ONARCHITECTURE- 'Baghdad' on Afton: Three down, five to go.
Until the '70s, when US 250 was the only road over Afton Mountain, the collection of stores, restaurants, and lodgings on the site, as well as the Rockfish Gap Tourist Information Center, were popular roadside attractions as motorists approached the peak with its dramatic views of Nelson and western Albemarle counties.
Indeed, even before the automobile, the site was a popular attraction: the long vanished Mountain Top Tavern hosted Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and other dignitaries when they met to select Charlottesville as the site of the University of Virginia in 1818. In 1903, Richmond millionaire James H. Dooley liked the spot so much he built Swannanoa Mansion, a 53-room Italian villa in the Medici style, which later became the home of the so-called "University of Science and Philosophy," and is now being renovated.
However, when Interstate 64 was built across the mountain in the 1970s, effectively removing those roadside attractions from view of passing traffic, the area was relegated to the status of a museum of mid-20th century motoring and early 20th-century extravagance.
After many years, however, some locals think the site has lost its charm. Last August, Information Center volunteer Dick Eller pulled no punches when he told the Daily Progress, "All around, everything you see is falling down from disrepair, falling down from disuse. We're embarrassed about it because, you know, this is our community here."
Indeed, while developments have spread like kudzu in the valley below, perhaps this most spectacular location for a development has remained barren. In fact, another information center volunteer, John Wright, tells the Hook that hikers coming off the nearby Appalachian Trail have likened it to a war zone.
"They call it Baghdad," he says. "That's how bad it looks."
Last week, as property owner Phil Dulaney has been promising to do for years, he finally demolished one of those museum pieces, the Skyline Parkway Motor Court. Naturally, Dulaney, whose family has owned the property for several decades, has borne the brunt of the local community's disenchantment with the pace of change on the mountain, but he insists he's moving forward.
"I've gone from 11 buildings to eight, and I hope to get down to three soon," he says. "It's just a lengthy, expensive process."
Dulaney explains that pre-demolition asbestos abatement on that one structure– it was torched three years ago by three Waynesboro teens– cost $44,000. He had two other buildings that had been dubbed "the cabins" razed in December, and he hopes to demolish five more in the next five months.
Next on the hit list: more cabins and the abandoned whitewashed brick gift shop. What will survive are the gas station, the long-shuttered HoJo's restaurant, and the building with stone foundation that houses the information center.
In an effort to help Dulaney along, Augusta County and the City of Waynesboro hired the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission to develop a master plan for the property. The Commission is collecting information and ideas about what should be done with the property, and what can be done, taking into consideration such issues as utilities, sewer, traffic, soil and topography, even the fog problem and the implications of the proposed Blue Ridge Tunnel project.
"The goal is to come up with a plan that takes in the whole gamut of issues on the mountain, and addresses the concerns of those affected by any development," says Commission planning director Bonnie Riedesel. Although she can't say what will get built, now that public funding is involved, any proposed project will be steered toward tourism.
"The property is very complex, and there are so many stakeholders involved," says Riedesel. "But the property is a gold mine, too, a diamond in the rough."
Riedesel says their proposal is still in draft, but she hopes to get bids from land and design consulting firms within several months. However, the study itself, she says, could take as long as 24 to 36 months. In the meantime, Riedesel says they are continuing to hammer out the details with Dulaney, who says he's prepared to invest millions redeveloping the site. He hopes to break ground on something new in about three years.
"There's been an ongoing discussion about this for years," say Riedesel, hinting at Dulaney's slow pace of development. "And we're still in negotiations with Mr. Dulaney about his commitment. You don't do a study, then not follow it... an agreement would be set up with Mr. Dulaney that he has to do this in accordance with the recommendations."
Underneath Afton Mountain, another study is nearing completion on the the Blue Ridge Tunnel project, which will turn a 5,000-foot-long abandoned railroad tunnel through the mountain into a bike and hiking trail. In fact, Gene Whitesell, the Roanoke-based landscape and design architect heading up the project, says his firm will begin construction drawings next month, with construction beginning in the spring of 2008 or sooner.
In 2002, a Hook cover story detailed the history of the tunnel and the proposed trail project, which had just received a $300,000 state grant. According to Whitesell, the feasibility study has been finished, and geo-technical engineers have determined the tunnel is structurally sound. "The tunnel is 150 years old," says Whitesell, "but it's in remarkable condition."
Indeed, as the Hook cover story illustrated (online at readthehook.com), the tunnel is a 19th century wonder.
Engineered and built by Claudius Crozet, the transplanted Frenchman and ex-soldier who became Virginia's chief public works engineer in 1823, it took Irish immigrant workers and local slaves (who lived in separate shanty towns on the mountain) eight years to build, working 24 hours a day, six days a week. Using pick-axes and black powder, and suffering cholera outbreaks, riots (the Irish Protestants apparently didn't get along so well with the Irish Catholics living over the mountain in Fishersville. Several times, says Whitesell, Crozet had to work the Irish at gunpoint), and frequent injuries and deaths, in 1858 Crozet and his men finished the 16-foot-high, egg-shaped tunnel, which starts near the village of Afton and ends in the woods on the west side of the mountain, 400 feet below Interstate 64.
It served as a railroad tunnel for the next 86 years, and eventually closed in 1944 when a newer, wider tunnel was needed for the larger trains of the time.
Whitesell says he has also been working with Dulaney and other property owners on the mountain so that any proposed businesses or public trail and park areas can be aligned with the tunnel/trail use. And as Whitesell is quick to point out, the tunnel project is being almost entirely supported by Nelson County.
"They will own this project," he says. "The tunnel is owned by CSX, but they're selling it to the County for $1, even though its been appraised at $1.5 million, which should help the county in leveraging the additional funds they'll need."
Last week, the storied Skyline Parkway Motor Court on Afton Mountain went down. What's next for the spectacular mountain-top property?
PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER
The view of the complex from the tepee over I-64.
PHOTO BY SKIP DEGAN
The view of the complex from the tepee over I-64.
JUNE 2006 PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER