By Judith Fairly
The contrast between the gray people-moving facility I’d left in Dallas-Fort Worth and the airy concourse into which I disembarked at the Roanoke Regional Airport that the architect Ron Price envisioned as a “transition between earth and air” could not have been greater. Price’s design utilizes materials that look to both the past and the future: a sturdy red brick interior wall that runs the length of the two-story lobby references the city’s architectural heritage while a blue glass wall divided by triangulated white steel trusses frames a view for arriving passengers that stretches from the mountains to downtown Roanoke. In the daytime, the traveler’s eye is drawn outward; at night, the design elements emerge as the glass scrim becomes translucent and the brick wall, punctuated by arched windows and extending beyond the structure to an outdoor plaza, moves to the fore.
Orienting the terminal towards a panorama of the Roanoke Valley introduces visitors to the landscape as a vital feature in the warp and woof of southern Virginia’s identity. Its openness and accessibility turn the “welcoming face” to the street and pedestrian traffic advocated by the late, great urbanologist William H. Whyte; within a space of five minutes, I exited the Roanoke terminal, passed through a landscaped courtyard at the main entrance anchored by “Aurora,” a 21-foot-high abstract steel sculpture by New York artist Albert Paley, crossed the passenger drop-off lane, and arrived at the car. When you only have 48 hours to visit, that’s not inconsequential.
The following morning, after breakfast at Bread Craft Bakery (French Press coffee, a spinach, feta & artichoke croissant; and, because I would be doing a lot of walking, a chocolate croissant) I strolled around the downtown area. Downtown Roanoke has been undergoing a renaissance through a combination of private and public partnerships, with more than $500 million invested in development projects over the past dozen years. At the center of everything is the Roanoke City Market (est. 1882), a farmer’s market open all but two days a year and an essential part of the area’s flourishing farm-to-table movement. Downtown has become an attractive area in which to live and it’s not uncommon to encounter residents of the converted buildings walking the dog in their pajamas in the morning. In fact, dogs are everywhere: enjoying a little retail therapy with their human companions at the Orvis store, helping to choose hand-printed invitations at Appalachia Press, waiting for treats at Hometown Bank, enjoying good weather at eateries with outdoor dining, or sprinting through their own dog park.
Many of the redevelopments are named to honor their provenance (The Candy Factory, The Cotton Mill, The Auction House, The Woolworth) and many others are mixed-use with retail space at street level and residences above. It’s becoming the sort of livable/walkable city that William Whyte and the New Urbanists envisioned, with pedestrian malls and green spaces and dozens of retailers, restaurants, and services (like doggie daycare) within the space of several blocks in each direction. The past—preservation of the city’s historic structures—meets the future—green building and sustainable design—in projects such as the newly-renovated Center in the Square, a multi-story complex with several museums and performance spaces (for the Roanoke Opera, Ballet, Symphony, and Theatre) and a green roof that will generate energy and counteract the heat island effect common in dense urban spaces.
On to the Taubman Museum of Art, which opened its doors at its current location in 2008. Named after Roanoke philanthropist Nicholas Taubman and designed by Los Angeles architect Randall Stout, the striking architecture—what Stout has characterized as “Cataclysmic Calm,” a reference to the violent tectonic shifts that created the mountains and valleys of the Blue Ridge—reflects Stout’s association with Frank O. Gehry & Associates earlier in his career. Not everyone has been enthusiastic about the design—it looks like an enormous mothership parallel-parked in a cramped space among the traditional downtown architecture—but it has become a landmark in this mostly-rural part of the state. The interior is lovely; the atrium is bathed in a soft green glow and visitors can catch a glimpse of the mountains through the pyramidical skylight as they ascend the long curved staircase to the upstairs galleries.
Though the permanent collection of primarily American art is modest compared to big-city museums, the building encompasses 81,000 square feet, so there’s space for a growing collection. A current exhibit, “Making American Taste: Narrative Art for a New Democracy,” examines the influence of works by 19th century American artists (on loan from the New York Historical Society) in shaping notions of refinement and “taste” in the early years of the republic; and, opening in July, “Ralph Eaton: Fuzzy Kudzu,” a large-scale site-specific installation created from repurposed stuffed animals donated to the local Goodwill store, references the bane of every Southern gardener as a comment on our cultural obsession with “mass-produced stuff.” Grab a glass of locally-produced wine or a coffee at Norah’s, a pleasant cafe at street level named for John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Norah Gribble. On your way out, stop by the museum’s Resource Lounge to learn more about the exhibitions and enjoy the free Wi-Fi. Admission to the museum is also free, thanks to a recent gift.
A number of art galleries have been displaced by the downtown area’s transformation but ongoing redevelopment may shift that dynamic from the dozen or so that have survived. Transplanted San Franciscans Suzun Hughes and John Wilson avoided that fate by purchasing and renovating the building in which they live upstairs from their studio gallery. In her paintings, Hughes exploits the vivid hues and freshness of the acrylic pigment at the same time she manipulates it to such dynamic and expressionistic effect that her work appears to be a mix of mediums. Wilson orchestrates arrangements of reclaimed objects and signs in his sculptures and mixed media assemblages into canny and often elegant compositions that belie their humble origins. His “Fire Portal,” a privately-commissioned steel sculpture powered by propane, would be a dynamite centerpiece at a “Game of Thrones” wedding feast or a Viking funeral. When I ask if they miss living in a big city, Hughes says she’s heard that San Francisco and Roanoke have a comparable number of artists per capita. And they like Roanoke. Here, Hughes says, they have found a sense of authenticity.
After a visit to the O. Winston Link Museum in the restored Norfolk & Western passenger train station to see Link’s astonishing photographs documenting the final chapter of the steam locomotive era, it was on to the first Friday gallery event, Roanoke Art By Night. This was one of the most convivial and probably the most welcoming gallery walk I’ve attended. There is deep bench of artists in the area, due in part to the proximity of the 20 or so colleges and universities within a hour’s drive of Roanoke, and they appear to receive correspondingly steadfast support from the community. (Another factoid: Roanoke is located within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population. For those of us in Texas, that’s almost inconceivable.)
The next day, I took the Blue Ridge Parkway south to Floyd and a tour of one of Virginia’s oldest wineries, Chateau Morrisette. The drive is lovely; there’s a reason that the Blue Ridge is the nation’s most-visited park. Like 83 other wineries in the state, Chateau Morrisette bills itself as dog-friendly (more like dog-crazy: more than a few of the 30-plus wines it produces are named for dogs, its wine membership is called The Kennel Club, and it sponsors a concert series, The Black Dog Music Festivals.) The charming restaurant offers regional cuisine using locally-produced ingredients when available. Floyd is located on “The Crooked Road,” Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, and the Friday Night Jamboree at the Floyd Country Store is legendary.
One significant feature of this area I wasn’t able to experience was a hike on the Appalachian Trail, more than a quarter of which runs through Virginia. Three things that would have improved my visit to Roanoke: better footwear, more time—and a dog to share it with.
Lodgings: Built in 1882, the fully restored Tudor-style Hotel Roanoke in downtown Roanoke is a graceful Gilded Age artifact with elegant architectural details you won’t find in newer hotels. If I had an advance from my publisher and a looming deadline, this is where I’d hole up to finish my book. Or hide out from my publisher. The hotel is connected to the downtown area by a glass-enclosed skywalk that takes you over the railroad tracks. The rates are reasonable, and you can enjoy a buffet that offers regional specialties such as peanut soup and spoonbread served on fine china at the hotel’s Regency Room.
If you’re traveling with a canine companion, both of you are welcome at the Sheraton Roanoke. Doggie beds, treats, bowls, a doorhanger to remind hotel employees that there is a dog en chambre, and outdoor facilities (for Fido) are all provided at no additional charge. The Sheraton has a canine weight limit of 80 lbs. per room; if you’re a math fundamentalist, that’s about 10 Shih Tzus or one Giant Schnauzer. There’s a congenial bar downstairs at Shula’s 347 Grill with a nice menu that caters to both vegetarians (try the Wild Mushroom Raviolis) and carnivores.