Classy Hotel Gone, But Memories Stay
Legendary singer-songwriter Billie Holiday and other jazz greats jammed at the Plaza Hotel in Norfolk, Virginia when it was the place for black folks to go.
This article was first published on December 8, 1980 in The Virginian Pilot:
The Plaza Hotel cooked on Monday nights when jazz musicians tried to best each other in the weekly jam sessions. Spurred on by shouts from their audience in the downstairs dining room, they brought up Tuesday’s sun.
Ladies in frothy chiffon cocktail dresses floated into the room on spikes heels, swaying with the music. Men wearing evening jackets tapped their wing-tips in clicking accompaniment to Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, and Louis Armstrong.
Today, two decades later, the building at Church and East 18th streets – ravaged by time and a fire in March – stands in the shadow of its grand past. A wrecking ball will soon shear its upper floor. Its storefront superstructure will be converted into a dry cleaners.
The hotel, which opened as a white establishment about the time of the 1907 Jamestown Exposition, is symbolic of what is happening in the Huntersville community. The Church Street area is undergoing urban renewal.
But memories don’t die with broken bricks. Especially not for Bonnie McEachin, who created that special time a generation ago at the Plaza Hotel when it was the place for black folks to go.
Standing outside the building on a chilly autumn day, the woman recalled the good times and the gradual demise of her Norfolk landmark.
“When I opened the hotel, Church Street was a pretty street all the way down,” she said. Ms. McEachin began leasing the hotel almost 30 years ago, defying warnings from everyone around her who didn’t think she’d make the $1,000 monthly rent. She eventually bought the hotel for $27,500 after its Baltimore owner died in 1980. She sold it last month.
“There weren’t any empty buildings. Graves Funeral Home (Norfolk’s largest black funeral parlor) was just built. There were eating places like Hunters. And Bachelor Benedicts was booming at the time. They presented debutantes each year,” she said.
Black families patronized shops handed down from generation to generation on narrow, winding Church Street in days when segregation prohibited them from trying on clothes in whites-only Granby Street stores.
“I’ve seen a time on Church Street on Saturday afternoons. It was just like this,” she said, rubbing her hands together.
“Coming and going, just like 125th Street in (Harlem), New York. People would stand on the corners of Princess Anne Road and Church Street, and Brambleton Avenue and Church, just to watch the crowd go by.”
And amid it all stood the Plaza.
The three-story hotel offered 23 rooms, two couch-lined lounges, a dining room that featured the latest jukebox and seated more than 100 in round blue-leather booths, and the club room that had piped-in music and seated about 35 people at white-linen-covered tables.
“It was just one of the swankest places to go,” said the fox-red-haired woman, one of six children in a family that worked a plantation in Rose Hill, North Carolina. She married in 1924 and settled in Norfolk 11 years later.
“I always wanted an exclusive place,” said the self-made businesswoman. She had reared two children before opening Shalimar, a bar and grill on Monticello Avenue in 1947. Three years later, Ms. McEachin began operating the 12-room Plaza House, seven blocks down from the Plaza Hotel.
Then, in 1951, she took over the Prince George Hotel, which she said a man named Bennie Davis had leased for about 20 years. She promptly renamed it the Plaza Hotel.
“I stayed filled,” she said, raising her thick eyebrows and tossing her head. “At one time, I employed 28 people. I gave service. You wouldn’t get meals any better, or air-conditioned rooms any cleaner. There was a maid for each floor. There were three cooks and a bellhop. The bellman’s uniform was blue-trimmed with gold braid on the sleeves and down the pants side. It said ‘Plaza Hotel’ on the sleeves.
“My girls were never allowed to stoop over the table,” she said, removing her eyeglasses with an expansive arm movement. “The first thing they would do is bring a glass of water. Then they’d bring out a server. Next, they’d take out a tray and place it on the server. That way, there was no bending or stooping to do.”
George C. Crawley, director of Norfolk’s Department of Human Resources, has fond memories of Ms. McEachin and her hotel.
“If you went there more than once, she knew you,” he said. “She was stylish and had a flair for showmanship. She dressed extremely well. She was the star and the owner.”
“I never wanted people to leave dissatisfied,” Ms. McEachin said, continuing the interview in the Barraud Park waterfront home she designed and built – at a cost of $100,000 – in the late ‘50s. She calls it Lakeview Manor.
She dressed “dearly” for her patrons in the latest fashions from New York. She would spend as much as $1,000 at Bergdorf Goodman’s and the Statler Hotel in one whirlwind shopping trip.
The February 1959 issue of Sepia, a monthly magazine for blacks, touted her as “one of the nation’s most successful businesswomen … and one of the best-dressed women.” Many people went to the Plaza just to be seated by the striking Ms. McEachin.
Duke Ellington called her “Satin Doll,” after the title of one of his songs. Louis Armstrong called her “Sister.”
Ms.McEachin ran off the names of famous performers like they were family – Dinah Washington, Billie Holliday, Mahalia Jackson, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, and Bo Diddley all crossed the Plaza’s threshold.
A younger George Crawley was enthralled by the glamor of the hotel’s recognizable clientele.
“If you stayed there long enough,” he said, “you could see important people in Norfolk as well as out-of-town celebrities. You got to see people you heard about, and had records of, and read about in The Journal and Guide and The Richmond Afro-American, (two black newspapers). We got a chance to see them when they played the Chitterling Circuit (the black club circuit that entertainers played across the country).
Playing at a white country club in Virginia Beach did not assure entry to a white hotel room. Well-known black personalities stayed at the Plaza or at the McEachin residence when the hotel didn’t have enough rooms.
“Louie would go down there by the water, blowing his trumpet,” she said, her soulful dark eyes transfixed, as though looking at another time. “He was a grand guy, very down to earth. He loved his red beans and rice. We had a cook then. We always made sure we had red beans and rice when Louie came to stay.”
The Plaza earned a fine reputation for its food, which Ms. McEachin’s husband, Graham, the hotel manager, often cooked. One old-timer remembers the wholesome smell of such Southern dishes as greens, pork chops, black-eyes peas, and (sweet) potato pies.
“At one time, we were open for breakfast and closed at 1 (in the mornings). But when bands were in, there was no telling. ‘Mr. Mac,’ they’d say, ‘Don’t close. I’m so hungry.’ They wouldn’t want anyone else to fix it but Mr. Mac.”
Everyone was crazy about the hotel’s chicken fried in peanut oil, but each band had its special dish, Ms. McEachin said. Count Basie’s was the “shrimp band,” while “Duke and that bunch – they were the steak band. He’d eat two steaks at once. We’d have to buy a special cut of beef that he’d like.”
The hotel also catered get-togethers for sororities, fraternities, and professional groups. When white businesses wanted to throw social functions for their black employees, they called on the services of the Plaza.
“I never had an affair I didn’t attend,” she said. “I’d make every setting.”
Dr. Lyman B. Brooks, president emeritus of Norfolk State University, remembers the Plaza in its heyday.
“They had a nice dining room,” he said. “People ate there a great deal. Small groups would hold their luncheons in the dining rooms.”
Families ate there after church services; husbands treated their wives there for birthdays and anniversaries; and college men escorted their dates there for a big night out on the town.
Charles C. Paige, a Norfolk Department of Human Resources official, recalled a time when he hadn’t reached the hotel’s minimum age of 18. Anyone younger had to be in tow of an adult.
“I used to watch my older brother dress and go up there,” he said. “You kept saying you’d be glad when you got older and could go there. It was just the place to go.
“You had to be dressed to get in. You had on brown and whites (shoes in fashion). You bought your girl a champagne cocktail and put a cherry in the champagne. She felt good,” Paige said.
The sun began to sink as Ms. McEachin told the story of her hotel’s falling on hard times.
“After desegregation in the ‘60s, everybody flocked to white places like the Golden Triangle (which later became Holiday Inn/Scope). They neglected their own. Integration helped some and hurt others. When you could go to a white hotel, the clients changed. There were more undesirables. So I went to a weekly thing to get retirees, but … things had gotten bad. I was even afraid to park my car. I had floodlights installed on the outside of the building. I had security. All of that was quite expensive, and business was going down.
“We served food downstairs until June 1979. At first, the kitchen didn’t open until 5:30 at night, and then at 6, and then 7. You very seldom got a call for shrimp and steak. They wanted beef stews, pot pies, and beans. You had arrived at the tide.”
Business began slacking off in 1965, although, Ms. McEachin said, it was still good 10 years ago. Five years ago, “I saw the handwriting on the wall. I said, ‘Let’s face it. It’s all over.’
“I never thought it would look like this,” the tearful woman had said earlier that afternoon as urban tumbleweed – paper trash – blew down the sidewalk outside the hotel’s standing remains. “It saddens me. I don’t hardly come back here. This is only the third time I’ve been here since the fire.”
The Plaza is gone.
But black folks remember that Ms. McEachin ran a first-class place.