Thirty years ago, someone caught on the roof of the three-story brick building just off Main Street in downtown White Sulphur Springs would have faced suspension or even expulsion.
Students aren’t typically permitted on school rooftops, after all.
Things are a bit different these days. Now, a trip to the top of the former White Sulphur Springs High School will result in a reward – specialty cocktails, food and spectacular views – instead of a punishment.
The aptly named Rooftop Bar is just one of the many attractions at the new Schoolhouse Hotel, billed as the world’s first fully accessible boutique hotel.
Open since May 1, the 30-room hotel is the brainchild of Charles Hammerman, president and CEO of the New York-based Disability Opportunity Fund.
Hammerman’s daughter Genny Freiman, who joined the DOF to spearhead the White Sulphur Springs project, describes the non-profit.
“Our whole mission is to go into communities like White Sulphur Springs to do economic development,” she said, adding the group always aims to assist those with disabilities with each of its projects.
A request for assistance, she said, is what led Hammerman and her mother, Nanci Freiman, with whom he runs the DOF, to White Sulphur in 2017.
“My parents were called to the area by two women trying to find housing for their children with autism,” she recalled.
Their trip included a walk through downtown White Sulphur Springs, an area that had been inundated by floodwaters the year before.
“Everyone was just so friendly, and they fell in love with the area,” she said. “But they were trying to figure out why it was so desolate and how they could help.”
Their efforts began with the DOF’s purchase of four buildings, and then an entire city block and 15 apartments, each of which they renovated and leased.
The old White Sulphur Springs High School, used as a community civic center since school consolidation in 1993, was the next acquisition.
Plans to create a new boutique hotel came by request from residents.
“There’s no hotel within city limits,” she explained, adding the request inspired her parents to create something that connected both the community development and the disability assistance aspects of the DOF.
“So, my dad decided to build a hotel, and not only build a hotel, but a completely accessible hotel,” Freiman said. “It aligns exactly with what our mission is, and sort of marrying the two was a perfect pair.”
Although consultants during early planning days recommended either completely gutting the building or tearing it down and starting from scratch, Freiman said that was never a consideration.
“The building means so much to so many people that live in the community or who have moved away but went to school there,” she said. “We couldn’t fathom knocking it down.”
Instead, in October 2020, work began to turn the existing structure into Hammerman’s vision.
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Visitors familiar with the building as a school will recognize the feel of the halls they once haunted.
The gymnasium now serves as an event venue with room for 300 guests.
Memorabilia such as a school bell, yearbooks, trophies and other items that harken back to the hotel’s past are also on display.
Twenty-eight of the hotel’s 30 rooms are named after school subjects with décor that Freiman said adds a “playful nod” to their names.
The hotel features a principal’s office and even a conference space dubbed the Teacher’s Lounge.
“It really just shows the nature of the building,” Freiman said of the names and décor. “We were lucky when we took over the building to be left with so many trophies, yearbooks and uniforms and we were able to just put them right back in the hotel.”
It’s also resulted in the return of many familiar faces.
“The joke with our staff is that they’re living a high school reunion every day,” Freiman said.
That’s exactly how operations manager Jennifer Andrews, who attended junior high in the building, described the experience.
“You have so many people who taught here or went to junior high or high school here who want to come back and see it,” she said. “You get to hear their stories and learn their memories every day.
“It’s been special.”
Also special, Freiman said, is the way in which the design stayed true to the school while making each space accessible.
“Rules and regulations are in place that every public space has a certain amount of accessible bathrooms and rooms if you’re a hotel,” she said. “We went beyond that. Every single one of the rooms are ADA compliant.”
Freiman explained each room has minimal furniture, allowing for ample wheelchair turnaround space. They also feature grab bars and lowered bed heights to ease the transition from wheelchair to bed.
Areas with small sets of steps – step-ups – were upgraded to transform into lifts.
“It looks like a set of wooden staircases but when you hit a button, it turns into a lift,” she said, explaining adding that feature helped keep the traditional look of the space.
Attention to detail was also paid to the bar space, as two sides of the bar were lowered to accommodate wheelchairs.
“They’re shorter for people in wheelchairs to roll right up and be eye-to-eye with the bartender,” she said. “It’s not something if you’re sitting at a bar you may think about, but it is bothersome to people in wheelchairs who are sitting below the bartender and have to turn their neck up to speak to them.”
The DOF also considered the needs of people who are hearing or visually impaired and even those who have autism.
“We talked to people who have children with autism,” Freiman said. “A common (concern) were colors. A lot of places have vibrant colors and that’s distracting for people who have disabilities. So, we wanted to keep it calm and cool so that no one was bothered by colors or textures.”
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Freiman said the early response has been good, as visitors book stays in the hotel and both locals and guests enjoy time at the Rooftop Bar and meals at the hotel’s restaurant, the Varsity Club.
The restaurant, which she described as “upscale southern cuisine,” is led by executive chef Adeyemi Allen.
It’s fitting that Allen oversees a restaurant dubbed “The Varsity Club,” as the White Sulphur Springs native played basketball and football and ran track during his days as a student at the old school.
“I loved it,” he said of his time as a “Green Devil.” “It was a great experience.”
Allen, whose son Corte serves as his sous-chef, was working as the executive banquet chef for The Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte, N.C., before returning home to lead the staff at The Schoolhouse Hotel.
Like Andrews, who previously worked at The Greenbrier and The Homestead in nearby Hot Springs, Va., Allen, who hopes to grow the restaurant into the “best in West Virginia,” said he’s excited to watch the hotel and his hometown come back to life.
“It’s like a rebuilt city,” he said. “To be part of it is amazing.”
Andrews added, “We have art galleries within walking distance, a brewery, restaurants, parks and outdoor activities. White Sulphur is a fantastic little town with so many things to do, and the hotel is a key component in getting the town back to life.”
Freiman said aiding in the rebirth of the town was always the goal.
“We want to be the highlight of the community and work together with the community to continue to build it up,” she said. “It’s not just about the hotel and it never was just about the hotel.
“It’s about the community and all it has to offer.”
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The Schoolhouse Hotel is located at 125 Schoolhouse Way in White Sulphur Springs.
Reservations can be made by phone at 304-536-0999 or online at www.theschoolhousehotelwv.com.
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