Alligators: The Invasion of the Jefferson Hotel

The Jefferson Hotel was a popular destination for many tourists, along with some reptilian friends.

By Denne Arteaga
Cristo Rey Intern

When Lewis Ginter opened the Jefferson Hotel in 1895, it immediately became popular with tourists traveling up and down the East coast. The hotel had all the modern luxuries such as billiard rooms, a library, a grill room, Turkish and Russian baths and a salon. With over 300 guest rooms, it became known as “The Belle of the 90’s”. 

Large hotel sitting on a corner lot. The design features arches and several towers and is a mix of Beaux Arts and Renaissance architectural elements.
Jefferson Hotel, around 1900, Cook Collection, The Valentine

Around this time, a successful marketing campaign lured thousands of tourists to visit Florida, initially by train from New England and the Mid-Atlantic and later by car as automobiles became mainstream and highways were constructed.  Tourism advertisements often highlighted the state’s tropical flora and fauna, and images of alligators graced postcards, billboards and tourist souvenirs. The sale of live baby alligators, often purchased as a tourist souvenir, was common before 1967 (when they were protected as an endangered species). It is estimated that over 8,000 baby alligators were taken from Florida as pets. 

When these tourists eventually realized that alligators grow into gigantic pets, their owners would find a way to dispose of them, often donating them to zoos or abandoning them in ponds or rivers.  

The Jefferson Hotel served as a pit stop for travelers heading North on their way home from Florida, and it was not unusual for owners of a baby alligator to leave them behind when they checked out. Baby alligators would reside in the hotel’s Palm Court fountain. Sometimes these alligators would climb out of the fountain and head into the lobby to lounge and sleep.  Over time, hotel guests donated more alligators to add to the growing reptile family.

In the center of the image there is a rectangular fountain covered with a cage. An alligator can be seen in the bottom right corner. The rest of the room is full of chairs and plants. Thomas Jefferson’s statue appears in the back of the image.
Alligators in the center of the Jefferson Hotel’s Palm Court, Cook Collection, The Valentine

Alligators continued to roam the hotel for years after they first arrived, up until Old Pompey, the last alligator died in 1948. To remember Old Pompey, a bronze statue of the alligator was put outside the valet stand, along with other alligator references around the hotel.

A large statue of an alligator with its mouth open named Old Pompey sits in a fountain at the Jefferson Hotel.
Old Pompey statue, Jefferson Hotel, 2024

In 1964, the Lambda Chi fraternity at the University of Richmond donated a trio of alligators to the hotel to bring back the alligator collection. According to an article in the Richmond News Leader, hotel officials and managers were delighted to receive these alligators, along with a later donation of two more alligators. There is no word on when these newest alligators checked out of Jefferson.

Newspaper Article:”Hotel Here Literally Crawling with New Interest—Alligators" and there is an image of a man holding a tiny alligator on his shoulder.
Richmond News Leader, October 17, 1964.

In the mid-1980s, the Jefferson Hotel completed a $30 million dollar renovation. New York sculptor, Paul Jeffries, was commissioned to make three bronze alligators as part of the refresh. After completion, the sculptures were installed in the fountain in front of Jefferson for the public to enjoy. The largest of the three alligators was then named Jefferson. 



Need to cite this?

Authors Denne Arteaga
Work Title Alligators: The Invasion of the Jefferson Hotel
Published May 24, 2024
Updated May 24, 2024
Copyright © 2024 The Valentine Museum