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The Jefferson, Richmond's grande dame of hotels, gets a facelift. 

Nip, Tuck, Expand and Adorn

There are petunias, new paving and a porte-cochŠre. The Jefferson, a dowager among hotels like Boston's palatial Copley Plaza or San Diego's rambling Del Coronado, has a recently reconfigured Franklin Street entrance.

For much of the past century, the architecturally exuberant landmark welcomed guests through its West Main Street doors. Those arriving for check-in, charity balls, or to glimpse the storied staircase, passed a largely decimated urban streetscape of asphalt parking lots. Patrons couldn't enter from the gracious West Franklin Street side with its central front steps, graceful second-story arcade and looming clock towers, created by CarrŠre & Hastings, New York practitioners of the Beaux Arts (an architectural movement that adapted classical principles to popular uses). For years, a dining club occupied the Franklin Street side of the hotel. In recent years, Lemaire restaurant has filled that space.

Therefore, few can remember when pedestrians actually waltzed directly off Franklin and were swept straight-ahead through the continuum of spaces forming a block-long axis. It was spectacular: The marble-walled lobby led to a glass-domed atrium anchored by a marble stature of T.J. himself. From here, it is a few steps down to a mezzanine level before descending the grand staircase. The lower lobby flows onto a transitional space that opens onto Main. If architecture is theater, The Jefferson interior is like a movie set: Those passing through feel like Garbo. And the level changes magnify the drama.

In the early 1980s, this axial scheme was reinstated somewhat with a renovation by Koubek Architects of Washington. The registration desk was moved from the lower lobby to the upper atrium. At the same time, a motor entrance was created on a vacant lot to the hotel's northeast. Vehicles entered gateways punctuating high, buff-colored brick walls and trellises laden with wisteria. This wall created a strong urban divider between the sidewalk and entry. Views of loading and unloading of luggage were blocked from venerable Franklin.

On the downside, the grand hotel's entrance wasn't visible from the street or sidewalk.

Marcellus Wright Cox & Smith, a Richmond architectural firm, has recently given the Franklin Street front a rethinking. It's now clear where guests enter the building. Gone are the high walls. The hotel has been extended eastward slightly with a two-story addition. A porte-cochŠre has been added. In addition, there's a new fountain, different signage and many pots and planters overflowing with annual blooms. Compared to what the space had been, it's all slightly giddy — Old Navy replaces Brooks Brothers.

Key to the makeover was the permanent closing of a block of Adams Street between Franklin and Main. Much of the existing sidewalk and curbing was removed. New pavement of fabricated stone, laid in a fish-scale pattern, now slopes gently to Main. This newly formed piazza is defined not just by the hotel, but by the west fa‡ade of old Second Baptist Church, a glorious, early 20th-century classical temple.

The two-story addition, adorned with a picturesque, tile-roofed turret, houses a new indoor swimming pool, while serving to partially screen the rear of the hotel's ballroom complex.

The crook of the L formed by this addition anchors a new, three-bay porte-cochŠre that gestures toward the Franklin and Adams intersection at a 45-degree angle. Purists might find anything other than a 90-degree angle bizarre on a Beaux Arts building. But a greater concern is that this appendage isn't larger, bolder, or more finely articulated — in short, more convincing, considering the scale of the huge building to which it's affixed. It reads as just another decorative object alongside the new fountain and six sycamore trees, and stonelike stanchions connected by swags of heavy chains that divide the new piazza from the city sidewalk. Rather than employing one strong architectonic concept (like what had been here before), the arrival court space now seems fussy.

The most surprising (if not peculiar) new adornment, however, has been saved for the spot where CarrŠre & Hastings had originally put the Franklin Street front door. On the terraced stoop is a trolley car-scaled extension to Lemaire. This well-proportioned, nicely crafted and mostly glass pavilion (with a cooper roof, iron filigree and rusticated granite base) puts patrons on display as they sit in upholstered chairs and dine amid potted palms (curtains have recently been added to provide some privacy).

These recent changes invite sniping, since The Jefferson is one of our community's most beloved places and a nationally recognized landmark. Any criticism might be tempered by the realization that this is a commercial building and must generate income — and profit. To stay competitive with other hotels, its management did what it has to do.

If one misses the sophistication, simplicity and urbanism of the former entrance court, the new drive is not without its pleasures. The new piazza suggests an Italian hill town — a space that grew over time. And the area is nicely defined by surrounding urban walls — the old Baptist church, and the melange of buildings across Franklin that includes the recently expanded YMCA.

It's also reassuring that if commercial buildings must change, nothing has been done that can't be undone in the future. In the interim, many will find the hotel more welcoming, if not architecturally enhanced.

History of a hotel
The Jefferson was opened in 1895 by Lewis Ginter, a world-traveling tobacconist and philanthropist. Designed by CarrŠre & Hastings, a firm best known for its New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, the hotel has been called a "free" and "daring" adaptation of the Villa Medici in Rome. But architect and historian Gibson Worsham says the design is based on the casino at Monte Carlo. When a 1901 fire devastated the interior, it was rebuilt by Peebles and Ferguson Architects of Norfolk. Closed in the late 1970s, it served as the setting for a number of movies including "Rock 'n' Roll Hotel" and "My Dinner with Andre." In the early 1980s, Richmond developer George Ross renovated the hotel. It is now owned by Richmond-based CCA Industries Inc., which initiated the recent
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