The Blue Raccoon

Sunday, May 17, 2009

My Journey Into Richmond
And What I Found There

Part V and a portion of Part VI

The story thus far: Philip Gotz, an obstreperous travel writer known for his "What I Found There" pieces detailing his five-day visits to destinations, is in Richmond, Va. The visitors bureau has assigned to him as a guide Tia Chulangong -- who pretty much has his number from the moment she meets him at the Richard Evelyn Byrd International Airport. She provides running color commentary on Richmond sights and history while riding the train to bustling Main Street Station, and from there to Gotz's accommodations. Tia, however, has informed Gotz that Jennifer Royce, his novelist ex-wife, is in town on a book tour and through a scheduling error he's booked into the Jefferson Hotel where she is also staying.

5. At The Jefferson

A cheery doorman wearing a long red coat and white gloves touched the slick visor of his cap as he pushed the entry wide.

“G’ afternoon, Mz. T."

She introduced Phil, and when they stepped into the main lobby the transition from the real world to someplace else was complete.

Gotz stood in the palazzo of a European palace, but rather than open to the air, crowned by an enormous stained glass skylight.

Tia followed his upward gaze and at his shoulder said, “Tiffany.”

He took several long moments to appreciate the curved bays of the mezzanine gallery; huge round ottomans; the marble, stone and gilt on the cornices; palm trees; wrought iron columns; the grand stair vanishing underneath an arch surmounted by a bronze clock set in a niche of Italianate flourishes. Around him people moving, going and doing in the rhythm of the quiet urgency of a busy and important place.

“The Louvre called,” Gotz at last said. “They want their courtyard back.”

Tia put a hand on her hip. “You’re not hatin’ on the Jefferson. I mean, not even you.”

“Just the opposite.”

Gotz pulled the plastic press badge from underneath his jacket as they crossed over the carpet to check-in. A high-cheeked blonde who somehow didn’t seem to know Tia greeted them. Gotz made reservation confirmation and declined help with his bags. He chose to use the upper gallery elevator just to use the grand, red-carpeted stairs.

They went under a barrel-vaulted, coffered ceiling passageway, the panels blue with gold trim. The stair provided three wide landings where doors led to lounges and offices. Then ascending to the upper lobby, more fountains and palms and a white marble statue of Thomas Jefferson, standing amid piles of books that presumably he’d finished reading while there.

“This was done by Edward V. Valentine,” Tia said. “And the entire hotel was the idea of our friend Mr. Ginter, who hired the New York architects Carrére & Hastings. He packed all his ideas from a life of world travels into this building.”

“I just may not ever leave.”

“Ah. One of those travel writers.”

“Yup. Stay in the plushest digs and concoct it all from the press releases.”

Then an alligator galumphed across the floor followed by a pith-helmeted young woman dressed in a khaki short sleeves and pants and hiking boots. The alligator’s claws tick-ticked on the marble floor. Round the keeper’s waist was a utility belt for, Gotz presumed, reptile emergencies and she carried a plastic pole, a prod on one end and a kind of cheese grater on the other.

The gator, bony-ridged, prehistoric and frightening, slipped into the nearby fountain rill and sunk to its eyes. The keeper put hands on hips. “You’re full now, so you should have a good nap.”

Gotz couldn’t close his mouth.

Tia offered, “He just fed.”

The writer nodded.

“How – how does this manage not to scare the living crap out of people?”

Tia shrugged. “It’s the Jefferson. We have gators.”

“Guess you beat out the Peabody and their ducks.”

“Our mascot can eat their mascot.”

“So somebody watches him her it?”

“A rotating team -- the Jefferson Gator Gang.”

"She with the Gator Gang?"

"Quarles. Yes. She is."

“I want to interview her.”


“If she’s got a few minutes.” Gotz brought up his recorder.

Quarles Fontaine introduced herself using a firm handshake that signified to Gotz the strength needed should she need to wrestle a stubborn alligator. Her violet eyes fixed on him with a discomforting attention that she used to observe wild creatures prone to sudden attacks. Quarles explained her taking the Jefferson gator gig.

“When I was growing up, in the early '80s, the Jefferson was between owners and renovations. Weren’t any gators, then. But my parents brought me here a few times, for some parties, and my Dad showed me these fountains and little brass statues and told me how there used to be live ones. Little did either of us know, but I’d develop a fascination for slimy creepy crawlies and I’d end up doing what I do.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, is this full-time?”

“No, wouldn’t that be great though? I’m also with the state office that administers wildlife in parks and zoos, and my expertise are guys like these. But I started here as a seasonal part-time person, interning with Dr. Bryan Woods, and he’s the lizard king.”

“What’s the story on the Jefferson's gators?”

“They were introduced probably by a guest, near as we can figure, around 1910. There was a thriving summer railroad vacation trade, going from the North through Richmond to Florida and back. Best guess is, somebody got a gator, realized they couldn't take it home, so they dumped it into the fountain. And they were so alluring and strange that the hotel just decided to keep them around."

"So it became a kind of trademark by default."


"Now, that's marketing, Tia."

"You got that right."

Quarles continued, "The gators stayed here at least until the late 1940s, when Old Pompey, the last one, died. Dr. Woods reintroduced them in 1988. “

“What about liability?”

“What do you mean?” then Quarles and Tia laughed together. “You think my gators are liable to do something?”

“Well, they are alligators, not house cats.”

“Awww, did you hear that, Bossanova? No, but, we’ve had a remarkably incident-free record. People like to get their pictures taken with them, but they don’t go swimming in the fountains. I think some bridal parties have gotten close. Our gators tend to hatch and get raised here, so, they are accustomed to the surroundings. This," she spread her arms, " is their habitat. But, you’re right, they’re not cats or dogs.”

“That’s more like what they eat.”

“Well, we don’t feed them other people’s pets – well – unless rats that we get, or rabbits.”

“Oh, no, not bunnies.”

“You eat them in the restaurant.”

“I don’t, but I see your point.”

Gotz thanked Quarles, they exchanged cards, and he made sure to get her contact information.

“That, Tia, was an example of the hard-hitting journalism I’m committed to.”

“You got her number.”

“Well, they’ll send a photographer. Really, they will. So, you mentioned this rooftop café and maybe some drinks.”

“I don’t remember the drinks part.”

“You did, believe me and by the big grandaddy clock over there,” he pointed to a 19th century heirloom, “and if I’m reading my Roman numerals right, it’s past five and you don’t have to be so straight. And please call me Phil.”

“Mr. Gotz—“

“You’re just doing that to annoy me.”

Tia turned away to laugh.

He said, “Listen, why don’t we do this. I’ll go up to the room, drop off this stuff, turn around three times and meet you up there. Can you do that? I bet the view is great – “

“The best in town.”

“So I’d like some fraternization, I mean, familiarization.”

“I think you probably had it right the first time.”

“So, you’ll accompany me?”

“Ah. Sure.”

They shared the cherry wood, shining brass and mirrored elevator, with its tufted and upholstered bench, to the seventh floor. Gotz noted that the Jefferson was probably the biggest building in midtown Richmond, and Tia, reflecting, though that if not, then it was in the top three.

“Lewis Ginter got past the height restrictions.”

“Well, he was Lewis Ginter.”

“Ah,” Gotz nodded as the bell for his floor sounded. “This is me. See you in a few minutes. Order me a gin and tonic." He held the door back form closing. "If I'm not up there in about 10 minutes, I bumped into Jennifer and there's been an altercation."

She put up a shame-faced hand as the doors closed.

The hushed hallways and the sussurrant air conditioning comforted Gotz. No matter where you go in the established places, these remain the same.

Note on image: The top picture of the Valentine statue of Jefferson in the hotel's palm court lobby is from UVA Magazine archives page. The lobby and rooms of the Jefferson correspond to appearances prior to the 1901 fire which all but destroyed the building. In the Richmond of Tia Chulangong and the one Phil Gotz is visiting, that fire -- and several others -- never occurred.

The View from the Terrace (Part I)

Tia snagged a table mid-distance between the opulent teak and mahogany bar and the stage where the pianist at the grand provided a soundtrack of jazz standards for the guests imbibing in the fading early evening sun.

Gotz entered left of the stage, raising his chin in a near-sighted way to look around. Tia half-stood to wave him over. He was changed out of professorial tweeds into black, from his collarless shirt and slender-cut jacket to his shoes. His massed Andrew Jackson on the $20 grey hair gave him the appearance of a retired rock star.

Gotz negotiated the café tables and various couples and groups enjoying their Jefferson Hotel happy hour. He gazed upon the trailing vines, palms and trellises woven with roses and wisteria. Metal arches fitted with big yellow bulbs spanned the garden. The glass partitions around the terrace were open to allow for breeze and prevent over-warming from the sun. The city and countryside spread out before the Jefferson like the view from a doge’s palace.

“Well, well,” she said. “You're so hip and urban now."

He rubbed hands together. “I'm ready for where the evening takes me." He bobbed his chin in appreciation of the G & T and gave a thumbs up. “Um! The exact thing. Here’s to massive quantities of information." They clinked glasses.

“This is quite fine,” he gazed around him. “So let’s get a look at this view, and start with the south, because, I want you to tell me about that bouquet of towers floating on the horizon.”

“Sure,” she said, then asked what he thought of his room. He was given a suite and while he hadn’t explored it yet, the spa shower was just fine with him.

They stepped past the trellises to the bulging balustrade. Wind caught Tia’s hair. Beyond the river and Manchester, along the edge of the city the sun was flashing across hundreds of windows in the varied high rises.

“Those are mostly apartments, condos, residences; most have retail on the lower floors, the coffee shops, the delis, there’s galleries and offices.”

“So there’s where the almost four million people live.”

“Some, not all; and these concentrations are pretty much here in the south and they’re further out west, and not so much north.”

“Why not so much north.”

“Ah – you know, I don’t have a good answer for that.”

“I’m shocked.”

“Well, you can talk to the planning people –“

He raised a hand.

“Hah. Well, I can say this: These concentrations,” and she raised her arms as though to embrace the agglomerations of towers, “are noticeable for several reasons. You remember, The Woods, that goes all the way around us, and you can’t build the high rises-- here in midtown.”

“So they’re all out there,” and he leaned forward and rested his elbows on the stone rail. “This sort of reminds me of overlooking from atop Notre Dame all the squares and rooftops of Paris, and there’s the Eiffel, and there’s the Sacré Coeur and past all that marvelous architecture, is La Defénse and the Tower of Montparnasse, and those congested residential towers where the rest of Paris is. And there it’s turned into a haves-and-have-nots problem, there.”

“Um, and so, it’s a consideration here, too. Maybe not as drastic as that.”


Tia inclined her head and drank.

Notes on images:
The Jefferson rooftop garden is not an invention. Prior to the devastating 1901 fire, the hotel staged vaudeville and minstrel acts there. The growth of movie theaters and cheaper entertainments led the management not to rebuild the terrace. The drawing was a newspaper illustration.
The two building models are by architect Haigh Jamgochian, as displayed in a Library of Virginia exhibit, "Never Built Virginia."
This Richmond's population is edging in on 4 million. This is possible because Metro Richmond embraces Chesterfield and Henrico counties. To the south, Petersburg and Hopewell are Richmond bedroom communities and viable, livable cities, too, with a combined population of almost a million. The Colonial Heights of our world -- a white flight suburb -- does not exist in the form we know it.
Richmond sustains this population load due to superior prescient planning and having started with various cultural and technological innovations rather than following behind others. The burgeoning, sprawlng Atlanta and North Carolina's "Research Triangle" aren't like we know them; Richmond got ahead on biomedical research, information technology and the music and film/video scene. There are games designed in Richmond, movies made here, and recording studios for world class musicians.
In this alternate world, Virginia banks were allowed to set up shop outside the state borders. Thus, finance, insurance, retail, entertainment and real estate remain stalwart components of Richmond's economic landscape, in addition to state and regional government offices, and institutions of higher learning. Names gone from our city in the past 20 years remain, in addition to many others conducting varieties of enterprise we cannot imagine here now.

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