Ann Gordon recognized that it was pretty sketchy downtown after hours. Her children later came to call it “wino safari-land.” She walked there with them sometimes during the 1970s. “There were strange derelict people,” she recalls, “and a men-only bar at The Brass Rail. There was a flop house, men living in single rooms renting week to week, and a very bizarre set of shops that were just old school. It wasn’t changing. You could feel that it could stay that way forever. Or it could just be gone the next day.”
One of the things that killed the old ideal of a traditional Main Street was that after hours it tended to become safari-land. When the office buildings emptied out for the day, what need was there for the department stores and appliance stores and clothing stores to stay open? Businesses started moving where the people were, or where they could get to more easily. Out in Barracks Road Shopping Center there was ample space for broad, paved lots for cars. As a result, like downtowns almost everywhere, Main Street was becoming more than a little seedy.
But seediness can be a seed-bed. By the early 1970s the city had seen the writing on the wall. It decided to roll the dice and develop a desperation plan to revitalize downtown by closing a portion of Main Street to traffic and creating a pedestrian mall.
Just as those plans were developing, almost as if an alarm clock had rung, a wave of young entrepreneurs was finding opportunity in low real estate values and fringe properties to open businesses downtown. They were not typical business owners. Some of them were hippies, activists and protest veterans. One was a Greenwich Village bohemian who had moved to Canada to dodge the draft. A few were disaffected young lawyers leaning toward a life less ordinary by indulging their interests in the arts, music, food and drink.
They were the Not Ready for Chamber of Commerce Players. They were about to bring something new and something radical downtown, something that would chart a path toward what it would become. And Ann Gordon was one of them.
When I first came to Charlottesville in 1981 there were tumbleweeds rolling down the mall. Or at least it seemed that way, and not only to me. The experience of walking downtown in search of nightlife was like a desert march from one oasis to another. There were pools of light and life and noise at Vinegar Hill Theater, at Fellini’s, at Miller’s, and way down on the east end of a long desolate expanse, at the C&O. If you were there before 8, when Williams Corner Bookstore closed, you might link up with a small crowd as a poetry or fiction reading was breaking up. But otherwise, nothing. Turn up your collar and hustle through the dark and hope you make it to the next watering hole.
Six years earlier, not a single one of those oases had yet opened, and it wasn’t at all clear where a downtown night life, even a rudimentary one, might come from. A 1968 study of the Central Business District had confirmed that what was happening to Main Streets all over the country was happening here as well. Declining business revenues and declining property assessments spelled doom for traditional shopping districts.
Things were not yet dire downtown in 1968, but more businesses were leaving for Route 29 all the time, with few new businesses coming in. And there was only one way for that to end.
The folks sitting on Charlottesville’s City Council decided to answer the challenge with an ambitious, and contentious, plan to revitalize downtown—building a municipal parking garage, turning Main Street into a pedestrian mall, and developing a master plan that emphasized small-scale retail and restaurants mixed with residential and office space.
There were voices who argued that downtown should just be allowed to fail—that when it all crashed, developers would move in to pick over the bones and re-build and re-develop on a larger scale without tax dollars being wasted. Mitch Van Yahres, who as a young council member thought long and hard before finally casting one of the deciding votes in favor of the mall in 1974, told a story years later that encapsulates the resistance. When he came on council in 1968, he “asked for a study of downtown housing and transit. The previous city manager laughed. Who would want to live downtown?”
That was a question that needed answering if the mall was to succeed. The Democratic city council was unanimously for the revitalization plan. And a new cadre of city employees, Cole Hendrix the new city manager, and Satyendra Huja, the new planning director, had the vision, and the political support, to see the vision through.
But that vision needed to be something that would change people’s hearts and minds about what downtown was, and what it could become. As Huja put it in a magazine interview in 1977: “People tend to go where things are going on, and we want this to be such a place. Very diverse, urban. Its success depends on community attitudes, as well as numbers of shoppers.” But how do you change community attitudes? And once you create a place that people might want to live and to play, what’s the driver, what’s the engine that’s actually going to get them to start coming?
Artists and anarchists
One of the first indications of changing attitudes actually happened before a single brick was laid on the mall. The first lurch of the train as the engine kicked in came when Ann Gordon and her husband Chief bought the former Jarman motorcycle showroom on Market Street and converted it for use as an art house cinema.
“One day in 1973,” she says, “Chief found this building for sale for $30,000, and said ‘Let’s buy it.’ I was basically a UVA graduate student who had never finished her masters, and Chief wanted to act. He was dedicated to bringing the arts to Charlottesville. We knew almost nothing about what we were doing, except that we thought we had good taste in movies.”
They started with the idea of creating an arts complex. The 200-seat cinema, to be named Vinegar Hill Theatre, would reside in the Market Street frontage. The back of the building, the vintage part fronting on Old Preston (Vibethink is located there now), had been a working garage and office and was in much rougher shape. They decided to limit themselves to opening the cinema first, and sell remaining part of the building. That was when they met the anarchists.
John Conover and Virginia Daugherty had drifted into town in 1971 at the end of a year of driving the country and living out of an old converted bread truck. The truck had been fitted out with a bed and an ice box by a sailor in Norfolk, where the couple had met. “We wanted to see America,” Conover says. “We went from hippie farm to hippie farm. We just wanted to be free. Of course we thought the world was going to come unglued. That was spring of 1970. The war was at its peak. Kennedy was dead. Martin Luther King was dead. Bobby Kennedy was dead. People had been to the moon. Some people didn’t believe they had been to the moon. Something was going to happen. Good or bad. There was going to be an apocalypse.”
Waiting for the apocalypse in a bread truck got a little stale, however, and they decided to settle in Charlottesville where John had done his undergraduate work, and where they knew a few people. Their activist sensibilities had been sharpened by the tumult of the ’60s, and they dove right into the local political scene. They volunteered and canvassed for the local Democratic Party. And they started hanging with the revolutionaries manquées of the Black Flag Press.
Black Flag was a collective that had started when UVA student activists went looking for a place to print up protest material and found that local print houses would have none of it. They managed to raise enough money to buy some printing equipment and set it up above the Studio Art Shop on West Main Street. The group took their name from the emblem of the anarchist movement, and they set out to stir up a radical economic upheaval in Charlottesville. By the time Daugherty and Conover joined up, however, they were also taking on some commercial print jobs.
“Nobody else could do that work, and we got into it fairly cheaply and ended up doing a lot of university work,” says Conover. “Then it started to be economically viable. Then we fell in with Chief and Ann Gordon, and we realized it was a business and not a terrorist operation or an idealist operation.”
By the time of that realization, most of the original anarchists had melted away. Daugherty and Conover bought the back half of the old automotive building from the Gordons for $18,000, moved the operation downtown, and renamed it Papercraft Printing.
Vinegar Hill Theater opened in 1976, just as the pedestrian mall was about to be completed. You could see the films of Billy Wilder, Howard Hawkes, Bergman, Huston, the French and Italian New Wave, Altman. It brought a dollop of urban sophistication to the newly-opened mall, a bright red cosmopolitan cherry on top of what was still the plain vanilla of an old Virginia Main Street. “Charlottesville itself didn’t have that sparkle, that edge that said ‘Let’s have new, let’s have different’,” says Ann.
But the Gordons were dedicated to supplying new and different. A few years later, they bought the old flop house just up the street and opened Fellini’s restaurant. By that time, their marriage was dissolving. After the split, Ann reverted to her maiden name, Porotti, and continued to run the theater. Chief presided over the restaurant in his white dinner jacket. A scene was starting to develop in downtown Charlottesville, but would take a while to mature.
“I think sometimes we were buoyed by our own narcissism,” Porotti says. “We wanted to start a movie theater like The Circle in D.C., or the New Yorker in New York, or The Brattle in Boston. I guess we thought that people would come because they had come in other places. By the early ’80s it was good days for us, but not so much for downtown. I used to ask my employees when they came in, ‘How’s it going out there?’ They’d say, ‘Tumbleweeds’.”
In 1974, as Gordon and Porotti were moving their theater toward launch, and Black Flag Press was starting the transition to legitimate business, Sandy McAdams arrived in Charlottesville with 20,000 books in a railroad car. He had been through town briefly some years before, though he had no real connection to or feeling for it. But when he started looking for a permanent home for the book collection he had been amassing and selling out of a barn in the Hamptons, a friend of a friend showed him a photograph of a building for sale at the corner of Market Street and Fourth Street, NE in Charlottesville. He took one look and said: “That’s it.”
There’s a great Yiddish word that describes people like him. Edward “Sandy” McAdams is a macher. It means “someone who gets things done, makes things happen.” But it can also carry a suggestion of being overbearing, a bit too much. I’ll leave it to those who know McAdams to decide whether that shoe fit him back in the ’70s. For certain he was a big, bristly personality in a heavily bearded, well-knit, if undersized, package.
In the early ’60s he attended Vanderbilt, where he ran for a student senate office with, he reports, no political platform whatsoever. “That’s my wild expectations,” he says. “I thought I can do this. I ran for it. Did nothing, except I visited every single room and talked to people. A day or two before the vote, my friends and I broke into the administration building and hung a huge sign on the clock tower saying ‘It’s Time to Vote for Ed.’ I won by the largest plurality in the history of the school.” But by the end of the year, Vanderbilt had kicked him out of school. Why? “It’s hard to say,” he says with a sly grin.
McAdams finished his undergrad degree at NYU, and he went on to finish all of a masters degree but the language requirement. He lived in the mid-’60s Greenwich Village of Dylan and Ginsberg, worked as a building super, and was introduced to the book trade by befriending some booksellers over on Fourth Street. He worked for a summer on Cape Cod unloading fish off the trawlers, an experience he wrote about for a State Department publication touting life in the United States-type slices of Americana. After NYU, he taught school for a few years in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to stay out of the way of the draft. He and his first wife were tempted back to the States when his in-laws offered them a farm in the Hamptons, Long Island but that came to an end when his wife left for the West Coast with some guy on a motorcycle, and McAdams started looking for a place to move his bookstore.
McAdams opened Daedelus Books in 1975. With his personality as a magnet, it quickly became a hub for some of the edgier more interesting people in town, many of whom were looking to make things happen. One of those was Philip Stafford. Stafford was born in Georgia but had done most of his growing up in Richmond. He attended UVA as an undergrad, but after a couple of years of the drinking and road trip social life, he tired of the frat-centric scene and wanted to get away. He went to Ann Arbor for law school partly because he’d heard that the student progressivism was more well-established there. He had some eye-opening experiences, one of which had to do with the new politics of food.
Younger generations may hate it, but it’s just a bald, inescapable fact that baby boomers started everything first. The foodie movement got its earliest start in the late ’60s as back to the land and political activism combined to take on factory farming and convenience foods. In Ann Arbor, Philip Stafford caught the bug. “The book that made a tremendous impression on me was Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe,” he says. “It was published in 1971 and I read it shortly after that. It contributed to my early interest in food, which in turn led to a career in food and wine. This was primarily a book with a political argument, but it was also a cookbook. Lappe argued that meat production wasted environmental resources that led to food scarcity. Her tone of suppressed rage caught the mood of the times, and in the second part of the book she provided dozens of vegetarian recipes. I removed meat from my diet, and started to learn how to cook.”
In 1974, Stafford returned to Charlottesville, interested in trying out small town life. He worked as a lawyer doing legal research for a time, but pretty soon he started talking about his desire to open a restaurant. His counter-cultural leanings had already brought him into contact with McAdams: “I was walking around, and I walked past Daedalus. I had been looking for this Aldous Huxley book for a long time. And I walked into this room—I can picture this pretty well to this day—this sort of eccentric looking guy walked up to me with a beard down to his waist, and sort of put his face up to me and said ‘What do you want?’ I said ‘I’m looking for this book The Art of Seeing by Aldous Huxley,’ and he said “It’s right over your shoulder.’ And he just reached over and handed it to me.”
Sometime after, a friend mentioned that she had heard that McAdams had some interest in a restaurant as well. So he went back to Daedelus and re-introduced himself. Within a few weeks, they had bought a building and were setting about to bring haute cuisine to the Downtown Mall.
The building was a little shell down by the old railroad station on Water Street. It had housed a greasy spoon for a while, and had formerly served as a bunk house for railroad workers. But it had potential. They found wood from a barn in Crozet to build what became the bar downstairs. Bricks and more wood came from the porch of a house being torn down on West Main. They cannibalized vintage beadboard from the old bunkhouse to create an austere, minimalist space that became the fine dining restaurant upstairs. Stafford was to be the food and wine guy. “What I brought was hard work,” says McAdams. “Sandy had the vision,” says Stafford. “I think instantly when he saw that C&O building and the way it looked he understood that would be a place. If we could do the right thing inside the building, plenty of people would in fact come and find us from anywhere.”
Indispensable training came from Claudine and Walker Cowen. The Cowens were gastrophiles, she a chef from Brittany, he the editor of the University Press of Virginia. “They took us by the hand and helped us into the world of fine dining,” Stafford says. “Walker gave life lessons, and Claudine held small classes in her home for the first chefs at the C&O.”
When they opened the C&O Restaurant in 1976, they had arrived at a formula that coupled ongoing training from the Cowens with exacting standards of quality and service. Jason Bell, who became a waiter and later a maître d’ upstairs at the C&O, remembers that “we all got this incredible Ranger boot camp training in food. You can’t play at this. You absolutely had to be able to understand an entire menu and deliver it every single night. You had to pronounce the French correctly, and understand the cooking principles involved.”
The experience, according to Bell, could be life changing. “Every man goes through at least one experience where they find out what it means to work hard and to be serious and to be ethical about what you were delivering,” says Bell. “That’s what the C&O was to me.”
Lightning struck when New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne came through town to meet the writer Peter Taylor, and Taylor took him down to the C&O. Surprised by the quality that he found there, Claiborne gave the restaurant a glowing column in the Times. And more national recognition followed.
A lawyer by training and a scruffy bohemian had put the Downtown Mall on the nationwide culinary map. But as just as important perhaps as the culinary success upstairs was the bar culture that developed downstairs. “It was a pretty glossy crew down there,” says Bell. “Everyone was really, really smart. It was a Paris, 1914 kind of thing.”
I used to make this snide joke when I first moved downtown in the late ’80s. Downtown shops, I would say, consisted of little boutiques run by the spouses of UVA professors with too much time on their hands and with money to burn. Not much of a joke, I know. Just a condescending piece of graduate student snark. I mention it with shame. Not my finest moment as a human being.
I don’t excuse it, but there’s a hint of something true in it. The truth is in that word boutique. There were starting to be a lot of them around—little antique shops, craft and art galleries, specialty shops with a narrow thematic or market focus. The scale was small, the vision was personal and the owner was often the person who greeted you when you walked through the door.
It turns out that was planned for and was the key to the mall’s ultimate success. Bill Lucy, a retired professor of urban planning at UVA, and a downtown resident himself, did a study a few years ago entitled Charlottesville’s Downtown Revitalization. Lucy talks about the approach taken by the city as playing “small ball,” a phrase that refers to the strategy in baseball of winning by focusing on small achievements. As Lucy puts it, you “activate the existing fabric with small investors and small entrepreneurs.” Instead of city block demolition, you get vintage buildings being rehabbed. Instead of chain superstores, you get bohemian creative types and mom and pop doing their thing.
Mom and pop are, quite literally, the folks who brought Williams Corner Bookstore into being. Michael Williams came here with his family in the ’60s, and went to Lane High School just as the school system was first resisting, then badly botching, efforts to fully integrate. Williams describes the demonstrations as he and 400 fellow students staged walkouts and demanded better treatment for their classmates as “one of the most empowering experiences of my life.”
In 1976, Williams’ parents decided to quit their library jobs and follow their dream to open a bookstore. They bought a building on Main Street that they had always been fond of, and Michael helped his family run the business. Besides becoming the best bookstore in town for paperbacks, fiction and poetry, the store’s reading series, which Williams inaugurated when a series at The Prism Coffeehouse closed down, became a signature literary offering downtown. For 20 years, until it closed in 1996 because of competition from the big chain Barnes & Noble, there existed an open conduit between the creative writing program at UVA and Williams Corner. Jason Bell, before he worked at the C&O, was a wunderkind poet, packing the house for readings at the store. Ann Beattie, Rita Mae Brown and a host of writers of national reputation gave readings there when they were in town. And students like Bell, as well as UVA faculty, had a generous local platform to bring exposure to their work. Like Anne Porotti and Chief Gordon, like McAdams and Stafford, the Williams family had “activated the existing fabric” to create a business that seriously upped the cultural texture of downtown life.
By 1981, at the old Miller’s Drug Store building two blocks away, Steve Tharp was busy doing the same thing. He had already started a restaurant on the UVA Corner, but that wasn’t the dream. “I had always fantasized about creating a jazz club kind of scene,” he says. “You know, everyone wants to be Humphrey Bogart in the corner with a dinner jacket. I had a thought that that might work here.” John D’earth, and members of his group Cosmology, became regular performers at the club, and momentum built that established Miller’s as the live music mecca downtown.
With music, film, literary events and a few vibrant bars and restaurants, there was now the strong beginning of a scene to draw people to downtown. There is a direct line from Vinegar Hill Theatre to the Virginia Film Festival. There is a direct line from Daedalus Books and the readings at Williams Corner to Charlottesville’s vibrant used book culture and the Festival of the Book. There is a direct line from Papercraft to the Virginia Arts of the Book. There is a direct line from jazz at Miller’s to concerts at the Pavilion. And there is a direct line from the C&O to the explosion of fine dining that has taken place downtown since.
It would be way overstating it to claim that these pioneers saved the Downtown Mall. Every one of the people I interviewed for this piece mentioned numerous other individuals, businesses, organizations and strategic decisions that went into creating the mall’s success. From other early restaurants like the Hardware Store and Court Square Tavern, to imaginative developers who fostered creativity like Gabe Silverman and the Kuttners, to civic events and organizations like McGuffey Arts Center, Live Arts, First Night and Fridays after Five. And it would be wrong to suggest that they changed everything, because there are important remainders of old Main Street still operating and contributing tradition and depth to the fabric of the mall—like Timberlake’s Drug Store, Tuel Jewelers, The Young Men’s Shop and New Dominion Bookshop.
But what they did was definitive. They pioneered downtown as an intellectual and artistic center—as the anti-university, as a place for fringe, disaffected creatives to live, work and play, and thrive. It was their bohemian sensibilities, combined with the vision of Charlottesville planners, and the transitional, underdeveloped nooks of real estate on the mall that combined to make that new version of downtown Charlottesville possible.