The story of Hotel Greene began with an empty piece of real estate in downtown Richmond, Virginia, a space nobody wanted to fill because it was cavernous, mostly underground, and had almost no natural light. It had originally been the restaurant of the John Marshall Hotel, briefly the largest hotel in the South, which had the distinction of opening the day after the stock market crash in 1929. The John Marshall was the kind of hotel that had three ballrooms and included among its guests Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor: the kind of hotel that was doomed to go out of business in the ’80s and be turned into apartments, but retain some awkward, unrentable spaces with decayed vestiges of its former glory. Inevitably, it's rumored to be haunted.
Here Andrea Ball and Jim Gottier enter the picture. They were already leasing one chunk of the former Hotel John Marshall, where they run their pool room, Greenleaf's. They saw the empty cavernous space most days on their way to work, and naturally began to dream up ways of filling it, either out of restless creativity or the human desire for dominion or whatever it is that makes a person peer into a stretch of dusty window and think, "This would be the ideal place to put an indoor miniature golf course." As the dream ripened, it began to seem inevitable that the mini-golf course would take on the flavor of the John Marshall.
You enter Hotel Greene through what appears to be the lobby of a majestic hotel in an unspecified Eastern European city, circa 1932. It's all here: 18th century sofas, colossal chandeliers, exquisite Persian rugs. A brass luggage cart is filled with early 20th century suitcases covered in period travel stickers. The key cubby behind the check-in desk contains real letters that were sent in the ’30s, and clocks on the wall above show the time in Richmond, Lodz, Isfahan, and Singapore. The staff are wearing bellhop blazers with a large, ornate gold G across the lapel. An oil painting of a lion lying majestically in a desert scene hangs over the fireplace.
It's not a perfect simulacrum: the ceiling is left unfinished; on closer inspection, those art deco chandeliers aren't just brand new; they're ostentatiously made of plastic. Some patches of wall have ornate wallpaper; others are left blank and white. There's the feeling of a palimpsest; a modern building having crumbled away to expose a ’30s-era grand hotel underneath, still operating at full tilt in some ghostly afterlife. All in all, the place is improbably beautiful, even in its tiniest details. In huge letters over the door are the words, THIS IS NOT A HOTEL. Still, some people try to book a room.
The mini-golf course starts on the left and, with the first hole, you enter a subterranean realm where reality is subtly warped. The course is floored throughout with golfball-friendly carpet, but in some cases it's printed with trompe l'oeil tiles or wooden floorboards. By hole four, you're in the hotel's bathhouse, playing around tiled arches. Peepholes in the wall offer views of faintly eerie scenes: a murky, unused swimming pool; a hotel room where some violent scene appears to have just been played out. (These are dioramas commissioned from the miniatures artist Rick Araluce, who also designed the layout and overall experience of the bottom level, including the bathhouse archways and guestroom corridors).
In some rooms, there are video installations by film-maker Taryn Kosviner that appear to show the view from a window, or in one case mimics the reflection in a mirror. In one, we see into a dining room in a neighboring apartment building. The room is usually empty, but for 10 minutes of every hour, a couple in ’30s clothing meet and share a grim and silent meal. Everything about the place is designed to project, in the words of the owners, "romance, mystery, and unease."
But there are plenty of elements that are just silly fun. The mini-golf course was created by an internationally renowned miniature golf course designer Bob Horwath, and it's very much a functioning course. The last hole breaks with reality altogether and consists of a narrow ramp leading to a medieval-style painting of a hellmouth complete with tormented souls. In the ancient tradition of mini-golf, it's devilishly difficult, and if you miss your first shot, your ball just falls off a ledge and leaves you empty-handed. If you do make it, you win a souvenir “I HOLED THE HELLMOUTH” T-shirt. A round of golf is $15 per person, $17.50 if you reserve a tee time.
In the lobby, there's also a full bar with themed cocktails like the Millionaire for an Hour, the Singapore Sling, and the Proper Champagne Cocktail. Updated versions of traditional bar food are also on offer: a croque monsieur, a club sandwich, a Raffles Hotel shrimp cocktail, and also various vegetarian offerings, including roasted eggplant and a roasted wedge of Napa cabbage with pecorino cheese; prices range from $7-$12. The menu also includes goofy items like cinnamon toast and alcoholic slushies. You can buy souvenir glasses, T-shirts, and other Hotel Greene paraphernalia with Edward-Gorey-esque illustrations by artist Leslie Herman. Due to popular demand, bellhop blazers can also now be purchased at $100 a pop.
Full disclosure: The owners, Andrea and Jim (who are married), are my friends. I hope you can look on this friendship as an insider status that allows me to see more deeply into the nature of my subject, and not only an obvious conflict of interest. And perhaps my role here as an unreliable narrator will perversely enrich this piece and make it darkly haunted by doubt and suspicion, as seems only appropriate.
In any case, for me, being a friendly witness to the evolution of Jim and Andrea's projects has been an education in how a small business is analogous to a work of art. One of the inspirations for Hotel Greene was an immersive theater piece called Hotel Savoy, where the audience was led from room to room through a shabby, eerie hotel, and it's clear that to some degree Hotel Greene is also a form of theater. It's maybe less obvious but no less true that every convenience store and restaurant is a kind of interactive theater. We come to love certain businesses and mourn if they close not primarily for what we can buy there (which is now available via any computer), but for all the subtleties of the experience and the atmosphere and the people. Small businesses also live in their interaction with the community, who become customers and staff and collaborators.
One part of the art of creating a small business is marrying it to its neighborhood, and here Hotel Greene is slyly brilliant, since Richmond is permeated by a sense of the real world crumbling away in places to reveal unsettling yet beautiful glimpses of the past. Many parts of Richmond have a faded, peeling, tumbledown gentility, or just the peculiar emptiness of grand architecture no longer fully in use. There are miles of walking trails along the James River that lead past deconsecrated churches and Masonic temples, derelict factories now swallowed by weeds, and the sites of slave rebellions, Civil War battles, and Union prisoner of war camps. It all has a dreamy, lugubrious air that is equal parts Faulkner and Sleeping Beauty.
Nowadays, this backdrop is punctuated by retro-chic ice cream parlors and boutique hotels; the underlying culture is being digested and reimagined by hipsterism. There's also a world-class art museum, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and when contemplating a visit to Richmond, it might be worth considering that from Oct. 26 to Feb. 23, VMFA is hosting an exhibition called Edward Hopper and the American Hotel, for which they're reconstructing a life-size hotel room from one of Hopper's paintings, which will be available for overnight stays.
If that kind of thing appeals to you, it may come as no surprise that the early reaction to Hotel Greene has been incredibly positive. The day after the grand opening, there was already a two-hour wait for a game. Jim and Andrea had assumed it would be an uphill struggle explaining the place to people. Instead, as Andrea says, “People walk in and they're like, ‘Yeah, fine, it's a Wes Anderson movie, I'm into it.’”
The night I played, we got to talking to a stranger playing in front of us, who summed up her reaction by saying, “Feeling like a kid again is always such a great feeling.”
The mood on the course was incredibly joyous, with players laughing, pointing details out to each other, exulting when they got a hole in one. One of the staff commented on the night's takings: “It's like Breaking Bad. Should I cook meth or open a putt-putt?”
At the end of that evening, I sat down with Jim, who was a bit shell-shocked by this instant success. I knew that he, like many people, had been feeling a little alienated in Trump-era America, and I asked him if the fact that people had so wholeheartedly embraced his romantic vision made him feel better about the world. “No,” Jim said instantly. “This isn't the world. It's an oasis from the world.”