By Natalie Jacobsen
On May 4 of last year, Charlottesville was rocked by the images and news that the long-standing Excel Inn & Suites was ablaze. The Emmet Street landmark was deemed unsalvageable, and the owners, Vipul and Manisha Patel, closed the hotel immediately and indefinitely following the devastating fire.
Now the Patel family has a new proposal, which they brought to the City Planning Commission March 14. They are seeking a special permit to build a seven-story, 72-room, 75,000-square-foot replacement: “a boutique hotel aptly named the Gallery Court Hotel,” says Vipul Patel.
The name recalls Excel Inn’s original name, Gallery Court Motor Hotel, which was erected in 1951. A special permit is required for any building proposal that exceeds 60 feet within Charlottesville city limits. The Patels want an 80-foot ceiling cap.
The Gallery Court Hotel is just one of several proposed projects along the Emmet corridor. The University of Virginia’s Cavalier Inn and The Villa Diner across the street will be razed as part of the area’s makeover.
Patel acknowledged the evolving area, stating in the proposal that the building would be aligned with the exterior vision of surrounding UVA structures.
“The hotel is consistent with the city’s architectural character,” says Patel, and will include expanded pedestrian areas to accommodate students and the growing number
Christine French, an architectural historian and graduate of UVA, says the design “looks just like anything else anymore these days. Monolithic, beige and not following any historical architecture precedents.” Charlottesville removed many older buildings of historical importance in the late ’90s to make way for these modern designs, she says.
Excel Inn’s claim to fame was housing Martin Luther King Jr. during his stay in Charlottesville in 1963 after he was invited to lecture at UVA, when the motel was one of the few places that would accommodate African-Americans in segregated Charlottesville. It is not yet known how, or if, the Patels will acknowledge his visit in
the new design.
Says French, “Excel Inn has never been acknowledged as a landmark for hosting Dr. King. Maybe now the impact of his stay will be taken seriously in a historical context.” She floated ideas of an exhibit or profound commemoration, though without the original building, she says, history is being erased. “Charlottesville is not just about Thomas Jefferson—a lot of movement happened in the ’50s and ’60s. That’s important, too.”
The Patel family acquired the hotel fewer than 20 years after King’s stay, in 1981, from former owners Herbert Monte Jr. and George and Nell Eby, while passing through Charlottesville on a trip.
Despite the 10-month setback from the fire, they are looking at this optimistically. “We find comfort in knowing that this is not the end, but the opportunity for a new beginning,” says Patel.
“The ownership and operation of this family business was our real-life American Dream…owning [it] gave us a purpose and vision for the future,” he says.
For the time being, the Patels will have to wait for their special permit to be granted before they can move forward with the demolition and subsequent construction. No timeline for voting or construction has been announced.