Mall man: Urban pioneer Chuck Lewis has died

news-chucklewis-magsLewis' accomplishments were noted in magazines such as Albemarle, left, and an economic development brochure, right. LEWIS FAMILY COLLECTION

One of Charlottesville's leading businesspeople, the man credited with creating the first major wave of residences on the Downtown Mall, has lost his battle with cancer, according to family members. Charles E. "Chuck" Lewis III died Monday, May 3.

He will be remembered not only for putting people on the Mall but also for a rags-to-riches story that included founding a major local produce company–- part of a love story that broke his heart.

According to his autobiography, All the Riches of Job, Lewis never got over the death of his wife and business partner, the former Kathy Jotz, who died at the age of 42 in 1989 due to a severe nighttime asthma attack. Lewis would later name both the produce company–- which the couple started with an old car and $250–- and a new country store for the wife he lost.

"Today Chuck is re-united with his family and beloved Kathy in the arms of his Savior," the Chamber of Commerce said in a statement of appreciation. "We can and should celebrate his life even in the sadness of his loss.”

Lewis grew up in a four-room house in the now-vanished African-American community of Quarlestown near Keswick, according to his autobiography. Book collaborator Amy Lemley tells how Lewis and his grandfather once dismantled their house, put it on a mule cart and reassembled it several miles away. Lemley also relates how Lewis remembered having to enter, during the Jim Crow era, the back door of the downtown Charlottesville building where his father worked as a short-order cook. Decades later, Lewis ended up buying that building, one of the six mixed-use Downtown Mall structures he would buy or build.

"He is someone who came out of some of the most meager circumstances that anyone could imagine," says Lemley, who ticks off some of the careers with which Lewis experimented: Army paratrooper, motocross racer, quick-draw cowboy, bronco rider, model, theater cleaner, and birthday pony ride provider.

news-chucklewis-army2Lewis in the U.S. Army. FAMILY PHOTO

His son, Charley, recalls that his father was reputed to be the first African-American manager with Nabisco, a post he left to launch the produce company, which is now called C'ville Produce. A photo of a youthful Lewis dressed in his Army uniform lends evidence to the oft-told tale that Lewis lied about being older and enlisted at the age of 15.

Lewis would go on to celebrate one of his heroes, York, the slave on the famed Lewis & Clark expedition, by naming one of the Downtown Mall buildings he developed York Place. Lewis hired architect R. Gerald Dixon to create a meandering center walkway in stone, an effort to visually portray the historic journey of the American west that Thomas Jefferson had commissioned.

That structure put Lewis on a historic path of his own. He secured the site in late 1994 when–-  in a move that vexed another developer trying to buy up the  western end of the Mall–- he contracted to buy what old-timers knew as the former Rose's building.

"He was a stand-up guy and very decent man," says Lee Danielson, the developer who lost that tug of war but ended up befriending Lewis.

Seen as one of the linchpin projects for Charlottesville's core back when the Mall still seemed moribund, the upscale, mixed-use York Place–- with its 20 apartments and 11 retail spaces–- opened on November 30, 1995 and made Lewis the unrivaled residential developer downtown.

Just a year later, Lewis convinced the City to let him tear down what was known as the Pace-Wranek house to build the Water Street Studios, another mixed use complex adjacent to York Place. At the time of his death, Lewis had 65 Mall apartments.

But it was produce that launched Lewis, allowing him to merge his grief with his business acumen as he also launched a small Mall grocery now known as the Blue Ridge Country Store, which he founded as Kathy's Country Store. Lewis eventually sold both food companies to focus on real estate.

"Chuck Lewis made everyone feel like a friend," says Lydia Conder Vann, who considers herself proud to have helped design the first brochure for York Place when she was in her 20s. "He was one of the people that really gave me an opportunity when I was just starting out. He was very caring. He was interested in your ideas, too."

Lemley notes that although Lewis experienced some racial discrimination as a child, he told her he felt well-treated by Charlottesville–- including, Lemley says, his relatively mold-breaking 1967 marriage (the year Virginia repealed its ban on mixed marriages) to Kathy, who was white.

"He said he never got a  single dirty look," says Lemley.

Son Charley, who his father tapped to run the family real estate empire several years ago, now oversees over 100 units, including commercial properties in Belmont and on River Road. Lewis also leaves his daughter, Leah, and a brother;  his sister predeceased him. Lewis had four grandchildren, though one predeceased him, and another grandchild is one the way.

Lewis was 70 years old.

–last updated 8:22am, Tuesday, May 11

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12 comments

Chuck Lewis is absolutely one of the finest, wisest, most respectful AND respected people I've met in my life. He was a constant encouragement to me. In fact, he's one of the reasons I started my own business. But what I find most admiring about Mr. Lewis is that he was humble. Very humble. You don't find too many in his position that are humble. He was always approachable and unselfishly shared his pearls of wisdom. Mr. Lewis will be greatly missed by the entire community.

A shame that appreciation of such a nice guy is sullied by afterlife nonsense.

He was one of the best Charlottesville has had to offer. A self-made and highly successful man who remained low-key and cool.

Chuck was like a second father to me for 18 years. He was everything everyone is saying here. Truly a force of nature and a force for good in this world. For those of you who read the first book, you may be glad to know that we have just this week published a sequel entitled The Far Country: Life After Kathy. What a privilege to be able to hear more of Chuck's candid and inspirational thoughts on life. What a privileged to have known and loved such a great friend.

"I’ve read his book and it is a great read. Charlottesville has lost a great man. the heavens has a good man in their mi(d)st."

+1. Truly a super book. The thing I told him really hit home with me in that book was "Turn bad into good."

I've read his book and it is a great read. Charlottesville has lost a great man. the heavens has a good man in their mist.

I am deeply saddened to hear of the loss of Chuck. He was a friend, a man of compassion, and a gentleman at all times. Charlottesville is a better place thanks to Chuck. He will be remembered and will have a special place in going to his Maker.

Chuck Lewis made everyone feel like a friend. I am proud to have known him, to have helped design his first brochure for York Place. He was one of the people that really gave me an opportunity when I was just starting out. He was very caring. He was interested in your ideas, too. A person like Chuck Lewis is rare and will be greatly missed. I love you Chuck Lewis.

Chuck Lewis was a hard working, purpose driven, no nonsense man. He set an example for all people, and especially his race, of how to run one's life. What a shame he had to go so young. I second the poster who commented on the tripe about afterlife.

WHERE CAN I BUY HIS BOOKS???

Chuck was the type person that if he said it's raining rocks, you better grab your hard hat! He never had a mean nor harsh thing to say about anyone no matter what he was trying to accomplish! He was one of the few examples of what a landlord should be in this area, what he said he was going to do, got completed when he said it was going to be! (Unlike most of the big developers-slumlords in this area, and you know who you are.)Yes Chuck will be missed by all, even the ones that didn't know him. His influences on procedure and policies for the development of the greater Charlottesville area is a legacy for many to follow. Thanks Chuck!

Dear Observant: To inquire about obtaining All the Riches of Job: A True Story of Success, and What Came After (1993), please contact the offices at York Place (yorkplace@peoplepc.com). The second book is not currently available, but we'll make an announcement once it is. Thank you, everyone, for your kind words about the book. Chuck's story is an inspiration, which was his intention in writing it. He lived to encourage others.