Virginia hotel owned by former Monongahela natives
August 10, 2014 12:00 AM
THE WASHINGTON POST
Gary Cochran and Charlotte Heath moved form Monongahela to the shore town of Onancock, Va.,for its tranquil waterfront setting and stayed for the budding opportunities. They opened the dining half of the Charlotte Hotel and Restaurant before receiving hotel guests.
THE WASHINGTON POST
Owners Gary Cochran and Charlotte Heath tapped their own talents in renovating the hotel, which was in critical condition when they took over.
By Andrea Sachs / The Washington Post
ONANCOCK, Va. — Inspiration lurked in the hallways of the Charlotte Hotel and Restaurant, ready to throw good vibrations at any passer-by.
“What a thrill to be alive on a morning in June,” read one inscription I saw as I left my guest room during a May visit to Virginia’s Eastern Shore. (Note: Happy thoughts are not tied to the calendar.)
If you go
The Charlotte Hotel and Restaurant
7 North Street
Rooms from $130 a night.
“Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea,” said another as I rounded a corner.
“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” quoted a third, my younger, pigtailed self immediately recognizing Mister Rogers’ tag line.
The stirring aphorisms, which trim the upper-level halls and stairwells, shine some additional light on an already bright decor — artichoke-green exterior, milk-white interior, fetching artworks. The literary designs also helped the owners bridge a gap in their renovation budget.
Gary Cochran and Charlotte Heath, the married owners, moved from Monongahela near Pittsburgh to Onancock, Va., 12 years ago. They came to the shore town for its tranquil waterfront setting and stayed for the budding opportunities. “Onancock was on the verge of turning into a true working town,” Mr. Cochran said of back then. “Now, we have a big arts community, 10 eateries and an active theater. But it’s still a slow atmosphere.”
The couple opened the restaurant in November 2003, and the eight-room hotel three months later. They slipped a new jacket on an old set of bones: the White Hotel, which had operated between 1907 and the Great Depression.
When they took over, the building was in critical condition. They had to gut the structure, an extensive — and expensive — undertaking. To save clams, they tapped into their own skills and talents. Mr. Cochran constructed all the guest-room furniture, including, in my room, the distressed-wood dresser that swallows up the TV set and the bathroom chest with cozy habitats for thick towels. He carved nooks into the wall, creating shadow boxes for nighttime essentials. And he left space beneath the on-tippy-toes bed for luggage storage.
“It’s all part of the illusion,” he said. “It gives the semblance that we are much larger than we really are.”
Ms. Heath, meanwhile, grabbed her artist’s toolbox and started decorating. She painted colored squares on the bathroom floor to create a bath mat that doesn’t slip underfoot. She covered the wood floors in paint, speeding up the aging process with the sweep of her brush. She added a long-necked golden snail design to the steps leading to the rooms and in one corner installed a stool with a trompe l’oeil key. (Yes, I fell for the trick.) Every print and painting hanging on the walls bear her signature.
“Wherever there’s paint,” she said, “I did it.”
Added her husband: “I was remiss in not saying that everything is for sale.”
(He didn’t really mean everything. The memory-foam mattress, for one, is not available for purchase.)
The ground floor is dominated by two dining areas, plus a boxy bar, that double as an art gallery displaying Ms. Heath’s works. Serious multi-taskers can check off their holiday shopping list between courses. Appetizer: a silk-wool scarf with dragonflies for sister and sunflower note cards for mother. Entree: a pair of chair paintings for father. Dessert: a piece of coconut layer cake for self. (Christmas comes early for one family member.)
At dinner service, the couple constantly switch hats from host to proprietor and back. Mr. Cochran checked me in, then returned to the bar to pour drinks and banter with guests. After seating incoming diners, Ms. Heath led me to my room — No. 38, which translates to the eighth room, on the third floor. Upon entering, she said, “This is my favorite room. I don’t know why, but it is.”
I could see why. Thirty-eight was made for a low-maintenance princess — cozy but not excessive. Fancy was the reading chair by the window, with the glow of streetlights streaming in through gauzy curtains. So was the fleet of hooks for the skeleton door key, which eliminated the parlor game of Which Pocket? And the step stool, which protected Precious from pulling a muscle when climbing into bed.
The hotel restaurant was a fluttering social butterfly during the evening rush, although the sound of flapping wings never reached my sanctuary. Once it closed, the place fell silent. In fact, the downstairs was so quiet that when I locked myself out of my room, I assumed that I’d have to sleep at the bar. Thankfully, Mr. Cochran was still there, bent over receipts.
After a solid night’s rest, I rose early and headed downstairs for the free breakfast, a choice of four menu items. I paused at a proverb for a pre-coffee lift and a life affirmation.
Yes, indeed, I did feel the thrill of being alive on this morning at the Charlotte Hotel. Now, I was ready for waffles.