Bed Check: Virginia's General Francis Marion Hotel has a roaring twenties vibe

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; 2:42 PM

Walk into the General Francis Marion Hotel in Marion, Va., and you'll feel like a character in the board game "Clue." Built in 1927 and named, like the town, for the Revolutionary War hero known as the "Swamp Fox," the hotel has the feel of a musty old mansion, despite a $4 million renovation completed four years ago.

The original walnut paneling and oak floor are still in place in the ballroom. The Card Room on the upper mezzanine has red walls and a playing-card motif embedded in the tile floor, along with a trademark black rooster hovering over what looks like a bubbly cocktail. A black rooster was supposedly code for "Drinks served here" during Prohibition. Also intact are the original hotel registration desk, the switchboard and a display cabinet now used as a reception desk in the hotel's restaurant - the Black Rooster, of course.

The narrow hallways were dark and quiet when I checked in on a recent night. Opening the heavy original door to one of the 36 guest rooms, I could almost imagine finding the butler's body on the other side.

When it was built by Charles Clarke Lincoln Sr., believed to be Marion's wealthiest resident, and William M. Sclater, owner of the Marion Drug Co., the hotel was hailed as the most elegant lodging establishment in southwestern Virginia and a boon to the tiny manufacturing town.

It boasted a grand staircase and Gothic columns and housed a barber shop, a beauty salon and a restaurant. Writer Sherwood Anderson, who called Marion home from 1925 until his death in 1941, is said to have frequented the hotel's restaurant, then called Capers.

"Marion's dream of many years has now been realized, and we can now boast of one of the most complete and modern hotels in the entire South," the local Smyth County News reported in 1927, according to the hotel Web site.

By the 1980s, the hotel was no longer modern. Its facade was faded and its interior had fallen into disrepair. Interstate 81 had drawn travelers away from Route 11, Marion's Main Street, and the General Francis couldn't compete with the major chains that had popped up along the highway. Joe Ellis, who moved to town at age 12, and his wife, Susie, whose family lived in nearby Abingdon, bought the property in 2000 and began renovations in 2003. The hotel reopened in February 2006.

The Ellises took great pains to maintain the Roaring Twenties vibe of the building, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Yet they made sure to add all the modern amenities a traveler would want. My room had high-speed Internet and a TV. The bathroom, unfortunately, lacked enough shelf space for all my toiletries, but the bed was firm and comfortable. The continental breakfast included in my room rate featured the hotel's own fresh-baked bread. An employee was on hand to make complimentary eggs or waffles for any guests who wanted something heavier.

The General Francis's renovation was considered a major component of the revitalization of Marion's historic downtown district. Located in Virginia's Blue Ridge Highlands, the town has been hard hit by the recession, though the Lincoln Theatre, one of only a few Art Deco Maya Revival-style theaters remaining in the United States, continues to draw visitors for live performances.

The General Francis's U-shaped Classical Revival facade, however, towers over just about everything in town. The Ellises have marketed the property as a "boutique hotel," but as I sank into bed, I pictured myself in an English country house. And for one night, I felt like the lady of the manor.

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