Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church - Upperville

Upperville’s Trinity Episcopal Church (membership 350), boasts a stunning cluster of architecturally distinctive structures on a 35-acre campus adjacent to Route 50 in the heart of Virginia Hunt Country (Fauquier County), forty miles west of Washington, DC. The church itself (the third on the site), the Parish Hall, and the church offices were the gift of philanthropists and local residents Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon to the parish. These three buildings, clustered around a cobblestone courtyard, were begun in 1951, and the first services in the new structure were held on September 28, 1960. The architect was H. Page Cross, whose design is a free adaptation of the style of 12th-century French churches.

The fabric of the church is native sandstone (quarried in nearby Warrenton), although less brittle limestone was used for more intricately carved elements. The master builder was W. J. Hanback of Warrenton, a noted stone contractor. All the stone and woodwork, except the most complex carving, was done by local craftspeople, who made their own stone-cutting tools at a forge on the property, in the tradition of medieval craftsmen. Each stone was cut by hand, instead of using modern machine cutting.


Handsome stonework frames 
the entrance to the Parish Hall.


The bells in the tower, which were made in England, are dedicated to these craftsmen; inscribed on the largest bell:

“Dedicated to the men of this countryside, who by their skill of hands built this church.”

The stained glass windows were made by Joep Nicolas of the Netherlands, and the pipe organ is a Boston Aeolian-Skinner (designed by legendary Joseph Whiteford) with three manuals and 55 ranks of pipes. Ornamental ironwork is from P.A. Fiebiger, father and son, of New York City (execution of hand forged iron railings, gates, grilles, fanlights, chandeliers, lecterns, hardware).

The oak pew end carvings are the work of the late master Heinz Warneke and depict plants native to the countryside.

There are candelabra from 16th-century Austria and 18th-century France, and other candlesticks from Poland, England, Spain and Colonial Virginia.


In the 19th century horses and wagons created heavy traffic on what is today’s Rt. 50 (John Mosby Highway), traveling back and forth through Upperville on the way between Winchester and Middleburg, making maintenance of the road a real chore. The law required that adult male citizens who lived within three miles of the road contribute six days a year to road repair work (the law was in effect until 1894). Since each county in Virginia was responsible for the upkeep of its own roads, Loudoun County said the road was in Fauquier County and vice-versa.

A minuscule stone lending library sits on the campus of Trinity Episcopal Church.

In the cemetery behind the church several notable people are buried:

From 1985-97 Jack Kent Cooke (1912-1997) was sole owner of the NFL Washington Redskins, who won 3 Super Bowls (1982, 1987, 1991). He also owned the NBA Lakers and NHL Kings in Los Angeles and built the Los Angeles Forum in 1967.

Industrialist and financier Andrew Mellon (1855-1937) was Secretary of the Treasury (1921-1932), serving under Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. In 1937, he gave to the nation his magnificent art collection, plus $10 million, to build the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Upon leaving the Treasury Department and President Hoover's Cabinet in February 1932, Mellon accepted the post of U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain.

Paul Mellon (1907-1999), philanthropist, art collector, and noted horse breeder, was the son of Andrew Mellon. He established the Yale Center for British Art and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. His horses won three Triple Crown races and one Kentucky Derby (Sea Hero in 1992) and two Belmont Stakes (Quadrangle in 1964 and Arts and Letters in 1969). He donated land and funds to construct the Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension Center, the Middleburg Training Track, the National Sporting Library, Trinity Episcopal Church, and donated 1,618 acres to the state of Virginia to establish Sky Meadows State Park, rescuing the land from developers. The park has one of the most beautiful views in Virginia. He bequeathed his rare collection of books and manuscripts to be divided between Yale University, the Virginia Historical Society, and the University of Virginia so they would be accessible to the general public.

Elizabeth Cronin (1940-2004) was a Department of State employee in Tehran, Iran, when the U.S. Embassy was seized by Islamic militants in 1979. She and 51 others were held hostage for 444 days until their release in early 1981, during the exact hour that Ronald Reagan was delivering his inauguration speech. Tragically, Elizabeth Cronin was killed in a horseback riding accident.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Foamhenge at Natural Bridge

Foamhenge is a faithful, full-scale replica of Stonehenge created by fiberglass sculptor Mark Cline. According to Cline, the original in Wiltshire, England, took the Druids 1,500 years to build using 50-ton stones and up to 1,000 men, whereas the foam version took a couple of weeks, some 420-pound styrofoam blocks, “four Mexicans and one crazy white man to construct.” It appeared for the first time on April Fool's Day, 2004.

"About 15 years ago I walked into a place called Insulated Business Systems in Staunton where they make these huge 16-foot-tall styrofoam blocks," Mark tells us. "As soon as I saw them I immediately thought of the idea: 'Foamhenge.' On the site now occupied by Foamhenge, Mark originally wanted to build "Hayride Through The Civil War," an attraction that would involve fiberglass molds of re-enactors' faces. "This is Civil War country," Mark explains. The plan was dropped in place of Foamhenge because "this was cheaper and much faster to build."

Mark explains that each block is set into a hole in the ground and anchored with cement. "I put a 2.5" pipe all the way through each one down into the ground, like a nail holding it to the concrete," the same technique, on a larger scale, that a dentist uses to anchor a false tooth into a jaw.

To get to Foamhenge via I-81, take the Route 11, Natural Bridge exit (south). After you pass the Natural Bridge Zoo, watch on the right for the megalithic structure looming above. If the gate is open, just park and walk up the hill. There is no fee for admission.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Home to Washington and Lee University 
and Virginia Military Institute

A college atmosphere prevails in Lexington, one of America's most charming small towns. The town certainly has a blue-blood pedigree, since George Washington, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee all figured prominently in its history. Fine old homes line tree-shaded streets, among them the house where Stonewall Jackson lived when he taught at Virginia Military Institute (VMI). A beautifully restored downtown looks so much as it did in the 1800s that scenes for the movie Sommersby were filmed on its Main Street (Richard Gere's character was hanged behind Stonewall's house); all the film makers had to do was cover the asphalt streets with dirt to achieve an authentic period look. After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee came to Lexington to serve as president of what was then Washington College (now W&L); he and his horse, Traveller, are buried on the campus. Gen. George C. Marshall, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his post-World War II plan to rebuild Europe, graduated from VMI, which has a museum in his memory.

Washington and Lee University has one of the oldest and most beautiful campuses in the country. Built in 1824, Washington Hall (shown below), a decidedly handsome structure, is topped by a replica of an American folk art masterpiece, an 1840 carved-wood statue of George Washington. W&L is the ninth oldest institution of higher education in the nation and nearly a hundred years older than neighboring VMI.

The school from which Washington and Lee descended was established in 1749 as Augusta Academy, about 20 miles north of Lexington. In 1776, in a burst of revolutionary fervor, it was renamed Liberty Hall. The academy moved to Lexington in 1780. In 1796, George Washington endowed the school with the largest gift ever given to an educational institution at that time: $20,000 in James River Canal Co. stock. The gift rescued Liberty Hall from near-certain insolvency. In gratitude, the trustees changed the school's name to Washington Academy. In 1803 the Liberty Hall main building burned, and the campus was moved a half mile away to its present location. The stone ruins of Liberty Hall are still standing (see photo below, click to enlarge). In 1813 the academy was chartered as Washington College. Dividends from Washington's gift continue to help pay part of the cost of each student's education.

Robert E. Lee, who had earlier been superintendent of West Point, was president of Washington College after the Civil War in 1865 until his death in 1870, after which the school was renamed Washington and Lee University, to honor him. There was also a family connection between the Washingtons and Lees: Robert E. Lee’s wife was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. General Lee reputedly planted some of the massive trees dotting the campus, and his son, George Washington Custis Lee, followed as the school's next president. It is a little known fact that Lee revolutionized higher education in the country during his tenure as president of Washington College. He established the first school of professional journalism in the country and added both business and law schools to the curriculum, under the conviction that those occupations should be linked with the liberal arts. Prior to that time, the disciplines of business, journalism and law been considered technical crafts, not intellectual endeavors. Lee joined them for the first time to the liberal arts and sciences, as they remain to this day.

Lee, his wife and seven children, as well as his father, the Revolutionary War hero "Light Horse Harry" Lee, are buried in the Lee Chapel (above) on campus. His horse Traveller is buried on the chapel grounds. "A Recumbent Lee" is a marble memorial to Robert E. Lee (see photo below) that is placed inside the chapel, directly behind the pulpit. Lee attended daily worship services in the chapel and maintained an office in the basement (restored and open to visitors). Several of the campus buildings have National Historic Landmark status.

Washington and Lee was all male until 1972, when women were admitted to the law school; the first female undergraduates did not enroll until 1985. There are no graduate or teaching assistants, thus every course is taught by a faculty member. Its academic standing is highly competitive, with an acceptance rate of only 15%. The 2010 Forbes Magazine college rankings place W&L 37th in the nation, seven places ahead of nearby academic rival University of Virginia. Combining academics with an active social culture, Washington and Lee ranked 14th in "Best Overall Academic Experience for Undergraduates" by Princeton Review.

Trivia: Journalist, social critic and author Tom Wolfe (looks best in an all-white suit) was a graduate of W&L, as was John Warner, Secretary of the Navy and Virginia Senator (not to mention former husband of the recently deceased Elizabeth Taylor).


Called the West Point of the South, Virginia Military Institute opened in 1839 on the site of a state arsenal, abutting the Washington and Lee campus (W&L's buildings are like brick Southern manses, whereas VMI's look like stone fortresses). The campus, referred to as "the Post," sits on 134 acres, 12 of which are designated as a National Historic District.

In 1851 Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson became a member of the faculty as professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy (physics) and Instructor of Artillery. Jackson's teachings are still used at VMI today. He was a singularly unpopular teacher, and the cadets mocked his stern, religious nature and eccentric traits. In 1856, a group of alumni attempted to have Jackson removed from his position. However, he was revered by many of the African-Americans in town, as he was instrumental in the organization of Sunday School classes for blacks at the Presbyterian Church, where he served as a deacon. His second wife, Mary, taught Sunday School with him. Jackson took his first wife, Ellie, in 1853, while he was an instructor at VMI. Ellie, the daughter of the president of Washington & Lee, died in childbirth in 1854.

In 1859 Jackson purchased a home in Lexington, the only house he ever owned. Built in 1801, the brick house at 8 E. Washington Street was Jackson’s home until he was called to serve in the Confederacy (click photo to enlarge). But Jackson never returned to Lexington, except to be buried. Jackson was badly wounded in the arm (accidentally shot by his own troops) at the battle of Chancellorsville, and had his arm amputated. The operation did not succeed, and pneumonia set in, causing his death on the 10th of May, 1863, near Richmond. After his body was moved to the Governor's Mansion in Richmond for public mourning, he was then moved to Lexington by packet boat on the afternoon of May 14. The VMI Corps of Cadets met the boat and escorted the body of their former commander to the VMI campus, where it lay in state in his old classroom, with cadets standing as guards. The cadet battery, which Jackson so long commanded, fired salutes from sunrise to sunset. One day later, Stonewall Jackson was buried in the Lexington cemetery that now bears his name.

Footnote: However, the arm that was amputated was buried separately by Jackson's chaplain at “Ellwood,” the J. Horace Lacy house in the wilderness of Orange County, near the field hospital where the arm was amputated. A marker notes that Lee’s arm was interred there on May 3, 1862, a day after the amputation. The Ellwood property, located off Rt. 20 before the intersection of Rt. 3 at Lake of the Woods, is now owned by the National Park Service as part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park – Battle of the Wilderness. The property and house may be visited.

At VMI, a bronze statue of Stonewall Jackson stands outside the main entrance to the cadet barracks; first-year cadets exiting the barracks through this archway are required to honor Jackson's memory by saluting the statue.

The most dramatic episode in VMI's history, however, took place during the Civil War at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864, when the corps of cadets helped turn back a larger Union army. After a four-day long march to the rain soaked battlefield, all 257 cadets took part in the effort; 10 were killed in action or died later as a result of wounds received, and 57 cadets were wounded. The youngest cadet was only fifteen years old. This brave event is commemorated in a large mural which dominates a wall in the VMI chapel (see below). A month later, Union Gen. David Hunter got even, attacking Lexington and burning down VMI (he spared Washington College because it was named for the first president).

The service of the VMI Corps of Cadets during the 1864 Battle of New Market marks the only time in the nation's history that an entire student body fought as a unit in pitched battle. That service entitles VMI cadets to be the only school in the United States to parade with fixed bayonets, and to fly a battle streamer on its flag. VMI honors its fallen every May 15 on the anniversary of the Battle of New Market with a parade, cannon salutes and a wreath-placing ceremony.

Footnote: In November of 1859, just prior to the Civil War, Jackson moved a contingent of his VMI cadets to Harper's Ferry, WV, where they helped maintain order during John Brown's execution on December 2.

All VMI students are military cadets pursuing bachelor degrees. Distinct from the other five senior military colleges in the United States, all VMI cadets must participate in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC); however, they are not required to serve in the military upon graduation. Instead, graduates may either accept a commission in any of the US military branches or pursue civilian endeavors upon graduation. Prospective cadets must be between 16 and 22 years of age. They must be unmarried, physically fit for enrollment in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and be graduates of an accredited secondary school or have completed an approved home-school curriculum. Among its distinguished military alumni was the first five-star General of the Army, George C. Marshall (class of 1901). General George Patton  attended VMI (1903-1904) prior to his transfer to West Point.

Traditions are long lived. Women were excluded from the Corps of Cadets until 1997 (25 years after neighboring W&L became co-ed), making VMI the last U.S. military college to admit women. Today’s cadets forswear such comforts as beds, lying upon cots (aired every Monday) that are little more than foam mats that must be rolled every morning. Cadet uniforms have changed little over the years; the coatee, a parade uniform, dates back to the war of 1812. New cadets, called Rats, experience even further deprivations, being unable to watch TV or listen to music or use the telephone outside the presence of their assigned upperclassman mentors. The tradition of guarding the Institute is carried out to this day. Cadets have been posted as sentinels guarding the barracks 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while school is in session since the first cadet sentinel relieved the Virginia Militia guard team tasked with defending the Lexington Arsenal (which later became VMI) in 1839; each sentinel is armed with an M-14 rifle and bayonet and wears a traditional uniform.

A controversy occurred in 2002 when two students sued the school over the non-denominational prayer recited daily over dinner (all cadets are required to eat in the mess hall). The Fourth Circuit court ruled that the prayer, during an event with mandatory attendance at a state-funded school, violated the U.S. Constitution. Not until the Supreme Court declined to review the school's appeal in April 2004 was the prayer tradition discontinued.

Ronald Reagan starred in the films Brother Rat and Brother Rat and a Baby, which were both filmed at VMI. Originally a Broadway production, the play Brother Rat was written by John Monks Jr. and Fred F. Finklehoffe, both 1932 graduates of VMI.
Jack Holt (1888–1951), a leading man of silent and sound films, was known for his many roles in Westerns. He grew up in Winchester, VA, and attended VMI, but was expelled for misbehavior. Interestingly, Holt was Margaret Mitchell’s preference for the screen role of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939), even though she had no say in the casting. 
Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, was the wife of 1971 VMI graduate Steven J. McAuliffe (a federal judge in New Hampshire). She had his VMI ring with her onboard the shuttle. His brother VMI Rats subsequently replaced his ring.

Most of Stonewall Jackson (he's missing an arm, as revealed above) is buried in the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery in downtown Lexington. The memorial statue (left) makes a fine contrast to the one on the campus at VMI.

Lexington (population 7,000) is located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, just west of I-81 (exit 188). Roanoke is to the south, and Harrisonburg lies to the north. Distance from Washington, D.C., is approximately 180 miles.

Roadside Curiosity:
First Catch Fish Market (in a percolator)

In an amazing building recycling triumph, this post WW II corrugated aluminum structure now serves as a fresh fish market (Tue-Sat 11:00a-6:00p; 540.261.1001). Originally built as a coffee diner just east of Lexington, the building sat vacant after the owner retired to Virginia Beach. Used for a short time as a river outfitter, it was brought back to life last year. Kudos to the present occupants for salvaging a roadside landmark! It's all still there, down to the spout and handle. You can visit them at 1870 E. Midland Trail (Route 60), east of I-81 (exit 188A toward Buena Vista).

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Hotel Roanoke

In 1882, shortly after the SW Virginia town of Big Lick changed its name to Roanoke (named after its river), Norfolk and Western Railroad built a Queen Anne style hotel as a rest stop for rail travelers. The railroad also built a city, buying up large tracts of land and dividing them into building lots for their employees. Before the railroad was built, Big Lick had only 100 houses and 600 citizens. The railroad, hotel, company headquarters and homes were all built at once. Railroad executives originally specified a hotel of 20 rooms, but changed the plans to 34 rooms before construction started. Before the first structure was completed, an annex of 35 additional rooms was begun. The hotel, although sited on a bleak and treeless hill above the depot, created a sensation, boasting an elevator and a dining room that could seat 200, not to mention the first sewer line in town and "speaking tubes" for communication between the office, kitchen and servant's chambers. The hotel hosted a 9-course Christmas dinner to mark the hotel's official opening, and the first of many "Germans" (an evening of social dancing) took place afterward. The railroad imported chaperoned young women from the best families (and schools) in the area for it, and Roanoke society was born. Beginning a long tradition, uniformed hotel porters met the young ladies and their chaperones at the station and escorted them up the hill to the hotel.

Photo circa 1929:

As intended, the Hotel Roanoke became the centerpiece of the town and its very symbol, much the way the Chateau Frontenac Hotel dominates Quebec City. The image that comes to mind when most people think of Roanoke is the hotel; the giant illuminated star atop Mill Mountain comes in second. As the railroad prospered and expanded, so did the fortunes of the town. Businesses sprang up, and tourists arrived. The hotel provided an eye-poppingly luxurious setting for its first ever convention, the American Institute of Mining Engineers in 1883. The hotel has catered to the convention trade ever since. The twenty five years following the hotel's opening were a boom era for Roanoke of unimaginable magnitude. For decades the railroad added to and modernized the hotel, which became known locally as “The Grand Old Lady.”

Hotel ballroom in 1938:

Over the years the property’s guest list boasted six U.S. presidents as well as celebrity entertainers and politicians: Amelia Earhart, Joe DiMaggio, Victor Borge, Ethel Merman, Lawrence Tibbett (from the Metropolitan Opera), Van Cliburn, evangelist Billy Sunday, Jack Dempsey, Jeanette MacDonald. Not to mention Aerosmith, Hilary Duff and Jerry Seinfeld. When a Roanoke Evening News reporter encountered inventor Thomas Edison smoking a cigar at the Hotel Roanoke in 1906, he found him "plain as an old shoe." Senator John Warner (and wife Elizabeth Taylor) enjoyed the rocking chairs on the porch. J. P. Morgan favored the scrambled eggs served at breakfast. During Vice President Nelson Rockefeller's visit, a special red phone was installed to keep him in touch with the White House.

The Hotel Roanoke has National Historic Landmark status and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Enlarged and renovated many times, the hotel took on a Tudor revival architectural style. The hotel's appearance and configuration today stems mostly from the late 1930s. The 332-room Hotel Roanoke is currently owned by Virginia Tech and is operated by the Hilton Doubletree brand. In 1989, Norfolk Southern decided to leave the hotel business and deeded the property to Virginia Tech in nearby Blacksburg. After the flag lowering ceremony on November 30, 1989, the hotel closed for a six-year multimillion dollar refurbishment, and a 17-day sale of the contents began. Historic chandeliers, paintings, fireplace surrounds, black walnut paneling and other architectural treasures were excluded from the sale. Norfolk Southern donated $2,000,000 (thirty times what the hotel cost to build in 1882) toward the renovation effort.

The Hotel Roanoke, along with its brand new $14 million conference center, reopened in 1995 to great fanfare and has provided continuous employment for 300 area workers.

A new esplanade (above), reminiscent of the architecture of the spa town Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic), connects the hotel's motor court with the enclosed pedestrian bridge that runs over Norfolk and Southern's railroad tracks, linking the hotel to downtown Roanoke and the popular City Market complex. In 2004, Roanoke's landmark former passenger rail station was converted into a museum devoted to the railroad photography of O. Winston Link. Connecting this museum to the Virginia Transportation Museum is a new Rail Walk, with interactive displays of railroad history and equipment. All three are adjacent to the freight tracks still in use.

• Hotel Roanoke was the first U.S. hotel designed for air conditioning.
• Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was the first African-American ever registered at the hotel.
• The hotel restaurant still serves its signature dish, peanut soup, invented by chef Fred Brown in 1940.

Although Norfolk & Western also built and operated extravagant railroad hotels in Pulaski and Bluefield (WV), the Hotel Roanoke was their crown jewel. Morton Downey and his orchestra broadcast his national network radio program from the hotel's Crystal Ballroom in the 1940s. For decades the hotel has been headquarters for the Miss Virginia pageants, beginning in 1953.

Locals are sometimes astonished by the far-reaching fame of their grand hotel. During WWII a native Roanoker was serving in New Guinea when his Australian commander inquired where he was from. When he answered "Virginia," the Lt.-Col. replied, "I have been to Virginia. What city?" The soldier replied, "Roanoke." The Australian commented, "Ah, Roanoke, the place with that lovely hotel." 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Marion's 1920s Era Landmarks Restored

General Francis Marion Hotel

On May 27, 1927, to much fanfare, the 57 room General Francis Marion Hotel opened in SW Virginia's Smyth County. It immediately became the social center of the town of Marion, a hotel where civic clubs met, ladies played cards, society wedding receptions were held and debutantes had their coming out parties. When the hotel threw open its doors, the town was dazzled by such features as a doorman, switchboard and elevator.

The hotel took its name from General Francis Marion, the Revolutionary War hero in whose honor the town itself had been named. The Hotel was built by Charles Clarke Lincoln, Sr., Marion’s wealthiest resident, and Dr. William M. Sclater, who together spent $175,000 on the project. Lincoln also owned the Virginia Table Company, Marion’s largest industry at the time. When the old Hotel Marion, located across the street, was rebuilt a year later, Charles Lincoln decided to rename the new hotel after himself to avoid confusion (see historic photo above; click to enlarge).

On the upper mezzanine, in the Card Room, today’s visitors can still admire the floor tile motif of playing cards and a trademark black rooster with a bubbling cocktail.  A black rooster was code during Prohibition for “Drinks Served Here”. In the ballroom, the original walnut paneling and oak floor are still intact, as are the terrazzo floors on all three lobby levels, the original registration desk, switchboard, and a display cabinet, now used as a reception station inside The Black Rooster, the hotel’s restaurant. The original door facades still grace the hallways, and every room is individually decorated. In a nod to today’s savvy travelers, all 36 guest rooms feature flat-screen TVs and complimentary high speed internet. When the $4 million restoration was completed in 2006, the original coffee shop was converted to a full service restaurant.

Lincoln Theatre

On the same street as the General Francis Marion Hotel, the 500-seat Lincoln Theatre was originally a movie house dating from the late 1920s. Conceived and built by the same owner as the hotel, the theater opened two years later, on July 1, 1929. The building also incorporated residential apartments on the side facing the steet. The Lincoln Theatre’s Art Deco interior was designed to evoke images of an ancient Mayan temple. The unusual auditorium was embellished with painted appliqués of exotic creatures and mythological gods. In juxtaposition to this stylized architecture, six enormous murals (each 15' x 20') depicting scenes from national and local history were painted and installed. One of them depicts British Gen. Cornwallis surrendering to George Washington at Yorktown. Painstaking restoration of the original canvases was completed in 2005 by Conrad Schmidt Studios (Wisconsin).  See the before and after photo:

Lola Poston, a local artist of Shawnee Indian heritage, was paid $50 for each of the original murals, which were painted on cotton panels using water-based paints. Her former home at 144 W. Main Street in Marion (at the corner of Sheffey Street) now houses the Appalachian Spirit Gallery. Ms. Poston later decorated the White House under the Franklin Roosevelt administration.

Fully restored  in 2004/2005 at a cost of $1.8 million, the theater now hosts live performances and is one of only three extant Mayan Revival-style theaters in the nation. The Lincoln Theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a Virginia Historic Landmark. The Lincoln has hosted the Song of the Mountains bluegrass music concert series for the past five years and is also the setting for the Song of the Mountains television series, which is broadcast on over 190 PBS affiliates throughout the country.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Marion: a VA Mainstreet Community

A monument to Confederate Soldiers stands on the grounds of the stately Smyth County Courthouse in Marion, VA.

(pop. 6,500)
is one of the towns to receive designation as an official Virginia Main Street Community and National Main Street Community. These designations stem from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which developed and coordinated programs to help communities revitalize their downtown and neighborhood business districts.

First named Royal Oak (a cemetery and a Presbyterian Church maintain that name), Marion is the county seat of Smyth County in the highlands of southwest Virginia, near the tri-state borders of Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. Marion is named after South Carolina’s Revolutionary War hero General Francis Marion, known as the “Swamp Fox.” Virginia’s Route 11, which runs through the center of downtown, follows the course of the old Wilderness Road, which started out as a buffalo trail.

Marion was incorporated in 1832, and the Norfolk and Western Railroad arrived in 1856. In 1864 the town (pop. 500) saw cavalry action during the Civil War; the area around Marion was strategic militarily because of the nearby salt works, iron forge and lead mines.

In 1873 Marion College opened its doors as a Lutheran college for women. Since its closing in 1967, the campus has operated as the Blue Ridge Job Corps, a national no-cost education and career technical training program. The Marion campus, which caters mostly to women, has consistently been rated the top school of the more than 120 campuses of the national Job Corps program, which educates and trains at risk students. The photograph captures a 2009 commencement ceremony on the lawn in front of the main building of the former Marion College, which was associated with the Lutheran Church.

Several significant Marion buildings date from the early part of the twentieth century, notably a train depot (1905) built by the Norfolk and Western Railroad; note its distinctive bracket eave support system illustrated above. A classical revival courthouse designed by Frank Milburn was erected in 1905 (photo at top of post), and the General Francis Marion Hotel (1927) and the Lincoln Theatre (1929) catered to tourists traveling along the modernized Route 11. These two structures have their own post (click on their entries in the sidebar at right). A clutch of Art Deco and Art Moderne structures survives, mostly in varying states of decay. The downtown Marion Historic District is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Southwestern Lunatic Asylum opened in Marion in 1887 in a massive brick complex that featured a central spire (vintage postcard above). Harvey Black (1827-1888), a native of Blacksburg and grandson of town founder John Black, was the institution’s first superintendent. During the Civil War Harvey Black served as regimental surgeon for the Stonewall Brigade, and he assisted with the amputation of Stonewall Jackson's arm on May 3, 1863. Prior to his arrival in Marion, Black had been Superintendent of the Eastern Lunatic Asylum in Williamsburg and served in the Virginia House of Delegates. The asylum’s facilities were enlarged in 1908, 1930 and 1935, when the name was changed to Southwestern State Hospital. By 1964 the institution’s staff numbered more than 500 people. In 1986, demolition of the original complex commenced, and construction of the modern Southwestern Virginia Mental Health Institute began.

Song of the Mountains, an award winning bluegrass concert showcase, has aired on PBS television stations nationwide during the last five years, attracting an audience of 50 million viewers. It is performed and recorded live at the recently restored Lincoln Theatre in Marion. However, Tim White, who hosts the program and is instrumental in its production, relates that the continuation of the show is in jeopardy, due to a precipitous drop in underwriting support.

The town serves as the gateway to nearby Hungry Mother State Park, the Jefferson National Forest, the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, and the Appalachian Trail, which runs just south of the town. Marion is a short distance from the Blue Ridge Parkway and neighboring states West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. The photograph shows a footbridge over the 100-acre lake in Hungry Mother State Park, which opened in 1936. Historical footnote: The park was constructed as a project of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a national public work relief program for unemployed, unmarried men ages 18–25. The CCC, a part of Roosevelt’s New Deal,  provided unskilled manual labor jobs related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands owned by federal, state and local governments. The program was designed to provide employment for young men in relief families who had difficulty finding jobs during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Short story author Sherwood Anderson lived in the Marion area part time for the last fifteen years of his life. His most enduring work is the short story collection Winesburg, Ohio (1919) Writers he influenced include Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck and Salinger. Anderson bought and edited two local newspapers (The Marion Democrat and Smyth County News) and was buried in Marion’s Round Hill Cemetery in 1941. This photograph dates from 1937.

At the age of eighteen, baseball Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, drafted by the New York Mets in 1965, was assigned to the Marion Mets, a minor league team in the Appalachian League. He went on to become a baseball pitching legend and is now owner of the Texas Rangers. But his career started in Marion. Click the image of his Hall of Fame plaque to enlarge.

West of downtown Marion on Rt. 11 (Lee Highway), the Dip Dog stand has been serving its signature dip dogs (battered hot dogs deep fried then slathered with mustard), burgers and famous onion rings for over 50 years. The ice cream creations, shakes and frozen custard draw much repeat business. Tip: the servers at Dip Dog get a little touchy if customers refer to their Dip Dogs as "corn dogs." They will remind you that these are not corn dogs (the batter does not contain corn meal), rather a 50-year-old original on-site creation.
Open 9:00a to 10:00p daily.

Yahoo! Mountain Dew! Marion is known as the birthplace of the soft drink Mountain Dew, a yellow-green soft drink characterized by low carbonation coupled with high sugar and high caffeine content. Although first marketed during the 1940s in Knoxville, TN, as an unsuccessful lemon-lime flavored whiskey mixer, the original drink’s dormant trademark and bottle design were handed over as part of an investment in Tip Corporation, a soft drink flavor concentrate manufacturer based in Marion. The recipe was changed drastically by William H. "Bill" Jones, who experimented from 1959 to 1962 to create the recipe for what is now "Mountain Dew." As owner of the Tip Corporation at 517 North Main Street, Jones concocted formulas with various flavors and routinely offered his family and Marion residents samples of his latest efforts, until he perfected the formula used today. He eventually sold Tip Corp. (and with it, "Mountain Dew") to Pepsico in 1964.  The 1960s era vintage bottle above shows the hillbilly art depicting a yokel firing a shotgun (click to enlarge). Marion hosted a Mountain Dew Festival for over 50 years.

In other weirdly related soft drink trivia, Dr. Charles Taylor Pepper, for whom the soft drink was named, is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in nearby Rural Retreat, VA (at the halfway point between Marion and Wytheville). If this sort of thing yanks your chain, go pay your respects. Take I-81 exit 60, south on Hwy 90/Main St. through town, then turn right onto Mountain View Ave. In the cemetery, start at the flag and go around the U-shaped drive. Near the big "Pepper" headstone on your left is a four-sided stone column, and his marker is on that column. Those readers old enough to remember these old bottles likely wonder what the numbers 10-2-4 mean. Those were the hours of the day (10:00a, 2:00p and 4:00p), when there is a natural drop in energy, so the soft drink manufacturer proposed drinking three 10-oz. servings a day to maintain one's energy level. Glad you asked.

And last, but not least, Marion's signature water storage tanks adjacent to I-81 never fail to provoke comment.