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Grandeur in Ruins

Turn-of-the-Century Fire in Richmond

In 1892, Major Lewis Günter decided to build the finest hotel in America, in Richmond.  Some would say he succeeded, considering its impressive guest list, which included Teddy Roosevelt, Bette Davis, Henry Ford, Gertrude Stein, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John D. Rockefeller.

The Jefferson Hotel opened in 1895 with an inaugural masquerade ball on Halloween night. With 342 guest rooms, the establishment showcased all the latest conveniences of the Gilded Age: elevators, thousands of electric lights, central steam heating, running hot and cold water in each room, toilets on each floor, and a precursor to the telephone called a “telesales.”  In addition to these amenities, the common areas of the hotel were downright luxurious. Guests could meet in the Marble Hall, lounge in the French satin-upholstered Grand Salon, indulge in Turkish, Roman, Russian, and “electric baths” (a retro tanning bed, believe it or not) or take in fresh air by visiting one of two rooftops gardens or rooftop theater.

1511_TheValentineBut on the night of March 29, 1901, the hotel suffered a consequence of its modern amenities: a blanket room caught fire from faulty electrical wiring. The fire spread and destroyed two-thirds of the building by morning. There were no casualties among the nearly 300 guests registered that night, though a marble statue of Thomas Jefferson was decapitated during rescue efforts. Reduced to rubble, the hotel took six years to rebuild. In 1907, it reopened with the repaired statue and it is still in business today.


Cook Collection 633, Jefferson Hotel Lobby, 1901, Cook Collection, The Valentine

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