Five-Star StunnerA look inside The Chancellor's House, Oxford's newest boutique hotel
STORY AND PHOTOS BY LIZZIE MCINTOSH
An old Checkers got a facelift—changing its menu from burgers and fries to Oysters Rockefeller and New York Strips. Instead of red and black and white décor, the building now boasts monogrammed terry robes and private balconies.
The restaurant was ceremoniously replaced by the Chancellor’s House, a five-star hotel positioned on the corner of “Main” and “Main”—better known as University Avenue and Lamar—adding yet another layer of padding to the Velvet Ditch.
Chancellor’s House takes Southern hospitality to a new level. The moment I approached the hotel’s entrance, a butler was opening the door for me, talking in his earpiece to inform the staff of my arrival. They pulled out every chair I sat in, opened every door, and asked me every possible question to make sure I was well taken care of.
The entrance of the hotel is understated but impressive. A desk employee stands behind a large wooden check-in table seated on the marble floor. A large abstract painting hangs behind his head, brightening the room’s otherwise neutral color scheme.
The lobby sets the tone for the hotel—chandeliers dance along the ceiling, and the famed Steinway Spirio is a grand greeting for those who enter the doors. The Chancellor’s House is the only hotel in North America to house that type of piano.
Managing Director Mike Donahue is familiar with the ins and outs of running a hotel. He started his career in the industry by washing dishes at a five-star hotel and climbed the ranks when his boss took a certain interest in him.
“The man, for some reason, had great faith in me and put me on a three-year training program in a five-star hotel and I gave it my all,” Donahue says.
This big break propelled Donahue’s career through Holiday Inns, Marriotts, Ritz Carltons, and other well-known hotel brands. Though Donahue was living happily in retirement, this particular venture was worth making a grand return to the industry.
Fred Alias, his former business partner of 30 years, called him out of the blue one day and asked Donahue if he was bored.
“I said, ‘No, in fact, I’m playing with my grandchildren in Baltimore having a wonderful time,’” he says. “And Fred said we’re opening up this hotel in Oxford Mississippi.”
The last time Donahue was in Oxford was in October 1962. He was wearing a different uniform in a very different leadership role as part of the 101st Airborne Division of the National Guard on duty surrounding James Meredith’s acceptance to the University of Mississippi.
After hearing from Alias about the potential hotel opportunity, Donahue could tell there was something different about this particular venture.
“I think because of what they wanted to develop and the foresight they had for the property, it was such an extraordinary opportunity to do something which I really enjoy—fine service, luxury hotel, right? So I got hooked. I got hooked. No, I got tricked,” he jokes.
For an outsider, it might seem bizarre that a five-star hotel, which one guest deemed comparable to hotels where he’s stayed in New York and Paris, is situated in a small town in North Mississippi.
Why in the world would a hotel fit for Eloise herself—equipped with 24-hour room service, turndown service, butlers waiting with bated breath and mahogany kennels for pets—choose Oxford as its destination?
“It’s called an absolute strategic place to put a hotel,” Donahue says. “It really is, and we’re pleased about that. I think we’re already starting to fill a gap that’s needed.”
For Oxford’s emerging boutique hotel scene, the Chancellor’s House is adding a new dimension to the playing field. In fact, the new hotel represents 20 percent of the total expansion of hotel rooms in Oxford over the past two years.
The interior of the building resembles something of a modernized version of an old Southern mansion—with leather chairs in the study and large paintings peppering the walls. It has the formality of old money balanced with contemporary décor that tempers the luxury and keeps it from being too stuffy or unfriendly.
Similarly to the Graduate already located on the Square, Chancellor’s House is looking to become a brand for college towns across the U.S,—a five-star option tailored for a big city experience in a small town.
The staff and leadership of the hotel are extremely detail-oriented. Everything within the walls of the hotel is of the highest caliber. Its 31 rooms feature Rivolta Carmignani Egyptian cotton linen sheets, monogrammed robes, stand-alone tubs, multiple flat-screen televisions, as well as 24-hour butler and parlor maid services.
The restaurant and bars of the hotel are not an exception. The hotel’s restaurant is modeled after a 1950s New York steakhouse; the menu includes veal, soufflés, and $2200 bottles of wine.
“You’re going to get the finest food, valet service, great location, butler service, bellman service, room service 24 hours, I’m not sure quite what else you need,” Donahue says. “We’ll turn down your bed, draw your bath and take good care of you. That’s our deal.”
Chancellor’s House is looking to be the kind of place where its guests feel like more than a reservation. The staff will remember your room service orders and beverages of choice. They’ll know the names of guests’ children and the location they call home. They’ll even send you a special birthday greeting.
For Donahue, hotels are his life’s work. He knows how they run best and what the secret recipe is to be successful.
I asked him what his hope for the Chancellor’s House is.
“I don’t hope for much,” Donahue says. “Because I know it will be successful.”