The Magic City. The Star City. Even the "Dr Pepper Capital of the World." Roanoke has answered to several nicknames in growing from a southwestern Virginia crossroads called Big Lick into a booming railroad town worthy of a nobler name. Now that a $66 million art museum opened here last year, "Art City" could be next.
Cradled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, about a four-hour drive from Baltimore, Roanoke is probably best known for the natural and recreational attractions at its doorstep: the Appalachian Trail, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Natural Bridge. The city appeals to railroad cognoscenti, who journey from afar to see a pair of classic steam engines and a museum full of photographs that famously document their era.
When my husband, a railroad buff, and I visited Roanoke, we admired the peaks of the Blue Ridge from a distance and instead concentrated on exploring the city. (Summer visitors will find temperatures similar to Baltimore.) We started with its newest attraction, the Taubman Museum of Art.
You'll have no problem locating the structure. With its abstract design, fin-shaped atrium, and wavy, silvery-scaled roof, the three-story musuem stands out like a Cubist fish in a sea of stolid, red-brick buildings downtown. During its construction, Roanokers expressed decidedly mixed views about this avant-garde addition rising a block from historic Market Square, the heart of the city. The Taubman was simultaneously voted Roanoke's "Best New Thing" and "Best Thing in Roanoke to Remove" in a 2008 poll in The Roanoker magazine. Critics huffed that its presence was aesthetically jarring. (One off-put letter writer described it as "the wreck of the Flying Nun.") Others mistakenly thought it was devoted exclusively to modern art. Not so. It's permanent collection includes 19th and early 20th century American art as well as contemporary works.
But nearly 20,000 visitors showed up in the first month to judge the Taubman by its content rather than by the contours of its deliberately daring architecture. Many probably felt that they had stumbled into the halls of a much larger art venue.
Every gallery in the soaring, imaginatively designed Taubman reveals something grand, enlightening, or entertaining. Exhibited on the jewel-tone walls are paintings by John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam, and other masters. Across the hall, the "stems" of a modernistic plant-like display hold crystal-encrusted handbags and miniatures by Judith Leiber, whose couture clutches have accessorized First Ladies and starlets for years. The artworks on exhibit when we visited ranged from 17th century Florentine paintings and mid-20th century tattoo art to a modern-day folk artist's socially provocative shadow box. And all around the museum, where you least expect them, you'll encounter one artist's life-size figures created so realistically from—of all things—packing tape that I nearly asked one for directions.
"When you're inside here, you have no idea you're in Roanoke," says Kimberly Templeton, Taubman's director of external affairs. Which is kind of the idea. Funded by a private-public partnership, the museum represents a bold attempt to help transform this former industrial city—a leading manufacturer of rail cars and rayon in the last century—into a cultural gateway for Western Virginia.
The museum's presence has further altered the evolving face of downtown Roanoke. A row of old warehouses near the tracks of the Norfolk Southern railroad (Norfolk and Western's successor) now houses artists' studios and residences. Art galleries have cropped up in sufficient numbers to encompass an arts district, where more than a dozen galleries, museums, and studios host a monthly "Art by Night" gallery crawl. New restaurants, bars, and bistros are luring talent from major metropolitan areas. As vacant downtown buildings await new lives, an urban design competition last year sought to enlist the interest and inspiration of professionals nationwide in reinvigorating the city's main corridor, Jefferson Street.
Roanoke seems determined to accomplish this urban rebirth while preserving and polishing its distinctive past. The O. Winston Link Museum and the Virginia Museum of Transportation provide hands-on connections to the city's rail legacy: train engines, rail cars, track signals, and other railroadiana. (At the History Museum of Western Virginia, we also admired the retired artifacts of another once-flourishing local industry—moonshining.)
We stayed at perhaps the city's most famous rescued landmark, the Hotel Roanoke. The restored, Tudor-style building sits, castle-like, on a hill overlooking the railway responsible for its existence. When the president of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad decided to merge the north-south line with an east-west track, he laid out a town at their juncture. In 1882, Big Lick (named for its salt marshes) became Roanoke, headquarters of the newly formed Norfolk and Western Railway. The railroad's grand hotel opened on Christmas Day the same year, becoming the city's social epicenter for more than a century.
Donated to Virginia Tech by Norfolk Southern in 1989, the Hotel Roanoke closed for a period until it could be renovated and reopened. Now managed by Hilton Doubletree, the 331-room hotel retains its Southern graciousness. Murals depicting Virginia history cover the walls of the ornate Palm Court and the lobby, whose celestial ceiling is painted to depict the constellations as they appeared the day the first train arrived in Big Lick in 1852. Checking in, we walked by prominently displayed portraits of Robert E. Lee and George Washington in the walnut-paneled lobby.
In the plush Regency Dining Room, traditional fare like the hotel's famous peanut soup is served by waiters wearing starched white jackets and proffering chilled silverware. (The night we dined, the server attending to a party of prom-goers prepared flaming orders of steak and cherries jubilee with ceremonial precision.)
The City of Roanoke grew on the opposite side of the tracks from its elegant hotel. Today, an enclosed skywalk lined with historical markers spans the rails between the Hotel Roanoke's front lawn and Market Square. We used the bridge often to walk to downtown museums, shops, and restaurants.
On the sunny morning that we toured the Taubman Museum of Art, natural light filtered softly through the glass atrium, which angles to a point nearly 80 feet above the lobby. Los Angeles architect Randall Stout designed the building to emulate the peaks and gorges of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The cityscape, too, became part of his vision. From the second-floor balcony, for example, we spotted two nearby Pop Art icons: rooftop neon signs advertising locally roasted H&C Coffee and Dr Pepper, a beverage wildly popular with generations of Roanokers.
For all its modernity, the Taubman is particularly noted for its collection of 19th and 20th century American paintings. Among these works are several family portraits by Eakins (donated by a descendant from Roanoke) and Sargent's portrait of Mrs. George Gribble, a rosy-cheeked, red-haired society belle in a flowing black dress. The museum's Norah's Café, where we lunched on paninis, is named for her.
We also came to Roanoke to see the works of another famous artist, railroad photographer O. Winston Link, whose painstakingly composed images documented the nation's last steam railroad. Roanoke's former Norfolk and Western passenger station houses the handsome museum that bears Link's name. Here, visitors can view more than 250 of the photographer's original prints and examples of the small mountain of equipment he hauled with him—flashbulbs, reflectors, power supplies, and carrying cases. The museum also features a re-creation of his darkroom and interactive exhibits, such as a camera through which you can view the world as Link did.
The prints in the museum's collection—displayed in quiet, subtly lit galleries—are sometimes stark, sometimes nostalgic, and often haunting: a hulking engine, spouting a dense plume of steam into the night sky; kids splashing in a creek as a train rumbles overhead; the careworn, creased face of an engineer. My favorite image was of a draft horse bowing her head as the steam-belching Virginia Creeper pulls into a rural depot.
A short film introduces visitors to Link's career and less-than-happy later years. His artistry long went unrecognized. Even after earning fame and a modest fortune, the aging photographer was swindled out of much of the latter by his second wife, who was imprisoned for her crimes.
Roanoke was Link's adopted home, and one of his last accomplishments was a successful battle to save the N&W's famous steam engine, the Class A 1218. Donated to the city, it now sits beside another refurbished Roanoke-built engine, the Class J 611, on a siding at the Transportation Museum. Summoning my inner Link, I focused on the steel behemoths with my digital camera while my husband inspected them from end to end.
Our visit wasn't complete without a trip to Roanoke's most familiar artwork. We departed via Mill Mountain to gaze upon the Roanoke Star. Purportedly the largest standing star made by anyone in this universe, the 100-foot-high, concrete-and-steel structure was erected 60 years ago as a holiday promotion. Today, it glows year-round from the mountaintop. Peering down on city rooftops from the star's overlook, I wondered what Roanoke's beloved beacon makes of the fallen Flying Nun.
Where to Stay
The Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center (110 Shenandoah Ave., 540-985-5900 or 1-800-222-TREE) offers an Art Lover's Package that includes two tickets to the Taubman Museum and a Train Lover's Package that includes a railroad history book, coffee mug, and a railroad-view room. The hotel recently added in-room spa services to its amenities.
Rose Hill Bed and Breakfast (521 Washington Ave. SW, 540-400-7785) in the historic Old Southwest District has three guestrooms and serves up a hearty gourmet breakfast, high tea, and owner Wendy Blair's wry wit. Blair discovered Roanoke after being forced off the interstate during Hurricane Katrina four years ago. The Californian stayed and opened the charming inn built in 1909. Her house rules state that coffee, tea, and discourse are offered for early risers, but prior to 6 a.m., "I cannot guarantee the quality of any conversation."
Where to Eat
A fine-dining pioneer, Alexander's (105 S. Jefferson St., 540-982-6983), features locally sourced meats, produce, and cheeses in entrees such as a Virginia heirloom pork chop with pan-roasted hominy and Surry bacon, pan-seared wild Carolina rockfish with roasted Sungold tomatoes, and mac and Virginia-made Grayson cheese, served with seared scallops. Ask your wine-savvy server to suggest a pairing with one of Virginia's vintages.
The tripartite 202 Market (202 Market Sq., 540-343-6644) has a smidgen of South Beach at its glitzy CityBar, a bit of Vegas in the swank Loft lounge, and lots of homegrown talent in its Kitchen, the restaurant run by Roanoke native Chad Scott. Sequestered from 202's bar scene, the intimate restaurant features exposed brick walls adorned with artwork and a pair of TVs monitoring the culinary action. Try the tender Dr Pepper-braised beef short ribs (yes, the natives are slightly obsessed with the beverage) and the s'mores Pavlova, Scott's deconstructed version of the campfire favorite.
The city boasts two legendary stops on the short-order circuit. The menu at Roanoke Wiener Stand (25 Campbell Ave., 540-342-6932) is pretty basic, so order a chili dog with the works, grab a stool, and ponder whether that's a photo of Barbara Bush on the wall. (It is. She visited but did not dine, we hear.)
Hunger knows no quittin' time, so Texas Tavern (114 Church Ave., 540-342-4825)—open 24/7—keeps the "EAT" sign lit for noshers craving its famous chili, "Cheesy Westerns," hamburgers, and other munchables.
What to See
Taubman Museum of Art (110 Salem Ave. SE, 540-342-5760, taubmanmuseum.org), open six days a week (closed Mondays). Opening June 12, exhibits on American naturalistic photography (through Aug. 16) and "eco-sensing," an artist's nature's-eye view of the world, filmed using video cameras attached to animals and plants (through Aug. 23).
O. Winston Link Museum (101 Shenandoah Ave. NE, 540-982-5465, linkmuseum.org), open daily. Exhibits on Link's 1955-to-1960 steam locomotive photography and N&W Railway history.
Virginia Museum of Transportation (303 Norfolk Ave., 540-342-5670, vmt.org), open daily year-round. Exhibits on rail and automotive history and locomotives and passenger cars.
Center in the Square (1 Market Sq. SE, 540-342-5700, centerinthesquare.org), closed Mondays. Downtown cultural complex houses History Museum, Science Museum of Western Virginia, and Mill Mountain Theatre.
Where to Shop
The Historic City Market (213 Market St., 540-342-2028). At Roanoke's landmark, open-air market, vendors line Market Street's stalls to sell fresh produce, meats, flowers, handcrafted jewelry, art, and other items year-round.
chocolatepaper (308-3 Market St., 540-342-6061). The name says it all: fine greeting cards and writing accessories plus an array of gourmet chocolates, ranging from truffles to a custom designed Roanoke Star.
Roanoke Valley Printworks (108 Salem Ave., 540-343-0296). Artist/owner John Reburn uses fine-art techniques (hand silk-screening and letterpress type) to create poster-art inspired portraits, prints, and cards.