilling Company, which specializes in small-batch bourbon and vodkas.

Retrofit Team

Developer: Gold Key | PHR, Virginia Beach, Va.,

ARCHITECT: Hanbury, Norfolk, Va.

  • RICHARD RUSINAK, AIA, project manager
  • GREG RUTLEDGE, AIA, design principal

GENERAL CONTRACTOR: W.M. Jordan Co., Newport News, Va.

INTERIOR DESIGN: Stonehill Taylor, New York

RESTAURANT AND DISTILLERY DESIGN: Streetsense, Bethesda, Md.

LIGHTING DESIGN: Kugler Ning Lighting, New York

LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE: WPL, Virginia Beach

PLASTER RESTORATION: Hayles & Howe, Baltimore

MASONRY: Sprinkle Masonry Inc., Chesapeake, Va., (757) 545-8435

MASONRY AND CAST-STONE RESTORATION: Conley Brothers Inc., Virginia Beach, (757) 481-4111

The team received permission combine two rooms into one (as long as the original circulation path was maintained) to substantially increase the size of each room. But it took more than a 200-room hotel down to 85 rooms.
The team received permission to combine two rooms into one (as long as the original circulation path was maintained) to substantially increase the size of each room. But it took more than a 200-room hotel down to 85 rooms.

ONSITE STEEL FRAMING FABRICATION: Chesapeake Bay Steel Inc., Norfolk

TERRAZZO RESTORATION: Pompei, Newport News

POOL DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION: Gracia & Vigil, Virginia Beach, (757) 493-2905

POOL-AREA IRON BALCONIES: Circle M Contracting, Portsmouth, Va.

ELECTRICAL: David R. Hall Electrical Contractor, Newport News, (757) 873-0187

MECHANICAL AND PLUMBING: JRC Mechanical, Chesapeake

DISTILLATION PROCESS DESIGN: VITOK Engineers, Louisville, Ky.

Materials

HVAC: VRF from LG
PLUMBING SYSTEM: PEX from Uponor
FITNESS CENTER FLOORING: Resilient Athletic Flooring from Shaw
GUEST BATHROOM FLOORING: Florentine Glazed Porcelain Floor from Daltile
LOWER LOBBY FLOORING: Terrazzo from Pompei
GUESTROOMS/SUITES CARPET: 100 percent Nylon Tufted Carpet from ulster
BALLROOM/PUBLIC SPACES/GUEST CORRIDORS CARPET: Wool Axminster from ulster
GUESTROOM WINDOWS: Fiberglass Window by Andersen Windows Inc.
WOOD DOORS: Masonite Architectural
CUSTOM DOORS IN HISTORIC PUBLIC SPACES: Premier Millwork & Lumber Co. Inc.
SKYLIGHT IN POOL AREA: Crystal Structures Glazing
PUBLIC SPACE LIGHTING FIXTURES: Royal Contract Lighting
VERANDA PORCHES CHANDELIER FIXTURES: Circa Lighting
GUEST TOWER BATHROOM FIXTURES: American Standard, Kohler, Pfister and Signature Hardware
INTERIOR PAINT: Sherwin-Williams

About the Author

Brian Libby
Brian Libby is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance design journalist, critic and architectural photographer.

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