- Jul 30, 2018
When I visited Lexington during my recent tour through Virginia, I stayed at the Hampton Inn in the historic district. I chose the hotel because of its convenient location; the major sites in Lexington are within walking distance. A very nice side-effect was that the hotel resides in a historic mansion.
The house was built in 1827 by James McDowell, governor of Virginia from 1843-1846, on a 328-acre property at the eastern edge of Lexington. At that time, the house - a Georgian style mansion with classical detailing - was the sole building on the hill and had thus unobstructed view of the town and the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was McDowell who named the house Col Alto, which is Italian and means on the high.
In the decade before the Civil War, McDowell's daughters entertained many guests in the mansion, among them Thomas J. Jackson.
McDowell died in 1851 and bequeathed his daugthers with shares of the property. One daughter, Sally, sold her share to her husband, Reverend John Miller. Another daughter, Sophonisba, and her husband Colonel James Woods Massie bought the Millers' share in 1864. Colonel Massie became a professor at VMI and not only helped rebuild the school after the Civil War, but also constructed the first addition to the mansion (two bedrooms and the elliptical staircase), contributing much to today's structure.
When Colonel Massie died in 1875, the mansion was sold to Judge James N. Lea from New Orleans. Lea finished and refined the additions begun by Massie. In 1890, the house was sold by Lea's widow to the Mooremans who after a few years sold Col Alto to Henry St. George Tucker.
Tucker was a law graduate and later professor, dean and acting president of Washington & Lee and served as Virginia Congressman from 1889 to 1897. When living in Lexington, he started many improvements to the mansion, among others the first indoor bathroom and first floor indoor kitchen.
After Tucker's death in 1932, his daughter Rosa bought her siblings' shares of the house and lived in Col Alto for almost three decades. Because of her love of entertaining guests, she greatly expanded the house. New York architect William Lawrence Bottomley designed the exterior guest rooms, while Rosa's friend (and first female Harvard School of Landscape Architecture graduate) Rose Greeley was responsible for the garden landscape. Greeley incorporated many old trees that grew in the front lawn in her design.
When Rosa died, the house was bequeathed to Washington & Lee University who used it as student apartments and storage, although Rosa's will was for W&L to use it as the university's presidential home. Over the years, the house deteriorated, and the university wanted to sell it. Rosa's sister, Mrs. Forest Fletcher, requested the mansion be instead returned to the Tucker heirs which it was in 1984.
Col Alto was then sold to the current owners who restored the mansion to its historic splendor. It was made it into a hotel in 1997.
Today, the hotel offers 10 historic guest rooms in the main house - three on the first floor of which two are accessible from outside, via the back porch - and many more newer rooms in the wing behind the main house. In-between the two buildings are the pool and jacuzzi. The historic guest rooms are named after people and places that played a prominent role in Col Alto's existence, such as McDowell, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, VMI, or George C. Marshall. Of the original plantation grounds, 7 acres remain and form a park around the house which stiffles much of the noise from the main street passing by the property.
Palladian-style porch on the left (north) side of the house, an early 1930s addition by Bottomley. It replaced a 1910 wooden porch.
Coming in from that porch, you enter a hallway that leads straight to the elliptical stair hall (that was added by Massie after the Civil War) and the first historic guest room.
View from that hallway into the "double parlors" next to the entrance hall (to the left of the picture). The fan-light opening connecting the two rooms is original. The back parlor was originally used as study.
Closer view of the front parlor.
The entrance hall really is two halls. The rear hall today houses the hotel reception. Before the addition of the elliptical staircase, the rear hall contained the stairs leading to the second floor.
Turning around, view into the dining room that today serves as breakfast room.
The door at the right end of the room leads into the butler's pantry where today the breakfast buffet can be found. From there, through a short hallway, you can access the back porch with two more historic guest rooms, the Generals Room and the Keydets Room (which was where I stayed).
Back porch. To the left you enter the main house. To the right you get to the parking lot/grounds. Behind the door is the Keydets Room. To the back of the photographer is the Generals Room.
The Keydets Room.
I can warmly recommend Col Alto to anyone looking for a hotel in Lexington. Granted, because of it's historic status and convenient location, it costs more than other hotels (if I see that correctly, it's the second most expensive hotel in Lexington). But if you are looking for a historic ambience, you will like the mansion.