The O.Henry Hotel’s Fifteenth Anniversary (and GVG’s)! | Fall 2013 Rambling

A rambling by Dennis Quaintance, CEO & CSO (Chief Storytelling Officer)

November 23rd is a special day on our calendars: That’s when, in 1998, in a low-key way, we opened the O.Henry Hotel and Green Valley Grill. It was a big year all around: On January 3rd our partner’s wife, Katherine Weaver, gave birth to their twins, Will and “Brother Mike”; and, on August 2nd my bride, Nancy, brought into this world our twins, Kathleen and “New” Dennis. (We do everything together.)

On the occasion of this anniversary, I’m looking back nostalgically and looking forward enthusiastically. I’m enjoying reminiscing about the design process we employed and the cues we took from iconic buildings in our neighborhood, even if they are not still standing. For instance, we drew design inspiration from the original O.Henry Hotel, which stood downtown on Elm at Bellemeade from its opening in 1919 until its demolition in 1979.

But the design isn’t all we took from history. We wanted to bring back the community-centered hotels that all but disappeared when airline travel and interstates came along and most hotels moved away from neighborhoods to commercial areas near highways or airports. We wanted to bring Greensboro not just a great place for travelers to stay, but also a place that folks from the neighborhood would enjoy, like the old hotels—a real center of community life. We wanted a place that was “in and of” our community.
It is still emotional for me when I see familiar faces sharing afternoon tea in the social lobby (what a wonderful tradition that has become!), or family and friends gathering in the Green Valley Grill. All this, quite literally, is a dream come true.

What’s Next?

Well, you might recall from earlier letters that we don’t save up improvements for six to ten years like most hotels. We are in a continual improvement mode, with our design team gathering weekly. I’m honored to lead this team; Bradshaw Orrell is extraordinary as lead designer; Chip Holton, QW’s artist in residence, offers his creative perspectives; and Leah Clark keeps us on track…otherwise we’d spend most of our time giggling about senseless stuff. We also have a talented in-house construction team led by Jeff Kennedy.

Even with our constant improvement efforts, every once in a while we tear into things “whole hog.” That is what we’ve done over the past couple of years at the O.Henry and what we will continue to do in the coming months. (The work that our guests will notice most should be completed in the next several months.) Here is a sort of behind-the-scenes tour of what we have done or are doing:

  • Palmer Room
    This NEW event space on the Terrace level will be adjacent to the Hawkins Brown Room.
    – The paneled room will be a gem, providing a warm, private dining or meeting option for up to 22 people.
    – Named for the Palmer Memorial Institute, which was founded by the amazing African-American leader Charlotte Hawkins Brown in 1902.
  • Hawkins Brown Room
    Our 1,500-square-foot event space on the Terrace level.
    – A complete remodel is transforming a good event space into an extraordinary one.
    – Wonderful large windows and doors with minimal window treatments lead to the English Walled Garden, which has five original landscape murals by Chip Holton.
    – Ceilings are being raised 17 inches, with a new lighting system and eight crystal basket chandeliers, allowing this room to be an even better canvas for creating extraordinary bespoke events.
    – An around-the-room landscape mural is being commissioned, and it will extend to the moveable walls.
  • Terrace-Level Lobby
    – Soon, just off the elevators on the Terrace level, you’ll find an appealing small congregation area on your way to the Hawkins Brown and Palmer Rooms.
  • Caldwell Room
    Our 3,000-square-foot event space is just off the main lobby.
    – New window treatments will allow even more natural light and views of the wonderful river birches.
    – In addition to 14 dramatic new crystal basket chandeliers, gilded mirrors will hang from a railing on a soffit molding that can also accommodate special decorations or accessories.
    – An array of residential-style furniture, live plants and a versatile LED lighting system will be employed for our bespoke social or business events.
  • Pavilion
    Our wonderful “orangery” inspired, light-filled room opens onto the Don Rives Cloister Garden.
    – Chip Holton painted 20 birds onto his vine-inspired wall paintings.
    – New lighting will enhance our ability to set just the right mood for private dinners or cocktail parties.
    – New composite flooring that sort of channels Bradshaw’s inner Otto Zenke with its look and pattern.
  • Merchants and Manufacturers Room (M&M Room)
    – In this delightful wine cellar-inspired private dining room across from Hawkins Brown Room, we’re not changing a thing…We adore its much-loved, much-used look!
  • Guestrooms
    – We’ve added new 46-inch HDTVs with great auxiliary stereo sound systems.
    – New Bluetooth connection-capable, high-fidelity stereo systems will play music from your iPod.
    – Newly upholstered furniture, new leather footstools and refinished desks refresh the look.
    – We’ve also added new carpet, granite-top bedside tables, window sheers and refinished bedside lamps.
    – All rooms have original watercolor paintings of vignettes or architectural features from around the hotel.
  • Guest Living Areas
    – We are adding these great amenities near the windows at each end of the corridors:
  • Writing desk with a fast computer and printer
  • A super fantastic filtered water system that dispenses room temperature, chilled or heated water
  • Ice dispensers (half of the rooms will only be half as far from ice, and our dispensers are quieter than ice-makers by a factor of 20)
  • An “honor system” refrigerator with non-alcoholic refreshments
  • Guestroom Corridors
    – We’ll add crystal basket light fixtures that will create a wonderful pattern of light on the walls.
    – Large Chip Holton garden paintings now gussy up the elevator landings. And soon gilded mirrors will take these landings up another notch.
  • In General
    – We implemented a rather complex yet highly effective way of heating most of our hot water: We heat it with the rejected heat generated by the air conditioning system. Most of the time, that thermal energy is just thrown out into the air. Rather than waste it, we use it to heat our water. Pretty neat.
    – We installed the first “smart” thermostats that aren’t stupid. The old ones just had motion sensors, so if you didn’t move for a while, the air conditioning would turn off. These now have a door sensor and a motion sensor, plus a complex algorithm, so that when a guest leaves the room, the temperature will float up or down one degree. That saves a lot of energy without having a negative effect on our guest’s experience.
  • Green Valley Grill
    – Now, there is deliciously tactile, aniline-dyed leather upholstery.
    – We took out the drapes in the arches, and installed shutters and smaller drapes to block the afternoon sun.
    – There will be more TLC for GVG coming next year, including a new stereo sound system for the bar.

What am I nostalgic about?

I get wonderful warm feelings remembering the fantastic camaraderie and collaboration with the great design team we assembled. Working with Doug George, Don Rives, Chip Callaway, and the multitude of other collaborators, was one of the great thrills of my life. Today, I’m thinking most about the key design person, Don Rives. What a guy. Damn few left like him! He died five years ago, and we miss him every day. The best way to describe our feelings for Don is to read the memorial plaque in the social lobby, which reads, “Don Rives Cloister Garden—Don Rives was our Minister of Design from 1989 till 2007—He gave back as rain what he received as mist; he taught us about beauty and joy and how to turn our dreams into a physical reality. In his memory, we lovingly dedicate this garden.” (Kleenex, please.)

I find it amazing that five of the key people in our hotels and restaurants today were at the opening, or joined us soon after: Martha Bryant, Managing Director of the O.Henry, opened the hotel in a similar role; Will Stevens, President of QW Management and Development, pitched in during the opening; Martin Hunt, who leads both the Green Valley Grill and Print Works Bistro, joined us soon after opening; Tony Villier, General Manager of the Proximity Hotel, was at the Green Valley Grill on day one; and Nancy King Quaintance, Vice President, was and is in the center all things hotel and culinary. I am one lucky hombre to get to work with these great people and the other 650 people I get to call my colleagues.

We had a blast designing the O.Henry and Green Valley Grill! We decided that we’d sort of channel Charles Hartmann, the architect for the original 1919 O.Henry and the Jefferson Standard Building. And, we chose to put the restaurant not in the hotel but beside it with its own entrance and identity so that folks wouldn’t confuse it with a “hotel restaurant.” For the design of Green Valley Grill, we pretended that there was already a building on the site that we wanted to adapt and reuse. With that approach, we got to decide what we would have liked to have found! What’s more fun than that? We decided we’d like a building that was an amalgam of the power station at UNC-G, the little pump house in Lake Daniel and the store at 150 and Lake Brandt Road. For the O.Henry, we didn’t just reference Hartmann with the rustication of the first two levels, the shouldered arched windows, and the black-and-white basket-weave mosaic tiles in the restrooms; but we also found delight in the urns atop Aycock school, so we added similar ones to the hotel.

I could go on and on—and I sort of have, with an even longer rambling at in the 15th Anniversary section—but I’ll leave it at that for this letter. Here’s to the next 15! Cheers!