Walter Banks

Hotelier Walter Banks, on growing up with – and beyond – the Cavalier.

by Roberta Vowell
photography by Eric Lusher

Walter Banks’ childhood was the stuff kids’ dreams are made of.
His father was general manager of Virginia Beach’s grand Cavalier Hotel and Beach Club for most of the years between 1929 until 1959, and from toddler to teen, little Walter had the run of the place.

The lush gardens were his playground; he roamed at will with his boxer pup, Bub. “There was a fig tree, great for climbing,” Banks, now 68, says from his Florida home. “Those trees, they are special to a child.”

There were ponies to ride. Ponies! On the beach! And in the winter, the family would gather around the fireplace in the hotel’s very English-pub restaurant, The Hunt Room. Dad would order a whiskey sour, mom sipped an old-fashioned, and Walter would munch potato chips washed down with a Roy Rogers – a most excellent childhood mocktail of soda, grenadine syrup and as many maraschino cherries as could be begged from the bartender.

Funny thing, though. Just the other day, Walter Banks was sitting beside the Atlantic Ocean, at his own luxurious resort, the Lago Mar, in Fort Lauderdale, and he spied his granddaughter hop up on a stool at the outside Promenade Bar. “She was batting her eyelashes, pretty as you please, trying to get more cherries in her soda,” he says. “I think her mother, Debbie, did it, too, when she was a little thing.”

In the late 1950s, the Banks family moved to Fort Lauderdale to make the Lago Mar their own. Walter Banks built a career, and a life, there. But
decades later, Virginia Beach remains a home as well. He owns a house here, on quiet Bay Island. He and his wife, Debbie, fly up in their private jet about once a month. Those visits, and his life in the luxury hospitality business, help keep memories and traditions alive.

Traditions. There’s his son, Lee Banks. He took the family business a step
further, building two lush resorts in Costa Rica, complete with an eco-park of native animals and an active volcano. The youngest Banks hotelier has problems his father and grandfather never dreamed of.

“I called my son the other day,” his father says. “I was complaining about something at Lago Mar, an air conditioner not working. He called me a couple days later and said, ‘Your problems are insignificant. I had two jaguars get out of their enclosure, and we’re searching the property for them.’ I said, ‘You’re right, I’ve never had a problem with jaguars here at Lago Mar. In fact, the only jaguars we have are out in the parking lot.’ ”

Continuing the family tradition, Lee Banks’ three daughters spend summers at the Costa Rica resorts, Waterfall Gardens and The Springs. “Can you imagine?” his father says. “They’ve got an aviary with butterflies, and hummingbirds you can feed by hand, and toucans to play with. Will Smith was just there. They filmed the last Bachelor there.

“They’re going to have an even better life than me. I’m feeling downright

Banks says all this with a laugh. He remembers his childhood at the Cavalier as magical.

His father, Sidney Banks, had begun working as a young man in hotels in Roanoke, the biggest nearby city east of his native Bland County. He came to the Cavalier as general manager at age 31, right after the stock market crash of ’29. He left the Cavalier for a few years, moving his family across the Chesapeake Bay to manage the imposing Chamberlin Hotel in Hampton.

But most of those years were spent at the Cavalier, with the Banks family – Sidney, mother Florence and young Walter – living in a tiny white clapboard house christened The Maryland Cottage. Tennis courts spread outside the family home, but Walter’s game was golf. He spent long, lazy days at the Cavalier Golf and Yacht Club. By age 15, he was an ace, honing his game to a four under par (the kind of handicap that stops cocktail chatter in the clubhouse). His chief competitor was an orthopedic surgeon who also set both Walter’s arms after the kid fractured them in separate incidents.

Those were the days before liability lawyers popped up in every TV commercial, and so the pool was crowned by the challenge of childhood, both terrifying and exhilarating – the high diving board. “You never see those anymore,” Banks laments.

It wasn’t all Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, though. “I snuck around,” Banks says, “but I always got caught. I had hundreds of babysitters – there were 400 people working at the Cavalier, including the beach club and yacht club, and they were always watching me.”

He had friends from school, but most of his playmates were the children
of guests. Many of the families returned year after year, and the children forged strong bonds.

But when Walter was 16, his life took a different turn. The war ended, the economy rebounded and Americans began crisscrossing the country in search of the good life. Sidney Banks found it in Florida, a state ballooning with the tourist industry. In 1959, he purchased a 110-room oceanfront hotel in Fort Lauderdale called the Lago Mar. The place was dated. The family began demolishing and rebuilding it.

“Fort Lauderdale was not much different than Virginia Beach at that time,” Walter Banks says now. “It was small and compact and a lot less people.’’
He ran the beach concessions as a teen. He entered the University of Miami intending to become an attorney.

Man plans, God laughs. Hurricane Cleo brewed up in the Caribbean in late August 1964, slashed through Haiti and Cuba, and then crushed the Florida coast. In all, Cleo caused $198 million in damage and killed 217 people.
The Lago Mar took a huge hit. Much of what the Banks family had lovingly built and restored was in shambles.

“My senior year of college, I spent all day working here, then going to classes at night,” Banks says, “helping my parents put this place back together.’’

He finished his undergraduate degree, but more important, he had a huge change of heart.

“I always took the hotel business for granted, growing up the way I did,” Banks says. “But when it looked like we had a chance to lose the property, I realized how much I loved this property, how much I loved the staff, how much I loved our visitors. … I saw how much it meant to my parents to keep the hotel, how deeply they care.

“Once you’re about to lose something, you realize how much it means to you.”

He ditched plans for law school and took courses at the respected hotel management program at Cornell University. He left in 1965, and married Debbie two weeks later. Back at the Lago Mar, Sidney Banks, then 67, made an announcement.

“He said, ‘You’re going to give me a graduating present. You’re taking over the business.’ ”

It wasn’t quite that smooth, though.

“I had a great title,” Banks says with a laugh, “but it didn’t mean much, because everything was up to my dad.”

Banks eventually took on more authority and dove into a remodeling program in the ’80s and ’90s. The family added 164 suites and 40 rooms and a spa, and even planned a saltwater lagoon where visitors would swim with tropical fish. The proposed lagoon ended up as another swimming pool. “Do you know how hard it is to have fish like that? They get sick! Illnesses you’ve never heard of. They have to have special food. Everything needs to be cleaned. We realized we weren’t in the fish business.”

The result of the Banks family’s hard work is a resort rated four diamonds by AAA. Lago Mar boasts a 500-foot private beach, two swimming pools – one with a tiny island where singers perform – four tennis courts, a putting green and a giant outdoor chess board with life-size playing pieces. “Everybody loves the chess board,” Banks says.
Banks also gave back to his adopted home. He was on the board of the Federal Reserve branch of Miami, chairman of the Holy Cross Hospital board, and a volunteer and fundraiser for the private Pine Crest School, his children’s alma mater.

For Walter Banks, the best thing about Lago Mar is that he was able to offer his own children, Debbie and Lee, an updated version of his own childhood. “They always had the run of the place. One of the best things is that we have so many international visitors, they made friends from everywhere. Debbie also traveled, and I think by now you could put her in any major city and she’d know someone to call.”

The younger Debbie, 45, stayed on at the hotel. She has four children and is in charge of children’s programs and holiday programs, special events and international travel. Lee, 44, and his family live in Florida during the school year. Everyone lives within three miles of the Lago Mar.

“My grandchildren, they get to meet people from all over the world,” Banks says, “and those are the people, year after year, they come back. Debbie’s kids are just like she was, making friends with all nationalities.”

Today Walter Banks and his wife continue their frequent visits here to see her brother and Walter’s old stomping grounds. “My children, my grandchildren, they have a wonderful place at Lago Mar,” he says. “Same experience. But mine was better. The Cavalier was special.’’