Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Hotel Roanoke

In 1882, shortly after the SW Virginia town of Big Lick changed its name to Roanoke (named after its river), Norfolk and Western Railroad built a Queen Anne style hotel as a rest stop for rail travelers. The railroad also built a city, buying up large tracts of land and dividing them into building lots for their employees. Before the railroad was built, Big Lick had only 100 houses and 600 citizens. The railroad, hotel, company headquarters and homes were all built at once. Railroad executives originally specified a hotel of 20 rooms, but changed the plans to 34 rooms before construction started. Before the first structure was completed, an annex of 35 additional rooms was begun. The hotel, although sited on a bleak and treeless hill above the depot, created a sensation, boasting an elevator and a dining room that could seat 200, not to mention the first sewer line in town and "speaking tubes" for communication between the office, kitchen and servant's chambers. The hotel hosted a 9-course Christmas dinner to mark the hotel's official opening, and the first of many "Germans" (an evening of social dancing) took place afterward. The railroad imported chaperoned young women from the best families (and schools) in the area for it, and Roanoke society was born. Beginning a long tradition, uniformed hotel porters met the young ladies and their chaperones at the station and escorted them up the hill to the hotel.

Photo circa 1929:

As intended, the Hotel Roanoke became the centerpiece of the town and its very symbol, much the way the Chateau Frontenac Hotel dominates Quebec City. The image that comes to mind when most people think of Roanoke is the hotel; the giant illuminated star atop Mill Mountain comes in second. As the railroad prospered and expanded, so did the fortunes of the town. Businesses sprang up, and tourists arrived. The hotel provided an eye-poppingly luxurious setting for its first ever convention, the American Institute of Mining Engineers in 1883. The hotel has catered to the convention trade ever since. The twenty five years following the hotel's opening were a boom era for Roanoke of unimaginable magnitude. For decades the railroad added to and modernized the hotel, which became known locally as “The Grand Old Lady.”

Hotel ballroom in 1938:

Over the years the property’s guest list boasted six U.S. presidents as well as celebrity entertainers and politicians: Amelia Earhart, Joe DiMaggio, Victor Borge, Ethel Merman, Lawrence Tibbett (from the Metropolitan Opera), Van Cliburn, evangelist Billy Sunday, Jack Dempsey, Jeanette MacDonald. Not to mention Aerosmith, Hilary Duff and Jerry Seinfeld. When a Roanoke Evening News reporter encountered inventor Thomas Edison smoking a cigar at the Hotel Roanoke in 1906, he found him "plain as an old shoe." Senator John Warner (and wife Elizabeth Taylor) enjoyed the rocking chairs on the porch. J. P. Morgan favored the scrambled eggs served at breakfast. During Vice President Nelson Rockefeller's visit, a special red phone was installed to keep him in touch with the White House.

The Hotel Roanoke has National Historic Landmark status and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Enlarged and renovated many times, the hotel took on a Tudor revival architectural style. The hotel's appearance and configuration today stems mostly from the late 1930s. The 332-room Hotel Roanoke is currently owned by Virginia Tech and is operated by the Hilton Doubletree brand. In 1989, Norfolk Southern decided to leave the hotel business and deeded the property to Virginia Tech in nearby Blacksburg. After the flag lowering ceremony on November 30, 1989, the hotel closed for a six-year multimillion dollar refurbishment, and a 17-day sale of the contents began. Historic chandeliers, paintings, fireplace surrounds, black walnut paneling and other architectural treasures were excluded from the sale. Norfolk Southern donated $2,000,000 (thirty times what the hotel cost to build in 1882) toward the renovation effort.

The Hotel Roanoke, along with its brand new $14 million conference center, reopened in 1995 to great fanfare and has provided continuous employment for 300 area workers.

A new esplanade (above), reminiscent of the architecture of the spa town Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic), connects the hotel's motor court with the enclosed pedestrian bridge that runs over Norfolk and Southern's railroad tracks, linking the hotel to downtown Roanoke and the popular City Market complex. In 2004, Roanoke's landmark former passenger rail station was converted into a museum devoted to the railroad photography of O. Winston Link. Connecting this museum to the Virginia Transportation Museum is a new Rail Walk, with interactive displays of railroad history and equipment. All three are adjacent to the freight tracks still in use.

• Hotel Roanoke was the first U.S. hotel designed for air conditioning.
• Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was the first African-American ever registered at the hotel.
• The hotel restaurant still serves its signature dish, peanut soup, invented by chef Fred Brown in 1940.

Although Norfolk & Western also built and operated extravagant railroad hotels in Pulaski and Bluefield (WV), the Hotel Roanoke was their crown jewel. Morton Downey and his orchestra broadcast his national network radio program from the hotel's Crystal Ballroom in the 1940s. For decades the hotel has been headquarters for the Miss Virginia pageants, beginning in 1953.

Locals are sometimes astonished by the far-reaching fame of their grand hotel. During WWII a native Roanoker was serving in New Guinea when his Australian commander inquired where he was from. When he answered "Virginia," the Lt.-Col. replied, "I have been to Virginia. What city?" The soldier replied, "Roanoke." The Australian commented, "Ah, Roanoke, the place with that lovely hotel."