A RICH HISTORY

Once a Confederate Army Hospital, the American Hotel now serves as a spot for businesses and weddings.

Like many of the buildings located in the Wharf Historic District in Staunton, The American Hotel has a rich history. The hotel, Staunton’s only surviving hotel from the Civil War era, is nestled on South Augusta Street across from the Staunton Amtrak station.

Its history is undeniably tied to the train station. The American Hotel was built in 1855 by the Virginia Central Railroad, one year after the railroad reached Staunton, accomplishing its goal of a strategic route between the Shenandoah Valley and the state capitol at Richmond. At the time, The American Hotel was a favorite among travelers who’d spent a long day on the railroad.

The American Hotel saw much of the Civil War action that took place in Staunton. By 1863, it was being used almost exclusively as a Confederate Army hospital. When the Staunton Train Station burned down in 1864 during Union occupation, The American Hotel was spared, most likely because the owner of the hotel had formed a quick friendship with a Union officer, who was using the hotel as his quarters.

In the first year of former Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency, he spent a night at The American Hotel. Hearing news of his arrival, the Stonewall Brigade Band, which had formerly served as Confederate Stonewall Jackson’s headquarters band, assembled to play for him. Grant appeared on the hotel balcony and raised his hat to acknowledge the band. This small gesture served as one of the first public acts of reconciliation after the war.

The hotel was subsequently converted into a produce warehouse that specialized in the handling of cigars, tobacco, teas and spices. These goods were superior to that of other distributors in the area. The hotel also served for a short time as a shoe factory and later as a railway express office.

Through the years and the hotel’s various uses, The American Hotel started to deteriorate. The hotel was added to

the Virginia Historic Landmark registry, but it was rapidly falling apart. Parts of the building started to collapse and the future of the hotel looked bleak until Georgia businessman Vic Meinert bought the building.

As you enter the hotel, a small staircase leads down into the banquet hall. Soft yellow lights fill the room, illuminating the exposed brick walls and gleaming hardwood floors. A staircase leads up to a balcony overhead, where guests can watch the action from above or get away for a quieter conversation. The American Hotel’s banquet hall is reminiscent of the hotel’s former life, redone in its original 1850s style by retired psychiatrist Philip Sansone from Emerald City, L.P., which is now renamed The American Hotel, LLC. Sansone is responsible for the current condition of the hotel, having bought it in 2003 and restored it, turning it into the successful business it is today.

Once a historic hotel, the American Hotel now serves as a wedding a business venue.

“Here was a building that was 150 to 160 years old, roughly, and it was sitting there not being utilized in any way,” Charles Caldwell, the manager for The American Hotel, says. “It was just sort of sad to see something that is such an antiquity to sort of go unused and be falling apart.”

Initially, the company had plans to transform the hotel into a restaurant, but having bought the hotel in the midst of the recession, they soon realized that they needed to come up with an alternate plan in the economy they were facing.

Caldwell and Sansone decided instead to create a banquet hall for weddings and parties. They also added office, retail and restaurant space that would be available for rent. In 2003, renovation began.

The renovation was not easy. Because the hotel was built in the late 1800s, it required extensive revamping to bring it up to modern day safety codes and standards of living, which was expensive.

“When this project went forth, essentially the building was gutted except for the floors and the ceilings. Everything was put in essentially brand new,” Caldwell says.

Part of bringing the building up to code included adding fire safety features like fire escapes and a sprinkler system. They added elevators and a parking garage, and the bathrooms were remodeled.

Perhaps one of the most notable changes is that the hotel is no longer a hotel, at least in the normal sense of the word. When the building was remodeled, all rooms were taken out and converted to spaces for businesses. Caldwell says he often gets calls late at night from people hoping to get a hotel room. Despite the confusion, The American Hotel has kept its original name to help preserve the history of the building.

 

While people no longer travel to The American Hotel for a hotel room, they come for another: the banquet room. Now often used for weddings, the banquet room’s first wedding was in 2010, a wedding that Caldwell recalls as one of his favorite moments of working at the hotel.

He says the culmination of seeing their plan and hard work pay off was extremely gratifying.

“Little did we know, we’re so much different than that first day,” Caldwell says.

He describes the learning curve he and his co- workers faced as the biggest challenge in the banquet room’s early days.

“It was sort of funny, how do you do all these things when that’s not our area of expertise?” Caldwell says. “I used to be a hospital administrator for an outpatient facility. It was very different.”

They acquired the knowledge to run a successful wedding venue through a lot of research, conversations with people, and of course, through trial-and-error. Caldwell emphasizes how much reading he and his team did about the wedding industry to make up for their initial lack of expertise.

“Brides invite us into an intimate part of their lives,” Caldwell says. “We just want to do the best we can forthem.” Caldwell is now more involved with the administrative side of the business, but proudly reflects

on the progress he’s helped make at his time with The American Hotel. He often runs into people in town that remark on their positive experiences at his venue. Even one of Caldwell’s family members, who lives in Washington, D.C., received a wedding invitation recently for a wedding that was to be held at The American Hotel.

“When you’re starting to hear those kind of things,” Caldwell says, “it makes you feel like, well you know, maybe we’re doing something right.”