Designed in 1911 and built in 1912, the historic Royster Building was originally constructed as the headquarters for the F.S. Royster Fertilizer Company. The 15-story Classical-Revival structure was predominantly used as an office building, and most recently served as the headquarters for the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority until its reimagining as an intellectually curious boutique hotel — Glass Light Hotel & Gallery. The adjacent building was built in 1900 and was used for many purposes, including a department store, movie theatre, and, most recently, offices for the City of Norfolk. It now eloquently displays rotating exhibits of exquisite glass art from local and internationally renowned artists.
The goal was to transform the buildings into a modern hotel and gallery without losing their historic charm. Located in the Downtown Norfolk Historic District, the century-old buildings now boasts 113 masterfully detailed guest rooms and suites, two meeting rooms, two board rooms, an upscale French restaurant and bar, a full-service kitchen, and an adjoining 14,354 SF museum, the Perry Glass Art Collection.
The entire property was envisioned as a home for the owners’ ever-expanding collection of unique and exquisite glass art. From the moment guests enter the buildings until they reach their room, the design creates an activated and highly-experiential journey, connecting them both conceptually and physically to the artwork. The overall architectural design utilized natural light to enhance the interior features, from the art to the finishes, to create a remarkable glow.
In the hotel, the process of glassmaking, incorporating the elements of sand, fire, and air, plays out in curated, whimsical details. Guestrooms are envisioned as a play on the glassblower’s studio. Rooms offer an open concept so guests can easily work, relax, or create in the space. Artwork displayed within the guestrooms is inspired by the color chips used for glassblowing. In the public spaces, glasswork takes center stage.
The marriage of wood and glass details also nods to the glassmaking process, while iconic commissioned and one-of-a-kind pieces — all from the owners’ collection — serve as a catalyst for larger conversations surrounding the artistry, inherent authenticity, and actual creation of glass. Two custom, human-size glass bunnies by Peter Bremers — one greeting guest at reception and another draped across the bar — are the collection’s showstoppers. These bespoke bunnies were cast and molded in the artist’s studio in the Netherlands, and are a sweet nod to one of the owners, whose grandchildren call her Bunny.
The project’s overarching challenge was to maintain the character of the century-old buildings while modernizing and converting them into to a high-end hotel and gallery. This required collaboration and upfront coordination between the design team, contractor, and subcontractors. The exquisite craftsmanship of the glass collection featured throughout the building is closely matched by the quality of the design and construction. Much of the building’s original architectural detail, which was heavily modified in 1975, was uncovered and restored during the renovation, including doors, windows, partition walls, u-shaped corridors, trim, marble baseboards, stairs, ornamental metal stair rails, elaborate coffered ceilings, three of four original elevator cabs/cab finishes and a mail chute with a bronze mail collection box on the ground floor. Additionally, much of the building’s exterior brick limestone pillars and columns and decorative terracotta was preserved.
One of the biggest restoration challenges— and ultimately successes— was that of a pyramid-shaped skylight that had been removed by previous owners. The skylight, which is located in the atrium to bridge the hotel to connecting gallery, is a prominent focal point. Custom chandeliers were added to accentuate the skylight. Every aspect of the restoration and installation was meticulously coordinated, resulting in a stunning feature that floods the building with natural light.
Additionally, the basement rests well-below the water table, making it highly susceptible to flooding during periods of heavy rains, hurricanes or nor’easters. To comply with the City’s new Flood Management Program, the installation of a new system to contain these potential floodwaters was required. We met with City officials frequently to discuss our plan and ensure we were using proper materials and techniques. Because of the historic nature of the building, we used a modified floodproofing program, comprised of internal flood gates, and a mix of wet and dry floodproofing.
Work on the museum was also challenging, and included the abatement and demolition of the building’s interior — all the way down to the brick and concrete structure. Over the last century, the building had a differential settlement of up to 7” in some areas. This required a complete structural stabilization via the installation of helical piles, concrete pile caps with structural slab, and tube steel columns. Work also included the addition of three new sets of stairs and an elevator, a new roof, complete MEP systems, two new restrooms, and new finishes throughout. Additionally, many of the building’s existing façade features were replaced or restored.
In both spaces, every aspect of the finishes, millwork, lighting, engineering, and construction was performed to an extremely high level to provide a worthy home for the glass collection and artwork. The historic restoration, coupled with the modern aesthetic, provides the perfect harmony of old and new.
This successful preservation and conversion illustrates that it is possible to fully embrace a historic building’s inherent character while altering its use to meet modern needs. The hope is that the resounding success of this project will serve as an inspiration to other developers in the preservation and rehabilitation of the Downtown Norfolk Historic District.
The Glass Light Hotel & Gallery was awarded the Associated Builders and Contractors Virginia Chapter’s Honor Award of Excellence in the Historic Renovation category and Hampton Roads Association for Commercial Real Estate’s (HRACRE) Award of Excellence in the Best Renovated or Historic Rehabilitation category. Additionally, the project received HRACRE’s Jurors’ Choice award, an honor given to the most notable project overall. This project was also awarded Norfolk Preservation Collection’s Preservation Award of Excellence in the mixed-use and flood prevention categories. To learn more about the project, visit https://bit.ly/3TtLu2w.
This content was submitted by Clancy & Theys Construction Company. Image courtesy of Clancy & Theys Construction Company.