Atkinson's story isn't well-known in Richmond. But it provides an insightful glimpse into the city's history and the significance of her hotel, which the state is pondering whether to demolish.
The state had been planning to raze the building, along with the adjacent Murphy Hotel near Eighth and Broad streets, to make room for more accommodating office buildings and a parking deck. But last month, the General Assembly nixed plans to earmark $2.5 million for the demolition. Instead, urged by local preservationists, legislators asked for a feasibility study of alternative options by June 10. That study will likely determine the fate of both hotels.
Atkinson's story resonates even in today's less discriminatory Richmond. In the late 1800s, Atkinson became frustrated that Richmond bankers wouldn't lend her the money to start the business.
"Being a woman, they didn't want to lend her money," says Illia Atkinson Desportes Brown, a great-granddaughter of Atkinson's. "So she got herself all dressed up with her best hat and went to New York."
She arrived in the city by train and somehow got a meeting with J.P. Morgan, founder of the well-regarded investment banking firm.
While waiting to meet with him, the story goes, Atkinson got ink on her hand and hurried to clean up at the nearest bathtub. "A turn of the knob brought a drenching shower from above," wrote the late Virginia Withers in a short biography of Atkinson.
But the incident didn't rattle her. "Another woman might have had hysterics, or gone bareheaded, or borrowed an unsuitable hat," Withers wrote. "Mrs. Atkinson set out grimly wearing her own hat and plume, blighted and sinister though it was."
Morgan wouldn't give Atkinson the money himself, but he was so impressed with her that he agreed to back her loan in Richmond.
He was impressed, Brown says, in part because Atkinson had taken all of her financial records with her to show exactly how well her previous businesses had fared. She had run other hotels successfully, turning around the financially troubled Saint James Hotel and taking over the American Hotel at 12th and Main streets, which she renamed the Lexington in 1884.
Then she turned her attention to the Hotel Richmond.
It was designed by the famous New York architecture firm of CarrŠre and Hastings, which also designed the Jefferson (1894-1895) and the Commonwealth Club (1891). The U-shaped hotel has a fortresslike appearance with a rusticated stone exterior and a grand lobby, accentuated by stained-glass skylights, marble floors and classical columns. A roof garden for dancing separated it from the Jefferson.
The hotel was so successful that by 1911 Atkinson had doubled its capacity with a $400,000 addition, designed by Norfolk architect John Kevan Peebles.
In the early 1900s, the Hotel Richmond was second only to the famous Jefferson Hotel in terms of clout and prestige, according to newspaper accounts. Located on Ninth Street, directly across from the State Capitol, it housed legislators, lobbyists and even governors, making it a prominent gathering place where politics and deals were brokered.
When Atkinson died in 1916, the hotel was valued at $1 million, an estimated $17 million in today's dollars.
Atkinson was renowned as a stern woman who managed a tight ship. She wasn't a socialite and refused membership in the high-society ladies' clubs and women's leagues of Richmond. Her only membership was in the Second Presbyterian Church. She was one of the first women in Richmond to own a car, according to family members, and every morning she drove it to the 17th Street Farmers' Market. There, says Brown, she shopped for food and other amenities for the hotel.
What differentiated Atkinson from the handful of businesswomen in Richmond at the time, says Sandra G. Treadway, deputy director of the Library of Virginia, was the size of her business. Treadway, who has researched Atkinson, says she was one of three or four prominent businesswomen in the city in the early 1900s.
"There were just a few women in this part of the state that reached that level of both public recognition and business success," Treadway says. As for her hotel's clientele, "The kinds of people who stayed with her were running the state of Virginia," she says.
Atkinson raised her twin granddaughters, Addie Ervin DesPortes and Mary Ervin Townsend, in the Hotel Richmond after their mother died in her late 20s. The two were notorious for "fussing" with each other, says Brown, the daughter of Addie Ervin DesPortes.
Atkinson's entrepreneurial spirit was driven by necessity. Before coming to Richmond, she lived in Lynchburg with her husband, John M. Atkinson, who served in Company E of the 11th Virginia Infantry in Lynchburg during the Civil War.
After the war, he returned to their home in Lynchburg and went to work as a bricklayer. But he didn't make enough money to support their five children. So his wife went to work taking in boarders. The business became so successful that in 1881 Mrs. Atkinson opened the Warwick House hotel on Main Street in Lynchburg.
As her husband's health declined in the 1880s, she eventually decided to relocate to Richmond. The rest is history. S
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