The Cavalier Hotel has been a crown jewel of Virginia Beach’s resort district for over 80 years. This lasting symbol of the aristocracy that once graced the boardwalk has endured depressions, recessions, scandals, mysteries and has had the rich, famous and infamous walk through its corridors and sleep in its beds.
When the grand Princess Anne Hotel burned down in 1907, the Virginia Beach oceanfront lost its anchor resort for those who would flock to its shoreline. While the oceanfront’s numerous smaller hotels and cottages were able to accommodate the visitors, none could compare with the elegance that patrons had once enjoyed. The need was recognized and in 1926, plans were drawn up for a new resort that would eclipse the memory left by The Princess Anne Hotel. The new resort would be built at the north end of the beach and would span 350 acres. A local paper ran a contest to name the new destination. Considerations included: The Algonquin, The Linkhorn, The Sea Pine and The Cavalier. On March 4, 1926 it was officially announced that the name chosen was The Cavalier and on May 9th of the same year, a ground breaking ceremony was held.
Over the span of 13 months, with as many as 225 men working at any given time, The Cavalier came to life. The building was constructed of cement covered steel. This construction would fireproof the building, which led to the demise of many of its counterparts. More than a half million bricks were laid, which was the most of any building in the Commonwealth of Virginia for the time. An 18-hole golf course was constructed over 6,060 yards with several holes modeled after famous courses throughout Europe and the United States. A large sunken garden was grown and fresh flowers were cut to place in the 195 guest rooms, lobby and dining hall.
Grand opening ceremonies and celebrations were held April 4-9, 1927. The Ben Bernie Band played to entertain the patrons and telegrams to the management were received by greats including Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker.
Guests enjoyed luxury unlike anything they had experienced before. The lobby was an elegant promenade with a dress shop, barber, gift shop, a pharmacy, doctor’s office, ice cream shop and professional photographer. Quite fitting of the pre-Great Depression era, a stock brokerage office also kept shop in the lobby with a ticker tape that was linked directly to the New York Stock Exchange. The third radio station that transmitted coast to coast, WSEA, broadcasted from the lobby. On June 10, 1927, Mayor Tyler of Norfolk made history becoming the first American to congratulate aviator Charles Lindberg on his successful solo flight from New York to Paris. Mayor Tyler sent his congratulations over WSEA’s airwaves at the moment Charles Lindberg was flying over the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse en route to Washington D.C.
The Cavalier catered to every need of their guests. Limousine service was provided to take guests to and from railroad stations and steamship lines. This same service was used to take guests out into town. It was especially popular during the latter half of prohibition when people would visit clubs such as The Dunes, The Links and The Gables for discreet and illegal drinking and gambling. For those who arrived in their own automobiles, a special dining room was provided for their chauffeurs.
Travelers would often arrive to the hotel via railroad. Around the time of its opening, the Norfolk & Western Railroad launched a new gasoline engine that ran from Cleveland to Norfolk. It was suitably named “The Cavalier.” Norfolk & Western Railroad would also begin to run a nonstop Pullman coach from Chicago right into a private depot at The Cavalier.
The guestrooms spared no expense on luxuries. Each bath tub was fitted with a fourth knob that would pour saltwater from its spigot, which was hailed for its medicinal purposes. Also, each sink had the ability to deliver ice cold water; a rarity considering the limitations in refrigeration technology. On the roof of the hotel, a large wooden tub was filled with water and ice blocks. Then, gravity would allow the water to travel down to each of the rooms. This was especially appreciated by guests who came to The Cavalier during the brutal summer heat.
At The Cavalier, there was always something to do. Aside from its golf course, the hotel boasted a swimming pool filled with filtered ocean water and several areas specifically designated for sport. The Hunt Room was established as a private men’s hunting club. Their hunting dogs were kept on the grounds and the fish and game that had been caught would be prepared by The Cavalier’s kitchen staff and served for dinner. The exclusive Cavalier Golf & Yacht Club was opened in 1929 along with The Cavalier Beach Club; an open air dance hall that sat right on the oceanfront.
The Cavalier Beach Club drew crowds that once flocked to The Peacock Ballroom at Seaside Park, leaving those halls deserted. For three decades, it’s said to have hired the most big bands of any place in the world. Upon its stage, greats like Glen Miller, Artie Shaw, Cab Callaway and Bing Crosby would entertain patrons. A hurricane destroyed the club in 1933 but The Cavalier wasted no time rebuilding it.
By 1935, The Cavalier was hailed as the largest employer in Virginia Beach, with a staff of 435 employees year round to serve its 367 guests at any given time. The Cavalier became rightfully known as the “Aristocrat of the Virginia Seashore.” The rich and famous would seek refuge at the beautiful hotel including seven United States Presidents, Judy Garland, Bette Davis and Jean Harlow. Hank Ketchum based several cartoons of his famous strip, “Dennis the Menace,” on his own family’s vacation at The Cavalier in the summer of 1953. In 1929, beer tycoon Adolph Coors fell to his death from his sixth floor bedroom window. Some say from suicide over being emotionally distraught from lack luster sales of nonalcoholic products during prohibition, some guess more sinister intentions. Whatever the reason, Adolph Coors became the first ‘”and most famous'”ghost of The Cavalier. You can read more about Adolph Coors and his ghost here.
World War II marked significant change for industry in the United States. On October 3, 1942, The Cavalier closed to guests and the U.S. Navy operated a radar training school from its grounds. The stables were cleaned and used as overflow barracks for the men and women stationed there. During the blackouts, curtains were placed over the windows and glass ceiling of the pool house, the pool itself emptied and used as a classroom. The hotel chefs were kept on and those who had been stationed there would go on to tell how they had never been fed so well during their military service. The U.S. Navy discontinued its use of The Cavalier on June 1, 1945 but still rented out 130 rooms for single officers for another year.
After the war, great changes began occurring in Virginia Beach. Motor lodges began freckling the landscape once occupied by quaint cottages and refined retreats. Trains and railways disappeared and were replaced by paved roads and automobiles. Over time, The Cavalier’s ownership changed hands and more and more of its property sold off to developers or claimed by eminent domain for city projects. Nostalgic elegance gave way to modern skyscraping hotels to meet a new demand of travelers. The Cavalier followed suite and in 1973 opened a new hotel, named The Cavalier Oceanfront, which sat along the boardwalk overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The original hotel (now called The Cavalier on the Hill) seemed doomed by its contemporary and the recession of the 1970’s. The management decided to close The Cavalier on the Hill and a public auction was held in 1974 to sell its contents and memorabilia. The hotel’s manager, J. Myron Renfrow, said that those who attended the auction “came to pick at the old lady’s bones.”
However, The Cavalier on the Hill was spared the wrecking ball and was reopened in 1976. Today, guests can stay at the original hotel from April 15th to Memorial Day each year. Between the two buildings, The Cavalier has a total of 400 guest rooms, four restaurants, a 1500 square foot health club and two Olympic-size swimming pools.
And though the hotel still attracts people from all walks of life, it’s those that remember The Cavalier in her original elegance that still tell stories of the majestic building which capture the attention of listeners. In 1991, an older woman gave an American flag to The Cavalier on the Hill. She told the management that it was the flag that had draped over her late husband’s coffin. He had passed away three months shy of their 47th wedding anniversary. The woman had served as a W.A.V.E. (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) during World War II and while stationed at the Naval Radar Training School located at The Cavalier, she had met her husband, also stationed there. She wanted this flag to fly at the hotel as a symbol of their everlasting love. Today, it still flies as a testament of not just their enduring love, but of all of the stories and souls that passed through the grand hotel over the years.
Contact The Cavalier:
4201 Atlantic Avenue, Virginia Beach, VA 23451
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