A pictorial history
(1931 to 1933)
It was the era of the Great Depression and prohibition, but inside the Jefferson Hotel gypsies, pirates and queens partied till dawn, enjoying the "hi-de-ha and ha-cha-cha of campus jazz."
At the height of the Beaux Arts Balls, in 1932, an estimated 10,000 people donned costumes and danced all night, all in the name of Richmond culture. The Richmond Academy of Arts, which was established in 1930, started the ball in 1931 to celebrate the winners of its Tournament of Arts and Crafts. Winners were honored, and anyone who could afford a $5 ticket ($3 for students) could come — as long as they were white, that is.
In 1932, the academy provided trunks full of costumes to "enable everyone who likes art — or just wants to dance — to spend an evening of high carnival," the Richmond Times Dispatch wrote. Other would-be partiers jammed into the city's dressmaking shops, where "elaborate costumes were tried on, renovated and completed for the merrymakers," the Dispatch wrote.
The same week in 1932, the Hotel John Marshall hosted a considerably more sober group — governors from across the country. The International Labor Defense Council demonstrated outside the hotel for the release of imprisoned activist Tom Mooney and the nine "Scottsboro Boys," black men on trial for the alleged rape of two white women.
Nearby, the Thalhimer's department store displayed Fabergé jewelry, which of course is a famous part of the permanent collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the institution that replaced the academy.
Back at the Jefferson, banker Robert Williams Daniel, a Titanic survivor, presided over the party as Louis XVI, and his wife, Charlotte Bemiss, played Marie Antoinette. Diplomat Alexander Weddell and wife Virginia also served as hosts, dressed as George and Martha Washington. (The Weddells brought the Warwick Priory stones and gables from England and incorporated them into the Virginia House.) The couples presented 30 governors, among them New York Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
At midnight, renowned dance teacher Elinor Fry, as "The Spirit of the Ball," descended from the lobby roof in a "mammoth and modernistic tulip" that lowered her to the floor, where she performed, according to the Dispatch.
Alas, the balls ended in 1933, but the goal of exhibiting art to the public was cemented in 1936, when the VMFA opened its doors.