Not half-baked: Old mill has huge potential

ADDRESS: 215 Avon Street

ASKING: $2,650,000

BUILDING: 15,667 sq. ft.

LAND: 0.43 acres


NEIGHBORHOOD: Belmont Bridge

CURB APPEAL: 9 out of 10

LISTED BY: Stuart Rifkin, Hasbrouck Real Estate 295-4663, 466-9515

Even though it was built to be a flour mill before becoming home over the years to such things as a furniture refinishing business, a pottery manufacturer, and now Beck-Cohen plumbing and heating, everyone in town knows this building as the "big barn beside the Belmont Bridge." But it's the interesting details about the place that most people probably don't know that both add to its charm and threaten its future.

The biggest thing about it, of course, is that it's such a big thing: four stories high, each one with taller ceilings than the last, all supported on post-and-beam construction of massive old- oak timbers. The best way to describe it is essentially "wide open spaces."

Because it's essentially a mill/warehouse, there's no point trying to describe "rooms." Currently the first floor is configured to serve as office space. The huge basement, site of the most massive beams– some 16"x16"– and an amazing 6-to-7-foot-high rock foundation wall (that probably predates the current structure) serves as the company's metal shop. But even all the machinery and inventory stored down there can't hide its sturdy immensity.

The upper three floors alternate between open space (with ceilings as high as 15-16' in the third floor and attic) and warrens of artists' and architects' studios. There's even one residence, replete with mysterious mounts for long-lost pieces of arcane machinery, thick interior oak window shutters, and a trap door– presumably where either the grain went up to be milled or the flour came down to be shipped to eager bakers.

Other cool things lurking in dark corners are the remains of an old elevator (there's no working elevator in the building now) and a weird 1930s "dry" sprinkler system that looks like something out of Jules Verne. Front and back staircases provide access to the upper levels, and there's a large ground-level garage with access from the basement. The gas furnace had the place toasty on the chilly day of our visit, and the "rolled shingle roof" is new. Two full and two half-baths seem to have been randomly scattered.

Just as it is, the place would be a huge find for a Mr. (or Ms.) Megamillions who wants to transform it into the most unusual– and, by far, biggest– residence for miles around. The mountain views in all directions from the attic are probably rivaled, if at all, only by those from the Lewis & Clark building on the crest of Main Street. Hardwood floors throughout alternate between oak and heart pine, not only in the big barn itself, but also in a separate apartment (between this property and the adjoining Lethal Wrecker building), a mysterious addition across the back, and in another on the south side.

Here's another possibility: a philanthropist could take a hint from the many craftspeople working there now and buy the place to convert into a community art center along the lines of McGuffey.

Unfortunately, neither a residence nor an art center is very likely because the realities of Charlottesville's Number-One Cityhood mean that what's truly valuable here is the rocky parking lot out back. Seems the new zoning law allows a developer to stick a nine-story building out there as long as it's "mixed use."

In that case, the old "barn" could become just a nuisance in the way of progress, and in a worst-case scenario it could be razed to make way for even more offices, condos, or retail. Ugh.

But wait! One last unique feature could possibly spell the old place's salvation: It has its own railroad siding out back. That means Daddy Warbucks might, say, chug his private railcar into town from New York on the adjacent CSX line, hang a sharp right, and park at his own backdoor!

How cool is that? And how fitting that the spot for that wildness happens to be located in the new Mecca of cool– North Belmont! Let's hope one of these yeasty suggestions grabs the imagination of someone with plenty of money and creativity.

We'll all be watching to see what rises on the spot. PHOTO COUTESY OF TIM LINGO