After 95 years in the Brandon family, Riverview Hotel in downtown St. Marys is under new ownership.
The sale of the landmark building on the St. Marys waterfront closed on Monday after months of negotiations, said Jerry Brandon, who has managed and owned the hotel the past 40 years.
Bert Guy, the new owner, said the hotel will undergo major renovations starting with the kitchen and dining room. The kitchen will continue to serve meals in the lounge and patio until the dining room reopens in four to six months. The restaurant will have a new menu, with a focus on local seafood, steaks and more in a fine dining atmosphere.
The goal is to make the hotel a destination, while keeping the same local customers and guests who return for special events each year.
“I’ve grown up around this place,” Guy said. “We want to maintain all the traditions of the past. The future experience will be a reflection of the past.”
As the gateway to Cumberland Island, Guy said he wants to give guests a great first impression before they visit the national seashore.
“We want you to believe this is a glimpse of what you see when you go to Cumberland Island,” he said. “This is a place that has always welcomed locals and tourists.”
Brandon said it was not a difficult decision to sell the hotel because it’s a time consuming task managing a hotel, restaurant and bar. Either he or his wife, Gaila, get up at 6:15 a.m. every day to set up the breakfast bar and start checking out guests.
After breakfast, Brandon said he works on paperwork including receipts from the restaurant, lounge and hotel until early afternoon. Delivery vehicles stop at the hotel throughout the day, keeping him busy putting the items away while he checks in guests.
His workday often didn’t end until 11 p.m.
Brandon said his earliest memories of the hotel were as a running up and down the stairs when he was younger than five years old. He was seven years old when his family moved into the hotel in the early 1950s to run the business after his three aunts who opened the hotel retired.
“I remember having to turn on the lights so nobody would fall down the stairs,” he said.
The family ran the hotel until 1960, when it closed as a business for 15 years. Rates were $2 a night for a room and $3 for a room with a bath when the business closed.
Brandon went to college after the hotel closed and earned a doctorate degree in physics. He was working at the nuclear labs in New Mexico when his brother Ricky, a physician in Fernandina Beach reopened the hotel in 1975.
When the hotel reopened, there still weren’t many reasons to visit St. Marys. Newly established Cumberland Island National Seashore was still years away from becoming the tourist destination it is today. And nobody had any idea an old Army depot would be designated Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base.
“There was one way in and one way out of St. Marys,” he said. “It was not a tourist destination.”
Brandon decided to quit his job in New Mexico and run the family business. He couldn’t have had better timing. Cumberland Island was starting to draw tourists and the construction of Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay kept the hotel totally booked in 1980.
Brandon ran the business for five years and bought out his brother to become the sole owner.
After 40 years of seven-day work weeks, Brandon, 75, said he doesn’t have the stamina or motivation to keep up with the constant demands of running the hotel.
Brandon said it’s bittersweet to think the Riverview Hotel is not his family’s business any more, but he won’t miss the 16-hour workdays and check-ins at 2:30 a.m.
“The sad part is if we do something we can’t do it forever,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed meeting people and socializing with them.”
Brandon was confident the new owners will ensure a smooth transition.
“I know they want to do a good job,” he said. “I believe they will get the hotel where it will be the spot in St. Marys where everyone wants to come.”
Guy said local residents and visitors familiar with the hotel, restaurant and lounge will continue to feel like welcome guests. He believes everyone will like the improvements planned for the entire hotel that are coming in months to come.
“All the traditions will continue,” he said. “There will be a place for everyone here.”