Mall man: Urban pioneer Chuck Lewis has died
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.
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