Today’s visitors to Virginia Beach’s resort district would never recognize the way it looked 100 years ago. Dotting the landscape were beautiful cottages, lush gardens, and only a couple of hotels where the rich and famous would come to play. However as the greed of the tourism industry and modernism overcame this gentler season of the city, these vestiges of what was once Virginia Beach began to disappear. However, if you happen to be driving by the corner of 16th Street and Arctic Avenue, you might catch a glimpse of just such a time captured in Barclay Cottage.
Built in 1895 by the local railroad, Barclay Cottage was originally intended to be a clubhouse for a planned golf course around Lake Holly. Plans for the golf course were abandoned and the clubhouse was sold to the Williamson family to make a home of it. The beautiful two tiered front porch and white paint captured what many would imagine a Southern summer retreat would look. In December 1916, the Williamson family sold the home to Miss Lillian St. Claire Barclay, who moved into the home with her parents. In 1917, Miss Barclay began operating a guest house out of the cottage for the visitors of the up and coming resort.
Around 1926, Miss Barclay recognized a need for a primary school in the community. During the “off season,” she transformed the bedrooms of her home into classrooms. Alumni fondly remember their time at Miss Barclay’s school, from the education provided to playing in the gardens and picking fruit from the trees. After Miss Barclay hired a few more teachers, the school was able to provide education for their students from kindergarten through third grade. Alumni, Sheila Strong, remembers a playground in the backyard and lush landscaping. She also recalled her kindergarten graduation, saying “We were dressed in all-white, and all of the attending family members were seated in folding chairs in a large circle on the lawn. Every child, one by one, stood in the center of the circle and recited a poem from memory. Miss Barclay and Mrs. Crosby [a beloved teacher at Miss Barclay’s school] worked VERY hard in the weeks leading up to this, helping every kindergartener learn his/her poem!” At the end of each school year, the classroom desks would be replaced by guest room furniture for visitors.
In 1976, Miss Barclay retired from teaching and she closed the primary school. Miss Barclay then turned her attention to preserving the quaint charm that the cottage offered as the landscape of Virginia Beach changed around it. What was once a common place way of vacationing became a coveted unique experience for the guests to Miss Barclay’s cottage.
Lillian Barclay continued to welcome visitors to her home until her death in 1989. The following year, developers purchased the property and built five homes on what used to be the beautiful, lush gardens and grounds of the cottage. However, the developers chose not to raze the cottage, unlike many of its counterparts. In 1991, Miss Barclay’s cottage was reopened as a bed and breakfast.
In 2003, Stephen and Marie-Louise LaFond purchased Barclay’s Cottage. They made several upgrades to the property and redid each of the five rooms to represent a different theme special to the cottage, its heritage and the region. Though very few pieces of the original furniture remain, Mr. & Mrs. LaFond have filled the home with many of their own antiques.
Today, Barclay Cottage remains the longest continuously functioning lodging facility in Hampton Roads as well as one of only two Victorian cottages remaining at Virginia Beach’s oceanfront. Echoes of the laughter of the children that once attended Miss Barclay’s school as well as the footsteps of the many visitors continue to reverberate in the hallways, leaving reminders of the bygone time of Virginia Beach’s golden era.
400 16th Street, Virginia Beach, VA, 23451
Special thanks to Sheila Strong and the other members of the I Grew Up In Virginia Beach Facebook Group.
Historical photo courtesy of Stephen & Marie-Louise LaFond by way of the Princess Anne County/Virginia Beach Historical Society.
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