City on a hill: Is Staunton the next Charlottesville?

For many it's a Sunday ritual: Pour a cup of coffee and relax with the New York Times travel section for a vicarious trip to some exotic destination. Paris... Bucharest... Fiji... Staunton, Virginia.

Huh? Yes, Staunton. The little burg on the other side of the mountains– which many Charlottesville residents consider merely home to a jail, to Western State Hospital, and to the Statler Brothers– Staunton glowed as the lead travel story in the August 10 edition of the New York Times.

Two months later, Virginia Living's October fashion spread featured models voguing all over Staunton's Frontier Culture Museum (best picture: a pouty gal feeding chickens in a $990 dress and stiletto heels).

When did Staunton get so stylish?

Just a few years ago, Staunton's downtown was a wasteland of empty storefronts and abandoned buildings. Now it's buzzing with upscale boutiques, trendy eateries, and four– yes, four– coffee houses.

"Little old Staunton is becoming like Seattle in terms of coffee," says tourism czar Sergei Troubetzkoy.

Some credit Staunton's resurrection to the construction of Shenandoah Shakespeare's Blackfriars Theater in 2001. But the truth is, the town's rebirth began well before the Bard appeared on the scene, and, like a Shakespearean play, there are more than three acts to Staunton's dramatic turnaround.

 

The Stage

 An independent city of 24,500 today, Staunton began in 1747 as a tiny blip on the vast expanse of Augusta County, which at the time stretched all the way to the Mississippi River. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Staunton sat at the crossroads of several transportation routes (in fact, it became known as the "Queen City on the Great Wagon Road between the Blue Ridge and the Alleghenies").

It also boasted a major railroad depot. Tycoons built grand houses on swanky East Beverley Street's Gospel Hill (so-called because local blacksmith Sampson Eagon used to hold prayer meetings in his shop), and downtown businesses thrived.

But as the railroad declined, so did Staunton's fortunes. When superhighways became all the rage in the mid-20th century, little Staunton, by-passed, was left breathing fumes. Things downtown went from bad to worse as the mall-ing of America seduced businesses to abandon their inner-city locations for slots in oh-so-modern, easy-park shopping plazas.

Once stately facades in the central Beverley Street district deteriorated into ramshackle shells. And because Staunton had no preservation laws, owners were free to demolish their buildings at will.

Finally, in 1971, as a new highway project threatened to decimate the old railway district known as "The Wharf," concerned citizens formed the Historic Staunton Foundation to stop the demolition madness. It was a start. But by that time, 50 historic buildings had fallen victim to the "urban renewal" impulse of the 1960s, and it would be almost two decades before a true revival breathed new life into Staunton.

 

The Directors

 Strolling down Beverley Street to get coffee, Mayor John Avoli, 52, takes a quick detour into the SunTrust Bank lobby to admire the original Tiffany skylight, which has graced the building since it opened in 1865 as National Bank and Trust. Back on the sidewalk, Avoli smiles as he points out his favorite restoration success stories (the newly re-opened Clock Tower, reborn as a music venue, is high on his list). He's quick to share credit with City Council, but it becomes clear that most of Staunton's reversal of fortune has taken place on his watch.

"There was an attitude here before I got on the Council," he says, "that the best thing that could happen to downtown is a big fire."

Avoli thought otherwise. A native of Italy who immigrated to the U.S. at age 10, Avoli believed Staunton should model itself on European cities and salvage its historic buildings to re-create a vibrant downtown. He joined Staunton's City Council in 1988 and took the mayor's seat in 1990.

Staunton had already drafted a preliminary redevelopment plan in the early 1980s. As Avoli and City Council mulled over how best to enhance the city's historic potential, they looked for a model. At that point, Charlottesville's bricked-in Mall had met with only limited success in pulling people back to the city's center (in the mid-1980s the Mall was hardly the hang-out hive it is today).

But nearby Lexington's revitalization effort, with its brick sidewalks and wrought-iron signs, was attracting tourists in droves.

Such restoration wouldn't come cheaply, however, and if they were going to pour millions into sprucing up the buildings and streets, Staunton would need a plan to pull in deep-pocket visitors to recoup the outlay. Council decided to set up a Convention and Visitors Bureau and began looking for a director to market Staunton to the masses.

Enter Sergei Troubetzkoy. A Richmond native, Troubetzkoy was busy pushing Petersburg's merits when a friend pointed out Staunton's. "I wasn't actually looking," he says.

Troubetzkoy arrived in Staunton in 1989 to find no zoning, no architectural review board, and "the roof of the freight depot missing." But, he confesses, that was part of Staunton's attraction to the then 39-year-old history-lover.

"I saw Staunton as a diamond in the rough," he explains. "It was challenging to create a program from the ground up."

While Avoli and the City Council members laid plans to overhaul the sewer system and brick the sidewalks, Troubetzkoy worked to expand Staunton's tourist base. He initially had trouble convincing local innkeepers that there was anything to gain from making nice to travel writers from southern California. But when the far flung bookings started to pour in (southern California is today among the top 10 sources of Staunton's tourists), businesses became believers.

 

Plot construction

 The first area slated for overhaul was Staunton's Wharf district. ("What? Where's the water?" The Wharf got its name because its rail-side warehouses, with their gangplanks for loading and unloading trains, resembled a seaside port.)

The Historic Staunton Foundation consulted on the restoration of the 1902 T.J. Collins-designed train station, which had fallen into disrepair in the 1960s. It re-opened in 1990 as the home of two restaurants, and before long, small shops and offices began moving into the surrounding warehouses.

Following that success, City Council renovated the abandoned Leggett's store on Beverley Street to serve as City Hall, and turned the former City Hall into the courthouse.

Then they got serious.

Before downtown's revitalization could progress, City Council realized it would have to improve Staunton's sagging infrastructure. Avoli and company decided that as long as they were digging up the streets, they might as well seize the chance to bury the above-ground cables and telephone wires. They financed the $3.5 million project through a combination of federal grants and ISTEA funds, which the government gives to support efficient, environmentally friendly transportation.

What Avoli dubs "Big Dig 1" gutted Beverley Street in the mid-1990s. Two further digs have followed, and Frederick Street stands next in line for disruption and reconstruction.

"Eventually, we'd like to have the whole downtown under that situation," says Avoli.

Even as Beverley Street was being taken apart and put back together, City Council recognized that a corollary to "if you build it, they will come" is "if they come, they'll need to park." So they began to plan a state-of-the-art, four-level, 277-space parking garage.

To pay for this $4.5 million undertaking, the city raised the meals tax at local restaurants, easily persuading businesses that they had everything to gain from increased parking. Completed in 2000, the regal brick structure with arched white-lattice windows and cobblestone entries looks more like a palace than a parking garage. In fact, the structure won the 2002 Palladio Award for civic architecture.

 

The Bard treads the boards

 The same year that John Avoli began enlivening Staunton's City Council, Jim Warren was a senior at James Madison University, studying Shakespearian staging under Ralph Cohen's tutelage. As part of the course, they produced Henry V in an effort to recreate an authentic Elizabethan experience.

"We had such a good time doing that show under those conditions," recalls Warren, "that I said, 'Let's start a touring company.'"

Thus Shenandoah Shakespeare Express was born.

During the 1990s, Warren and Cohen's accessible and bawdy approach to Shakespeare garnered rave reviews and an international reputation. By the end of the decade, the company had two touring troupes on the road simultaneously, and communities were clamoring to tap into Shenandoah Shakespeare's success.

"We never wanted our own theater," says Warren, now 38 and the artistic director of the company. "But as we got more and more popular, people started approaching us about building our own theater."

Sergei Troubetzkoy remembers how The Richmond Times Dispatch  publicized the turbulent months-long entreaties from Richmond. He says that as those talks stalled, several Staunton residents got in touch with company co-founder Ralph Cohen.

Although little Staunton might seem an odd choice for a growing theater company, even tinier and more remote Ashland, Oregon, was already rolling in applause and cash by hosting the most popular Shakespeare festival in the world. Plus, Staunton was clearly on the move, with its new parking garage and an influx of new business.

The city proposed a plan to turn itself into a Shakespearean mecca by building replicas of both the open-air Globe Theater and Shakespeare's favorite indoor theater, the Blackfriars Playhouse.

Shenandoah Shakespeare said yes, and work began on the 300-seat indoor theater in 2000. Designed by Richmond architect Thomas McLaughlin, and located conveniently behind the new parking garage (which now houses the company's business offices), the Blackfriars Playhouse opened in September 2001 to great acclaim.

"This is perfect," Warren says of Staunton.

How important has the Blackfriars Theater been to Staunton? Troubetzkoy says it's his favorite development. He notes that in the recent past, due to the poor economy, 9/11, and even the snipers, some Central Virginia tourist sites, including Monticello and Williamsburg, have seen their numbers fall by nearly 20 percent. But Staunton has held steady.

"What's keeping us doing so well is Shakespeare," he says. "If it had not been for Blackfriars, we would have been in really bad shape."

 

Upcoming acts

 Staunton, however, plans to fill its parking palace with more than just Shakespeare lovers. Like a woman addicted to plastic surgery, the Queen City seems hooked on maximizing the potential of its timeworn assets. Currently, five more civic projects are either under way or in the making.

Across the street from the garage, dust is flying at the old Eakleton Hotel, designed by prolific architect T.J. Collins in 1895. Workmen are transforming it into the RR Smith Center for History and the Arts, which will boast the only climate-controlled Virginia Museum of Fine Arts-affiliated galleries between Roanoke and Manassas.

Scheduled for completion in early 2005, the Eakleton's $2.4 million nip and tuck will, among other things, restore the long-missing Mansard dome to its roof.

Another T.J. Collins building, the 1913 New Theatre on East Beverley, burned in 1936, only to rise like a phoenix later that same year as the Dixie Theatre, when Warner Brothers hired New York architect John Eberson to create an Art Deco movie house from what remained on the site. But in 1981, its grand interior was sliced and diced to make the Dixie 4, a casualty of the craze for multi-plex theaters.

Four years ago, a nonprofit calling itself the New Dixie Theatre Inc. bought the building, with a $5 million plan to create a 550-seat Staunton Center for the Performing Arts. While it's still in the fund-raising stage, its surgery is set to begin in the next few years.

Over on Augusta Street, plans are afoot to revamp the 27,000-square-foot American Hotel into professional offices and retail spaces. Mayor Avoli also hopes to relocate the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library from its current home at the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace on Coalter Street to the Augusta Street area. The dollar signs practically gleam in his eyes as he points out that even the least-visited presidential library still manages to draw 90,000 visitors a year.

By far the biggest project on Staunton's to-do list is the $19.3 million reclamation of the 79-year-old Stonewall Jackson Hotel to yield a 120-room inn with an attached 11,000-square-foot conference center. A "residency hotel" (aka flophouse) until last year, the new-and-improved Stonewall Jackson Hotel will be the Blackfriars Theater's nearest neighbor. And the illustrious parking garage waits at its back door. Groundbreaking for the hotel's renovation is set for March.

 

The players

 With so much change under way, one might think longtime residents– or, worse, self-entitled newcomers (you know, those who recently "found" Staunton)– might be feeling touchy about the transformation of their dormant hometown into a humming shop-studded tourist magnet.

Not Paula Kiscada. Last March, she opened Kacky & P, an oh-so-chic women's clothing boutique on Beverley Street where Eileen Fisher jackets share the airy space with Cosabella thongs (the rumored underwear of choice for Shakespeare in Love's Gwyneth Paltrow).

Kiscada, 56, a former coal company vice president, moved to Staunton with her family in 1996. She says she used to drive to the D.C.-area to shop at Neiman-Marcus in order to feed her fashion habit.

"There's nowhere to go around here unless you drive two hours," she laments. "Charlottesville has a few places, but they're sparse."

Then a few vanguard galleries and restaurants began moving into the abandoned spaces downtown. Kiscada and her eldest daughter felt inspired. "We thought it was time for fashion in Staunton," she says.

Since Kacky & P opened its doors, a stylish shoe store, Design@9, has taken over the space next door, and a cosmetics shop has opened down the street, much to Kiscada's delight.

She lives only two blocks from downtown and describes Staunton as a wonderful environment where her younger daughters can walk to school. She adds, "I don't think there's any place but the grocery store where we really have to drive."

Across the street from Kacky & P, the Beverley Restaurant is a veritable Staunton institution. Hunting prints hang over the booths, waitresses call customers "honey," and a lace-covered table in the back holds an eye-popping array of homemade pies, their meringue reaching for the ceiling.

Owner Janet Thomas, white-haired and friendly like the grandmother we all wish we had, still works six days a week. She points out that her daughter, Alisa Thomas Norcross, is actually the pie baker in the family (a role Thomas says Alisa learned, surprisingly, from her late father).

Thomas, who's spent her entire 76 years in Augusta County, couldn't be happier that things are changing downtown. "Oh, I love it," she gushes. "I even love the bricks. I did worry about falling off the little board into the mud, though," she adds, remembering the challenges presented by the Beverley Street overhaul.

Thomas says the 35-year-old restaurant has tried to adjust to the influx of tourists who now sit at tables alongside the regulars. "We used to use more canned things," she explains. "Now we use more fresh."

Thomas also says they try to cook "really quick" for customers rushing off to the theater. She doesn't feel threatened by the chi-chi new businesses sprouting along Beverley.

"I think the shops and the shop owners are really friendly," Thomas says. "And everybody's really trying– that's something we haven't had."

Asked if she thinks perhaps Staunton's redevelopment is happening too quickly, Thomas laughs and says, "No, because I'm old and I need to see it!"

Farther down Beverley and around the corner at The Cool Spot, Staunton native Chris Lockhart, 21, is serving up jolts of java. "This is the only job I've ever liked," says Lockhart. (He says his worst was as an electrician's assistant.)

The itty-bitty 250-square-foot café opened in April 2002, making it the second oldest of Staunton's four coffee purveyors. Bereted and pony-tailed owner Lester Wray, 47, moved back to Staunton from Key West in 2001. While sitting at the city's first coffeehouse, Blue Mountain, it hit him that Staunton was now happening enough to have two buzz-worthy places.

"It's great," Wray says. "I've seen Staunton go through a couple of different attempts at this. We were fortunate to have a good historical society."

Although he acknowledges that "Shakespeare has been huge," he says The Cool Spot's busiest time is the off-theater hours of 7-9am.

"It's a hoot," he smiles. "People are in here screaming and laughing and yelling at each other. They all know each other."

 

Changing ticket prices

 Real estate agent Alice DeWitt, whose business it is to know the changing value of commercial and residential property, lived in Charlottesville for 15 years prior to moving to Staunton in 1989.

"When I moved to Charlottesville in 1973," she recalls, "you could practically see the whole town [driving] in. By 15 years after that, it was getting really silly. I didn't like what was happening."

DeWitt, now 69, often drove through Staunton on the way to her Highland County retreat. One day, sick of Charlottesville, she decided to make the pass-through town her home. She acknowledges that as a single woman she initially found the town difficult. Then she realized the key was joining organizations because Staunton is "a very civic-minded town."

These days, in addition to selling real estate, DeWitt signs city checks for various projects as chairman of the Industrial Development Authority. She jokes that when she finally made a personal donation to the Blackfriars Playhouse, she got a note from one of the founders telling her how nice it was to see her signature on her own check.

"The renewal in this town in the last 15 years is mind-boggling," says DeWitt. Her reaction to a changing Staunton, however, couldn't be more different than her reaction to a changing Charlottesville.

"I am so content living here," Connecticut native DeWitt says about Staunton. "Of all the places I've lived, this is truly magnificent."

Of course, it only makes sense that a rise in Staunton's stature would lead to a rise in real estate prices. Downtown buildings that used to sell for a song are now moving swiftly at mid-six-figure prices. And the renovation of formerly tumbledown mansions on Gospel Hill points to Staunton's new desirability as a bedroom community for people willing to commute to work. DeWitt's favorite Gospel Hill house is the 1893 Queen Anne "Oakdean," with its 13 porches.

'That's very elegant," she says, admiring the rehabbed mansion. "I saw the house when it was really at a low point."

DeWitt notes she bought her own 3,000-square-foot house in the New Town district for $90,000 three years ago. Her red brick, white columned home's latest assessment just came in at a cool $190,000.

Although bargain-hunters may be disappointed in Staunton's turning real estate tide, Mayor John Avoli is all smiles. "These buildings downtown, we couldn't give 'em away," he says, recalling his early years on City Council. "Now, try to buy one."

 

Left out in the cold

 Avoli points out how Staunton's loving embrace of historic preservation and the arts, combined with its warm and fuzzy sense of small-town safety, has fueled its growing reputation as an ideal retirement community. And whereas most of the city's adults seem to appreciate downtown's seedy-to-sassy makeover, not everyone lavishes praise on the turnaround.

Standing outside the Dixie 4 Theater on a sunny but frigid Saturday, Brian Colvin, 18, and Jason Harvey, 19, volunteer their views on the new Staunton.

"There's no stuff going on," Colvin says.

"The old town is just for old people. There's nothing for kids," Harvey adds. "That's why people go out on Friday and Saturday night and drive around– 'cause there's nothing to do."

Wearing a knit cap, horn rim glasses, and a Quiksilver-emblazoned hoodie, Harvey is the manager of the Dixie 4. He says he hangs out at the theater even on his days off for lack of anything better to do.

Regarding the upcoming renovation of the Dixie, the pair is less than thrilled. "They've already got what they need," Colvin says, gesturing toward the Blackfriars Playhouse.

"It makes no difference to me because it doesn't affect me," Harvey kicks in. "It just puts me out of a job."

They wish the city would put money into building a youth-oriented game room, "just some place you can go and relax with your friends."

But the two aren't sullen about every project on the city's agenda. Regarding the nearby Stonewall Jackson Hotel rehab, Colvin says, "I'm good with it– get rid of those kooky, loony people who come over here and bother us."

But he can't resist adding, with a shake of his head, "This town is so boring, it's not funny."

 

Critical Reviews

 If entertainment is in the eye of the beholder, music to Mayor Avoli's ears are new businesses. Since 1995, he brags, Staunton has netted 150 new ones. In 2001, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Staunton to its list of 12 "Distinctive Destinations." And the following year, the National Trust awarded the city the coveted "Great American Main Street" award, which annually goes to five exemplary U.S. communities.

Perhaps Colvin and Harvey will change their minds about their hometown once they've flown the nest and returned. Tourism czar Troubetzkoy says he thinks the people who most enjoy Staunton's transformation are natives who have returned.

Like Rhonda Ward. The 35-year-old manager of downtown's L'Italia restaurant says that when she left Staunton in 1990, she swore she would never come back. But two years later, she returned to Staunton with new appreciation for the city and its easy-going people.

"When we go on vacation, we're always critiquing," she says. "We say, 'That would never happen in Staunton.'"

Regarding Staunton's revitalization, Ward's especially excited about the re-opening of the Stonewall Jackson Hotel. "It can't happen soon enough," she says, but adds, "I hope we don't lose the old Stonewall Jackson sign. When I was growing up, it was just as big as the sky."

"It's a Norman Rockwell painting," Ward says of Staunton, as she dashes back to L'Italia's kitchen. She immediately returns with an afterthought: "Correction. It's a modern-day Norman Rockwell painting."


Staunton's Director of Tourism Sergei Troubetzkoy


Staunton Mayor John Avoli


Ralph Alan Cohen and Jim Warren, Shenandoah Shakespeare co-founders


Members of the Shenandoah Shakespeare troupe


Blackfriars Theater


Paula Kiskada in her boutique, Kacky & P's


Lester Wray, owner of The Cool Spot


Real estate maven Alice DeWitt


Rhonda Ward, manager of L'Italia

 

PHOTOS BY JEN FARIELLO

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