I stayed in the Holiday Inn which ended up being a fortunate choice, completely by accident, because I was really in the thick of town and could walk everywhere. Although the guy at the front desk took a look at the things I wanted to do and said it wasn’t “walkable” (“That’s a good 2 mile walk”), I’m a hearty New Yorker! I was only three blocks away from the Jefferson Hotel, so that would be my first stop. Then I would walk a couple more blocks to the Mosque Theatre. Then I would shoot up north to find the Science Museum, which used to be the old train station. I just wanted to see that Elvis hallway. Then from there I would walk to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which also would take me right over Monument Walkway, which I also really wanted to see. Siobhan had told me about the big statue of Robert E. Lee that was there, and the horse’s ass was faced towards the North. I so wanted to see that. I had arrived in Richmond at around 5:30, 6 p.m., just as the sun was going down. There was a glamorous sunset. My room was comfortable and huge. I sprawled out on the bed with my map, and also my Wertheimer book, which I had lugged along. I wanted to make sure I noticed details, and was able to see similarities between the photos of 1956 and the landscape now. The book is a coffee table book so I couldn’t bring it with me on my walking tour, but I had in my mind what to look for.
I woke up early. I would be taking off later that afternoon so I packed up the car, and then had some breakfast in the hotel cafeteria. They let me keep my car parked at the Holiday Inn all day, which was very nice. I didn’t have to move it.
At around 8, 8:30, I set off to find the Jefferson. I had looked at pictures online, and had seen the photos of the famous stairway, the Gone With the Wind stairway. The pictures didn’t even look real. Similar to the Hotel Peabody in Memphis, I thought, looking at the pictures, “This is the most beautiful hotel I have ever seen.” The Jefferson Hotel certainly isn’t hurting for customers, but they do say on their website: “Stay where Elvis stayed!”
It was a beautiful quiet morning, a little bit chilly, but the sun was out. There was really nobody out on the streets. I walked from my hotel down on Cary up to Franklin, which seemed (from the map) to be the place where the entrance to the hotel was. Franklin is a beautiful street, lined with historic buildings, quaint and colonial, steeped in history and time. I was in love with it. As I approached the Jefferson Hotel block, I started getting glimpses of the turrets and clock towers of this monstrosity of a building.
It wasn’t until I saw it from the Main Street side, later in the day, that I really could get an understanding of the sheer size of the building.
The Jefferson Hotel is cut into a hill, Franklin being much higher ground than Main Street, so when you enter from the Franklin side (as I did), it’s kind of a shock to see how far down that lobby goes (the giant stairway). One of the things I wanted to see is the check-in area, where Elvis and the mystery girl and his cousin stood in that beautiful photograph:
It’s so evocative of young Elvis basically crashing down the walls of the old world and ushering in the new, without even realizing he was doing it. The Jefferson Hotel has a storied history (including a devastating fire in 1902), and is as upscale Southern as you can get. Respectable in the extreme. Elvis in his ducktail and white bucks was a new element entirely, and yet money can get you in anywhere. A mere two years before, Elvis hadn’t even recorded “That’s All Right” yet (although he soon would), had never slept away from his parents in his life, and was on the low end of lower-class income. He spent his money, when he had it, on records and clothes. But hotels? Completely beyond the realm of experience or imagination. But there he was, transistor radio blaring through that impressive lobby, and he had every right to be there because he had money, too. The polite world of convention and unexamined social privilege was ending. There’s something of all of that in that photo. So I really wanted to just see that area. Also, it looked beautiful.
It took me a while to figure out the layout, and I eventually realized that I had entered on the wrong side. The Franklin entrance feels like the main entrance. I suppose it is. But that’s not where Elvis entered. It took me a while to orient myself though. The Franklin entrance has a circular driveway, a fountain, and an awning. It’s fancy fancy.
I walked into the main upper lobby. In that entrance area, is a large gleaming check-in desk, which I knew, from my memory of the photo was not the one in the photo with Elvis. It was sleek, modern, and stood alone.
Elvis and the mystery date were clearly not checking in in that space. Their space was much more cavernous and impressive.
But beyond the lobby is a room called the Palm Court Lobby with a gleaming marble statue of Jefferson. I moved through the entrance area and into the Palm Court and all thought flew from my brain, as I tried to comprehend the beauty and perfection of that space. The statue stands in the center, oh, Jefferson, I love you so!, and around the foot of the statue are leather chairs and low tables for patrons to hang out. The ceiling is a giant dome, and the light is holy, almost. There is no direct sunlight, and yet the room itself is filled with a pearly glow. The statue is magnificent. The room is very impressive. Along the far wall was yet another desk area, and I did wonder, later, That looks more like where Elvis checked in … but something’s not quite right about that either …
How much had the hotel changed? I had not done my research on that. I assumed it was enough of a landmark that not too much would have changed since the 50s (which turns out to be mainly true). As I stood in the Palm Court Lobby, I looked off to the side, and saw that an even more magnificent space blossomed out there, one that went stories down because of the way the hotel is cut into the side of a hill. I moved in that direction, and was struck by the sight before me.
My God. The red-carpeted stairway led down to the lower lobby, and the marble columns, festooned with grapes and vines, displayed a balcony that ran around the upper level. The balcony had recesses with leather chairs, so you could overlook that amazing space, and there were portraits of Thomas Jefferson everywhere, lit by candleabras.
I never wanted to leave. It was impressive but it was also welcoming. This is the ceiling of that lower lobby.
Down below, there was a huge carpet, with leather couches and a grand piano. And as I walked down that intimidating stairway, I looked around that glorious lower lobby and saw to the right the scooped marble half-walls in between the columns on that ground floor. And that was clearly the same scooped marble counters seen in the photograph of Elvis checking out of the hotel. Now, there appears to be a bar behind that area (which was closed, it was only 9 in the morning), but back in 1956, that was clearly the check-in area. But those curved marble half-walls: those were obviously once counters, the counters in the photo with Elvis.
Also, if you look in that photo, you can see two doors at the far side that lead to outside. That is clearly the same area Elvis, his date, and his cousin are walking towards in this photo.
It’s laid out a little bit different, there are wooden benches, but the column bottoms are the same, the space the same.
The other side of the lower area didn’t have those easily identifiable curved marble counters, the columns came down all the way and you could walk behind them and in between them.
So that area on the other side was the check-in area back in the day. This was the impressive space that Elvis had strolled through with his transistor radio blaring, an image made even more palpable by the space itself. Even in this day and age when we are more casual, the space demands respect and hushed tones. To stroll through with a radio blaring popular music would still seem out of place. In that photo of Elvis at the counter, you can see, behind him, how the lights sort of recede into the background, which is the same effect today, when you can see all the way up the staircase and back into the Palm Court Lobby from that lower level.
So Elvis had come in from the Main Street side, which is clearly visible from the photo Wertheimer got of the marquee and Elvis.
That is clearly not the same entrance as the Franklin Street entrance, although it would take me actually visiting the building to figure that out. You didn’t check in up top on the Franklin Street side, you checked in below on the Main Street side. The hotel has switched things around now.
The luncheonette where Elvis hung out with his date is no longer there, it is now a hotel gift shop, right by the entrance doors.
Over behind the stairway on the lower level is a little alcove with a small exhibit showing the history of the hotel. Glass cases with newspaper clippings about the fire, and the debutante balls that occurred there, matchboxes from back in the day, and, of course, some pictures of Elvis from Wertheimer.
From there, you are looking across the lower lobby to where the lunch counter used to be, the one that Elvis sat at. And over to the right is what used to be the check-in area, with the marble curved counters. It also looks like there wasn’t a carpeted area back when Elvis stayed there. The whole place was marble. Echoing.
I went outside to check out the Main Street entrance. The old-school marquee is no longer there, but it is obviously the more bare sidewalk that you can see in the photo of Elvis exiting the cab. Wertheimer is standing on the east side of the street, and you can see in the background how Main Street dips down into a small hill. I walked on Main Street up to the Mosque Theatre and stopped at a 7-11 just where that hill dips down. It is still a clearly recognizable street from the picture of Elvis.
I had to go back in and hang out some more. It is a beautiful place. Steeped in history, oozing comfort and class, a stunning show-off of a building.