The Glass Light Hotel combines art, luxury, and a Michelin-starred chef to create a destination in downtown Norfolk.
by Denise M. Watson
Two Dale Chihuly glass paintings hang a few feet away from where another kind of artist works. Serge Gouloumes’ “studio” is the open kitchen in the Glass Light Hotel & Gallery, one of Norfolk’s newest luxury lodgings. Gouloumes is executive chef and his creation of the moment is mushroom risotto.
After plating the creamy rice, he dusts it with a wave of piment d’Espelette – red chili pepper powder – “for flavor, but no heat,” he says.
He follows with a mound of sautéed wild mushrooms, then perfectly piped dollops of mascarpone cheese. Drizzles of lemon oil brighten the piece in color and taste, and then the work is completed with sprigs of arugula.
As the Michelin-starred French chef says, “We all eat first with our eyes.”
The Glass Light, a member of the Marriott’s Autograph Collection of independent hotels, is as much of an art gallery as it is a place to stay. Every element is meant to appeal to travelers with an eye for art and creativity, from the clean lines of the leather dining furniture, to menus inspired by local flavors, to the handcrafted glass carrots in each of the 113 guest rooms.
The hotel, which opened in December, was developed by Suburban Capital in Virginia Beach. The CEO is Chris Perry, the son of local philanthropists and art collectors Patricia and Douglas Perry. The couple has fueled much of downtown Norfolk’s creative development in recent years, including the Perry Glass Studio at the Chrysler Museum and the upcoming Patricia & Douglas Perry TCC Center for Visual & Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management.
Eventually, the hotel will house about 250 pieces of their collection, ranging in scope and origin from internationally acclaimed Dutch sculptor Peter Bremers to award-winning artist Sarah Vaughn, an instructor at the Chrysler Museum Glass Studio.
About 50 works of art are scattered throughout the hotel, but most will go in an on-site gallery that is scheduled to open this year. The hotel’s boardrooms carry the names of three of the Perrys’ favorite glass artists – Netherlands-born Bremers, Seattle-based Nancy Callan and Stephen Rolfe Powell, who works and teaches in Danville, Kentucky.
Glass Light itself has been crafted from a historic high-rise with working-class beginnings. From 1912 to 1975, it served as the headquarters for a fertilizer-manufacturing company. The Royster Building then gave way to office space, most recently the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
After a multi-million-dollar renovation, the hotel maintains some of its original feel while wearing a swanky new look. The owners “wanted a modern, clean design to let the art stand out,” says Hunter Campo, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing.
And several of the pieces do just that. Waiting in the lobby is Bremer’s green-eyed, 1,100-pound, cast-glass rabbit that “stands” more than 5 feet high. Another life-sized, pink-hued rabbit lounges in the bar area. The restaurant’s signature drink – the 201 for the address – is a carrot martini.
The rabbits are in honor of Patricia Perry, known as “Bunny” to her grandchildren, Campo says. Bremer spent the last two years creating the playful sculptures and shipped them from a studio in the Czech Republic late last year.
The lobby bunny wears a dazzling necklace with a jeweled carrot as its pendent. Guests will notice the carrot motif throughout the hotel.
“Just like real carrots, no two are exactly alike,” says Robin Rogers, studio manager and program director at the Perry Glass Studio, who made them.
The hotel’s crown molding and windows have been restored along with the ornate ironwork on the lobby stairwell. Twelve of its 14 floors are guest rooms, with the second through fourth floors featuring the building’s original doors.
Elevators on each floor open to vivid, large-scale images of the glassmaking process, and each level features pieces of the Perry collection that can only be seen by registered guests. Meeting rooms display the building’s brick columns and have built-in large cabinets to feature more colorful artwork.
“We really try to keep it inspirational while you’re in your meetings,” Campo says.
Guest rooms are designed to be reminiscent of an artist’s loft. Glass subway tiles play throughout the bathrooms and the living areas have vintage Frigidaire mini-refrigerators and analog alarm clocks. The rooms are glammed up with Frette brand towels, linens and robes, and pops of color with lime-green Harry Josh blow dryers. (Look for the GL monogram stamped into each roll of toilet paper.)
All of the glassware is hand-blown glass and the rooms are stocked with Southern snacks, such as peanuts and cheese crisps, and a bottle of French wine, “to keep the chef happy,” Campo says.
The rooms also include a copy of the Gouloumes’ coffee-table book, “D’esquisses eu delices” – sketches of delight. The chef was born in France and started working in a kitchen more than 40 years ago when he was 14. He was fortunate, he says, to have instructors who wanted him to love creating food.
He fondly remembers a meticulous pastry chef who left color traces of his creations on his apron. At the end of the day, the apron “could have been hung up and displayed like a piece of art.”
Gouloumes has cooked for heads of state and celebrity clientele around the world. He was awarded the coveted Michelin star in 2005. Gouloumes headed the Belmond La Samanna resort in St. Martin before it was severely damaged by Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Tim Stiffler, president of Suburban Capital, had eaten there and swooned over Gouloumes’ menu. He mentioned that he hoped the chef could one day helm one of his restaurants. Irma made that a reality.
After arriving in Norfolk in the summer of 2018, Gouloumes designed the kitchen to be a visual focus of the dining area. Gouloumes says he was also lucky in snagging sous chef Zack Close, a Norfolk Collegiate graduate, who spent the past seven years at the Michelin-starred Café Boulud in New York.
Gouloumes has developed breakfast, lunch and dinner menus that blend his French roots with Tidewater tastes such as a butternut squash veloute with charred onion, gruyère cheese and Edwards Virginia ham. Already, particular dishes, such as the crispy octopus, have become local favorites. Gouloumes cooks the octopus for four hours before preparing it with a medley of Spanish chorizo, mild piquillo peppers and cannellini beans.
“We want to create something good, of course,” he says, “but we want to make you want to come back.”