The Colonial Theatre Tea Garden

The beauty spot of downtown Richmond was, in 1921, the Tea Garden of the brand-new Colonial Theatre. Herein, we recreate the essence of elegance, joy and hauteur that was once found in Virginia's first real picture palace. Bathtub gin is available at the top of the grand ramps.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

I came to a rather unpleasant realization, about two weeks ago. It dawned on me, while I was absorbing the usual Friday night cocktail or seven, that twenty years have now passed since Hutzler's closed.

Those who are too young to remember, or not familiar with Baltimore, may not know of Hutzler's. Many of my younger friends and colleagues do not remember the grand department stores of their own cities, much less Baltimore's; and Hutzler's was the last to go, albeit the grandest of them all.

My friends, it WAS wonderful. It was big, and it was on Howard street. There were..hmm, I think, five different buildings, all somehow and mysteriously connected together. There were eight floors, and an elegant restaurant all the way up, and a lunch counter (the Quixie) in the basement. There was a pet supply department, a Stamp and Coin department, a Silver department that was easily the size of Allentown, and the store had all the requisite supplies for Boy and Girl scouts. Its Toy department was a thing of wonder; it provided me with my childhood toy trains and countless stuffed animals.

And now it has been gone for twenty years. When I went to college in Williamsburg, I never really intended to come back to Maryland. (Ah, the blindness of youth...) I loved Richmond so much better (and still do); and wasn't Miller and Rhoads every bit as nice as Hutzler's?

Actually, it was. Miller and Rhoads was a bit smaller, but even THAT much more elegant. Its seven-story bulk on Grace street was not so towering as the Hutzler edifice, but it was ever so much more gracious. The gentle sweep of the glass marquees over the doorways bespoke a class of people that, in Baltimore, only shopped in the elite boutiques of Charles street, and rarely bothered themselves with Howard.

Alas, it was not to be: Miller and Rhoads only lasted a year longer than did Hutzler's. I ended up working for its competitor across Sixth street--Thalhimers'--but it too was winding down its clock, and died in '92. The wonderful era of stylish downtown Anycity was done.

And now Miller and Rhoads lives again, in an otherworldly fashion. I should be excited by this. I am always pleased when anything nice happens in downtown Richmond. Seeing the reopening of the beautiful National Theatre was like a feather in my own cap; though I'd had nothing to do with it, I did work to preserve the theatre years ago, and it just plain makes me happy to see something good in my favorite city.

Why is it, then, that I'm feeling a bit "tetched" about the new Hotel and Condominiums opening this weekend in the commercial palace that was once Miller and Rhoads? Nothing, to me, is more important than to see Broad and Grace streets alive and fashionable again. For too long have I heard even native Richmonders talk about the horror that is Broad street. I have cringed when hearing people say, "Grace street? Ugh." And well do I remember--though it IS distant past now--when I had to have an M&R attache help me carry all of my bags to my waiting Buick.

Shouldn't I be happy to see the old store building brought back to life? Yes, yes, I should. I'm glad that it wasn't destroyed, as was the Thalhimers building (and yes, the M&R building WAS much more beautiful). But--if we need another downtown hotel (we do), wouldn't it have made better sense to funnel attention towards the gigantic, beautiful and still-neglected Hotel John Marshall? Couldn't we, perhaps, have held on to the M&R building as a potential retail facility?

It's done, though, now; and there's clearly not a damned thing I can do but to applaud it and come home for its opening. Sadly, they say that not much of the interior remains, but then department store interiors do not lend themselves to hotels. I won't stay there--if I go home, I stay with friends or at THE Hotel--but I'll surely visit, if for no other reason than to pretend that I am still shopping for a new necktie. I'll probably even wear that tie that everyone hates, but of which I was so proud twenty years ago--it did come from the "Better Men's" department, right at the doors near Sixth and Grace.

I have heard that the new hotel intends to recreate some of the famous dishes from the Miller and Rhoads Tea Room. It won't be quite the same, of course--the Tea Room was up on the fifth floor, and there will be no Eddie Weaver at the Hammond Organ ("Valencia?" You're not old enough to know that song!"). And the city's Busy Corner just won't be the same without the two grand stores, either--but perhaps, I should take what I can get.

I wish that future generations--oh, hell, even the generation just behind mine--could still have the joy and fun of Broad, Sixth and Grace when it was still "something doing." Meanwhile, I'm going to be very pleased to eat a Missouri Club sandwich for the first time in twenty years.