December 2010: Downtown state of mind


 When Roulhac Toledano took over the vacant warehouse by the Downtown Mall nearly 30 years ago, she found abandoned tools, remnants of chicken coops (the site was once the Albemarle Grocery Co.), and a whole lot of pigeons. Armed with her experience as an architectural historian, artist, and former antique collector, Toledano also saw the untapped potential of the space. From the top floor on down, she took the empty warehouse and designed what is now informally known as the Pink Warehouse—a series of loft-style apartments.

Toledano travels regularly to do research for her books on architectural history, but at home she alternates between the sunroom and the living room to do her writing. The sunroom is bright and visually arresting with books and sculptures, black and white printed proofs of scarves (she designs them after publishing her books), and a wall of photographs that mixes personal images with photos of the warehouse through the ages.

As she sits in the sunroom, Toledano recalls the early days of life in the Pink Warehouse—having local painter Edward Thomas hold an art show in her apartment, and letting Dave Matthews practice songs in the room next door late at night while she stayed up writing and thinking, “I’m so glad I can write better than he can sing!”—Lucy Kim

“When I moved in, I was the only person living Downtown at the time.  People thought we were crazy. My daughter’s friends wouldn’t come over to play because their parents would say, ‘Who lives down there?’

“I love living here. I would not live anywhere in Charlottesville if not here. My husband and I had done a lot in Louisiana but we wanted to be near mountains. The two runner-ups were Charlottesville and Asheville. I had renovated about 36 buildings in New Orleans. I’ve made an entire square into a hotel. And I said, ‘I’m not living in a house. A bank, a warehouse, but not a house!’

“We bought in fall of ’83; we did this [sun room] space first. We moved in June, we moved into it when the kitchen and three bathrooms were finished. I told my husband, ‘That’s all I need!’

“When we moved in, there were bullet holes downstairs in the windows—not because people were shooting at us, but because kids didn’t think anyone lived here. At 5:30, the place was empty. It was lonely, the Mall was my front yard and Carnelia, the policewoman, was the only one I saw.

“I always felt that you needed a place to walk to. It takes a great deal of imagination to bring a city back. Charlottesville was a little town of something like 6,000. It’s been so interesting to see it change.

“Everything is oversized. My mother was an antique collector. My husband inherited a lot of things. I didn’t originally think I’d be doing much writing in here, but with the sunroof, …I get sun and I can see all of my beautiful things. I put bamboo mats over [the roof] in the summer. It’s not really high tech around here, I just get up on a chair and pull them on.

“Because this was a railroad-slash-wholesale food warehouse, all of these things in the building were interesting. All the stuff nailed on the columns [old tools and metal objects], we found on the warehouse floor. We collected them and just put them in a box downstairs, but after I got run over and had to spend some time resting, not moving, I said, ‘Nail ‘em up’ and that’s just what we did.”