The Princess Anne Hotel – The Forgotten Icon of the Birth of the Virginia Beach Oceanfront

It was a bygone era when men would dress in fine linen suits and women would don beautiful dresses to take a summer’s eve stroll along Virginia Beach’s wood-planked boardwalk. Music would float in the air from the nearby dance hall and sounds of jubilant glee would crescendo from the nearby hotel’s casino. It was a summer paradise where the outside worries of the gentry disappeared on the sands of the beach and new hopes glistened like the beautiful sparkles of the sun’s reflection on the waves.

The Princess Anne Hotel marked the birth of this paradise, ushering a new era of resort life to Virginia Beach. Built in 1880 under the name Virginia Beach Hotel, it started as a modest hotel with only 50 rooms. What set this hotel apart was that it had a depot for the Norfolk & Southern Railroad that ran almost literally into its lobby. This opened up the oceanfront to residents in Norfolk and all other connecting cities. Soon, people started coming in from all around to bask in the sunshine and relax by the Atlantic Ocean.

In 1887, the Virginia Beach Hotel was sold and remodeled. It would then be baptized The Princess Anne Hotel, quickly becoming an elite retreat for the famous and wealthy that flocked to the Virginia Beach oceanfront in droves. Soon, new hotels began popping up but none could compare to the majestic grandeur that the Princess Anne Hotel held.

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Aside from its proximity to the oceanfront (having its own private walkway to the boardwalk), the Princess Anne was a wonder to behold. It was so large that the hotel covered two blocks, between 14th and 16th Streets. Amenities included a post office, bowling alley, dance halls, casinos as well as fresh and salt water soaking baths. This all-inclusive refuge was known for its fine cuisine as well as the more fanciful dancing that was done in the dance halls.

The Princess Anne Hotel had room for up to 400 guests and would often draw the rich and the famous. Amongst those that graced the hotel’s hallways included: Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland, politician William Jennings Bryant, labor leader Samuel Gompers, Cornelius Vanderbilt and was a favorite vacation spot of Alexander Graham Bell and his family.

Guests would wake up at dawn and spend the early morning hours on the beach, avoiding the harsh exposure of the afternoon sunshine. Afterwords, they would often take the train into Norfolk to see and be seen by the rest of the local and visiting elite. After catching a late afternoon train back to the Princess Anne Hotel, they would dine on fine meals and dance to their hearts content to popular waltzes of the day. Then, they would retire to their luxury accommodations, preparing for the next morning.

In 1906, the Virginia General Assembly voted to allow the resort area of Virginia Beach to become a separate entity from then Princess Anne County. The first council of the newly-incorporated city met for the first time at the Princess Anne Hotel on March 15, 1906. It was there that many important community functions were established, including a police and fire department.

Early in the morning on June 10, 1907, a fire began in the kitchen of the Princess Anne Hotel and quickly spread throughout. Sergeant Carl Boescher (of the Richmond Light Artillery Blues) hurried to help get the 110 guests and employees out of the hotel. Within a few hours, the hotel that was the anchor of the Virginia Beach oceanfront had fallen completely to the ground, taking almost five blocks of other buildings with it. All guests and employees escaped except Emma Clark (the hotel’s chambermaid) and the hotel’s steward, John Eaton, both perishing in the fire. The manager was so emotionally overcome that he attempted to throw himself in the ocean to take his own life. However, friends and guests restrained him.

The estimated loss of the hotel’s structure came to $185,000 (approximately $4,205,284 today). In addition, the hotel’s safe had been left open and thousands of dollars worth of valuables belonging to the guests along with the hotel’s hard receipts were completely lost. With only $83,000 (approximately $1,886,695 today), the owners decided not to rebuild the Princess Anne Hotel and the once famous and sought after landmark was lost to the ages.

Today, no trace of the beautiful hotel remain. The blocks in which it sat are now home to cheap souvenir shops and tacky tourist traps. The elegant life that defined and punctuated the world that the Princess Anne Hotel saw now merely haunt the streets. But standing on the cement boardwalk late one evening, you may catch yourself hearing waltzes floating in the breeze, harkening back to a forgotten time that disappeared in the ashes of the iconic resort.

Resources:

City-Data.com. “Virginia Beach: History.”  http://www.city-data.com/us-cities/The-South/Virginia-Beach-History.html.

“Princess Anne Hotel Burns: Lives of Chambermaid and Steward Lost Manager Attempts Suicide.” The New York Times, June 11, 1907. Accessed March 10, 2011. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=FB0F15FB885A15738DDDA80994DE405B878CF1D3.

Tennis, Joe. Beach to Bluegrass: Places to Brake on Virginia’s Longest Road. The Overmountain Press. Johnson City, Tennessee: 2007.

Virginia Beach Public Library. “Princess Anne Hotel.” Accessed March 10, 2011. http://www.vbgov.com/sites/libraries/history/hotels_princessanne.html.

Yarsinske, Amy W. Virginia Beach: A History of Virginia’s Golden Shore. Arcadia Publishing. Charleston: 2002.