Few local landmarks stand out as strongly as the Chamberlin Hotel at Old Point Comfort.
For all its size and architectural style, however, the 9-story structure is merely the last survivor of a time when this strip of sand dividing the Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads ranked among America's premier resorts.
During the late 1800s, not just one but two grand hotels lined the shoreline here - and they combined with a third, only slightly less posh, to offer visitors more than 2,000 rooms. In nearby Phoebus, eight more hotels - including one that accommodated nearly 500 guests - also catered to the Old Point crowd, who were so numerous and thirsty that the tiny town boasted 52 saloons. Even Buckroe Beach, which was located just up the coastline, spun off and then grew because of the allure of the high-class attractions at Old Point Comfort. Seven different steamship lines stopped at the resort every day - and the famous Hygeia Hotel alone featured a pair of seaside verandas that rambled on more than a mile.
"Old Point Comfort was not just a resort. It was the leading resort in the South - and one of the most prominent in the nation," says historian John V. Quarstein, co-author of a new book and curator of a new exhibit on Old Point's glory days.
"This is where people wanted to be in the summer because of the breezes - and the business became so big that they even built sections for working-class whites and African-Americans."
Despite its later prominence, the health and holiday tourist trade may have been the furthest thing from the minds of the Fort Monroe and Dismal Swamp engineers who built the first Hygeia Hotel in 1822.
Though named in honor of the Greek goddess of health, the hotel was originally designed to house engineers and construction workers. But it wasn't long before such guests as Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson and the curious hordes who turned out to see captured Indian chief Black Hawk at Fort Monroe in 1833 confirmed the Hygeia's future as a seaside resort.
Over the following 25 years, the owners constructed wings housing more than 200 rooms, as well as various detached buildings for billiards, pistol shooting and bowling. Guests such as President John Tyler and Edgar Allan Poe came for the healthful sea breezes, sea bathing and seafood, not to mention a social scene so fashionable that Old Point became a favorite setting for short stories and novels.
By 1858, the Hygeia was entertaining more than 5,000 guests a year. Some 10,000 passed through in 1860, drawn by the spectacle of a 680-foot-long ship known as the Great Eastern.
"Everyone gets the picture about how great Old Point is - the hotel owners, the steamship lines and thousands and thousands of guests," Quarstein says. "It had a healthy climate, great food, good transportation and things to see and do - and that made it the most popular resort in the South."
Razed during the Civil War, the Hygeia rose again in the early 1870s. But it faltered until falling into the hands of Harrison Phoebus, who - in 1876 - began redefining the scale of the resort in ways previously unimagined.
Over the following decade, Phoebus added so many extensions, wings and annexes that he transformed the hotel into a seaside palace. Stretching more than 700 yards in length, the Hygeia boasted 800 bed chambers, a 7,000-square-foot dance pavilion, a 9,000-square-foot dining room and two long waterfront verandas. Among its most popular features were the therapeutic baths, which offered "Turkish, Russian, Thermo, Electro, Magnetic, Mercurial, Sulphur and Vaporbaths" as well as "Hot Sea Baths," a Boston newspaper reported.
So successful was Phoebus' enterprise - whose main foyer was touted by Harper's Weekly as "the most noted hotel room in America" - that railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington gladly agreed to extend his tracks from Newport News to Old Point Comfort. That spurred still more business, bumping the steamship landings up to 20 daily.
"The Hygeia was said to be the most expensive building in America," Quarstein says. "It was the place for the posh - the place for the upper class. And even after the Chamberlin opened, most people thought of it as the real hotel."
That well-heeled crowd included John F. Chamberlin, a former Mississippi riverboat gambler who ran the most stylish and politically well-connected restaurant in Washington, D.C. In 1890, he began to build an even grander hotel, and the palatial structure that resulted cost an estimated $5 million.
John Philip Sousa and the U.S. Marine Band played at the dedication, while the ships of the Atlantic Fleet's White Squadron - including the battleships New York and Maine - anchored and staged tours for dignitaries just offshore. Guests marveled at the 6-story resort's lavish amenities, including electricity and private baths in virtually every room.
Radiant with sunlight by day and brilliantly illuminated at night, the hotel's saltwater swimming pool earned kudos as "the most magnificent in America." Guests could also play golf on a new course constructed in nearby Hampton, hunt on the Eastern Shore or a Chickahominy River game preserve and fish, sail, ride or play tennis.
Though heritage tourism focused first on Fort Monroe and St. John's Church, it grew even stronger when the 1907 Jamestown Exposition opened at Sewell's Point in Norfolk.
"Today, you don't see the wharf. You don't see the beach. You see only the last surviving hotel," Quarstein says. "So people don't realize the scale of what was here."
The first to go was the old Hygeia, condemned and demolished by the Army in 1904. Then the Chamberlin burned to the ground in 1920.
Even after the second Chamberlin opened in 1928, Old Point's appeal was declining, Quarstein says. By 1961, the rail spur, wharf and steamship lines had all disappeared, leaving only the hotel as a relic of a past era.
Still, a recent $54 million restoration and rehabilitation as a luxury apartment community for seniors has resurrected much of its original architectural glory. It's also provided what Quarstein calls a blueprint for the future of many of the other historic buildings that will become open in 2011 when Fort Monroe closes.
"People ask if it can be done - and the answer is that it's already been done before," he says. "One hundred years ago, Old Point Comfort was one of the greatest resorts in America. And the beaches, the fort, the historic attractions, the beautiful architecture - they're all still there. If anything, the resources we have to attract people today are even better than before."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times