The Schoolhouse Hotel’s Beacon of Accessibility

The Schoolhouse Hotel’s Beacon of Accessibility

BY Katherine James | May 21, 2024

This story was first published in The Hotels issue (#6) which hit stands in March 2024. Schoolhouse Hotel was one of the properties named to our first-ever Greatest Hotels Ever list.

There’s something different about this bar. That’s what I realize as I peek around the corner of the lobby into the exposed-brick and cool-toned interior of The Schoolhouse Hotel’s restaurant, The Varsity Club. First, there’s the bar’s height. Only two of its three sides are what you’d expect, like a hip-bumping kitchen counter. The other is lower. Then there are the bartenders. They’re one height when standing in the far corner of the bar and — abracadabra — as they approach the lower counter, they also become several feet shorter. 

This isn’t a trick or illusion; the bar has been lowered to wheelchair height, along with the floor behind it. This allows the bartender to stand eye level with patrons in wheelchairs. It’s one of the details that helps uniquely position The Schoolhouse Hotel as a completely ADA-accessible hotel. Nestled in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains, this hotel’s cutting-edge technology and thoughtful design make it a beacon of inclusive hospitality. 

The Schoolhouse was originally constructed in 1912, one of the earliest high schools in West Virginia’s Greenbrier County. Later repurposed as a middle school, the last class of students walked its halls in 1993, and it was vacant for decades before the Disability Opportunity Fund (DOF) purchased the building in 2019. 

The nonprofit is dedicated to improving disability housing accommodations and schools across the country by providing tech and financial services, but the DOF gave this property extra focus. The Schoolhouse would be a model, showcasing how hotels could achieve accommodation inclusivity. 

“Charles Hammerman, our CEO, said let’s bring in current tech, let’s push this as far as it can go,” says Genny Freiman, the DOF’s chief operating officer. The result is a boutique hotel that is welcoming to visitors of various abilities. The 30 guest rooms (28 are former classrooms) include extra space for scooter or wheelchair navigation and storage, and common areas and hallways are wide and minimalist. Bed frames are a few inches lower than regular hotel beds, making transitions into and out of wheelchairs easier. And rooms are completely controlled by smart features. 

“If you get into bed, and you’ve forgotten to turn off the lights, close the blinds or change the temperature, you can do that all from your phone,” Freiman explains. While many hotel chains have embraced various aspects of smart room technology, the Schoolhouse also has bathrooms with touchpad control of toilets (lift and lower seat, flushing, cleaning, bidet), low sink counters and roll-in and transfer showers. 

Additionally, the hotel’s cool-toned, minimalist interior palette benefits people with autism and other neurodiverse folks. The exercise room has a hand bike and a wheelchair-friendly power rack. And in the meditation room, a sensory wall provides a self-soothing option. 

The renovation wasn’t without challenges, however. “There were a lot of uneven floors, with one or two steps up,” says Freiman. The team decided to use FlexStep, space-efficient stairs that can transform into a wheelchair lift, designed by the German company Liftup.

Some of what makes the hotel accessible doesn’t involve cool technology at all, simply good customer service. The Schoolhouse calls each and every guest before arrival to ask about specific needs and accommodations. Because space has been prioritized, rooms aren’t equipped with some standard features, like minifridges and desks. However, the hotel keeps these items on hand, and can add them to rooms on request. 

The Schoolhouse hasn’t left behind its heritage as an educational heart of the community. “A lot of our team went to school here, or had a parent or friend who went to school here,” Freiman explains. Common spaces and hallways highlight the school’s old memorabilia. Each room is subject themed, and decorated accordingly: Freiman’s favorite, Home Ec, has a light blue backsplash, and the side tables are decorated with colorful buttons. The hotel hopes to continue its legacy as a community space — including hosting paint nights, live music and exhibits by local artists — that anyone can use with ease, regardless of abilities.