Rarely has anyone changed the landscape in Hampton Roads as dramatically as Secretary of the Army Elihu Root when he signed a Sept. 1, 1902 order authorizing the razing of the Hygeia Hotel.
The landmark structure stretched for more than 700 yards across the shores of Old Point Comfort at the entrance to Hampton Roads, filling the eyes of incoming steamboat passengers with a 4-story seaside palace that boasted 800 bed chambers, a 7,000-square-foot dance pavilion, a 9,000-square-foot dining room and two long waterfront verandas.
Harper's Weekly touted the Hygeia's main foyer as "the most noted hotel room in America," and celebrity visitors ranged from P.T. Barnum to Ulysses S. Grant.
"As a resort for the pleasure-seeker or an invalid, and as a resting place for tourists on their way to Florida or to the North, this magnificent Hotel ... presents to the public rare inducements which certainly cannot be exceeded at any resort on the whole Atlantic Coast," a hotel advertisement boasted.
Still, the Hygeia was a struggling venture when a Union army veteran named Harrison Phoebus talked its owners into letting him take over in 1874.
Hard-working and energetic, he vowed to transform the modest endeavor into "the best hotel of its kind in the country."
Then he added, "and I will let the public know it."
Visiting and studying other hotels across the country to learn the business, Phoebus built such a dizzying array of extensions, wings and annexes that he transformed a relatively modest structure into an eye-popping architectural wonder.
He also introduced every new amenity he could find, including electric bells in bedrooms and hydraulic elevators. Among the resort's 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 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 per day and enabling Phoebus to begin touting his hotel as "The Great Southern Resort."
It also prompted John F. Chamberlin, a former Mississippi riverboat gambler who ran the most stylish and politically well-connected restaurant in Washington, D.C., to being building an equally grand hotel just down the beach in 1890.
During its glory days, the Hygeia Hotel claimed a 1,000-guest capacity, more than 500 employees and the country's largest ballroom.
But two years after the army's order, the immense resort complex was all gone, pushed down to make room for a planned addition to Fort Monroe that never materialized. Eventually the vast empty space that resulted was seeded over and turned into Continental Park.
"The Hygeia was said to be the most expensive building in America," says historian John V. Quarstein, co-author of "Old Point Comfort Resort: Hospitality, Health & History on Virginia's Chesapeake Bay."
"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."
Here's a link to a 2009 story on Old Point Comfort and its past glories as a seaside resort.
-- Mark St. John EricksonCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun