A biography of Charlottesville’s coal tower

A view of Charlottesville's coal tower. Photo: Jack Looney A view of Charlottesville’s coal tower. Photo: Jack Looney

A partly cloudy day, late March, unseasonably warm. Two men look up as I step into a small clearing in the woods beyond the coal tower.

“Hope I’m not bothering you.”

“It’s cool,” one of them says. He moves over on the makeshift bench so I have room to sit down.

“I saw you taking pictures,” he says. “You know two kids were killed here?”

I know, and that’s part of the reason I’m there. But only part of it.

Surviving structures from the age of the steam locomotive are increasingly rare. They’ve been torn down for safety reasons or because they’re standing in the way of progress.
Six coaling towers, as the railroad called them, remain in Virginia and two of them, in Lynchburg and in Clifton Forge, are still in use. The rest, like the one that stands between East Market Street and the railroad tracks, are relics, analog structures in a digital world.

In 1942, the Ogle Construction Company built the 91’-tall, concrete coaling tower, capable of holding 300 tons of coal, that still stands between East Market Street and the CSX railroad tracks today. (Photo by John Robinson)

The railroads rose and fell, and the view from the tower changed from a landscape of ash and steel to one of corporate offices, condominium complexes, and parking lots. The coal tower has seen our city come of age; it’s been a muse to street kids, artists, and developers; and every now and then it has stood silent witness to the human desperation laid at its feet.

I know this guy named Lucky. He’s a friend of a friend, short, with black hair going gray, and basically homeless. Many times on dark nights in Belmont when the stars were spinning and we’d all pushed it a little too far over the line, he would start to rage about the coal tower. “That thing’s evil,” he’d say. “They should just tear it down.”

Should we? Tear it down, I mean? Or would we be losing something we can never get back?

Railroad town
High up on the hard, gray body of the tower there’s graffiti that reads, “Out of Site [sic], Out of Mind.” After the C&O train station on Water Street shut down, it was possible to live in Charlottesville your whole life and never know the coal tower existed. But there was a time when it was at the center of everything. When the C&O freight yard finally closed in 1986, Fred Compston, the last trainmaster to run the yard, addressed the Charlottesville City Council.

“I remember as a kid growing up in Kentucky along the Ohio River,” he said. “And if you stood on top of a hill, you could see the coal train with the steam engine spouting white smoke. It was beautiful.”

In many ways the railroad made our city. The first train pulled into Charlottesville on June 27, 1850, arriving at the newly built station at the east end of town. It was, I assume, moving some sort of cargo. Corn, maybe, or tobacco. Albemarle County was the biggest corn producer in Virginia at the time, and in 1850 the county grew 1.5 million pounds of tobacco. Or maybe it was carrying coal. The second commercial railroad in the country was in Virginia, built to shuttle coal from the mines near Richmond to the factories along the James River. Corn, coal, and cigarettes. American as red, white, and blue.

The Louisa Railroad was started in 1836, its tracks laid westward from the town of Doswell, hitting Louisa in 1838 and reaching Gordonsville in 1840. The route was supposed to proceed northwest to Harrisonburg and then across the Blue Ridge Mountains at Swift Run Gap, but that plan was deemed too expensive. So the tracks were re-routed through Charlottesville, crossing the mountains near Afton via Claudius Crozet’s famed Blue Ridge Tunnel, built by Irish workers who earned $1.25 a day to dig through a mile of solid granite using only picks, hand drills, and black powder. By the time the tracks rea

ched Charlottesville in 1850, the line’s name had changed to the Virginia Central Railroad.Huddled on the banks of the mighty James, the town of Scottsville had long been Albemarle County’s transportation hub. The James River and Kanawha Canal, begun in 1785, was Scottsville’s big bid for transportation supremacy, but it was only half finished by 1851, and the railroad was in ascension. After the Civil War, Scottsville and the canal sunk into obscurity. It was suddenly a brand new, steam-and-coal-powered, Charlottesville-centered world.

Prior to 1850, traveling from Richmond to Charlottesville took all day and involved hopping off the train in Taylorsville to hitch a ride the rest of the way on a stagecoach. After 1850, you could take the train the whole way and make it to C’ville in time for lunch. The population of Charlottesville subsequently jumped from 1,890 in 1850 to 2,600 in 1853, and the University of Virginia, which in 1855 got its own train station, saw its enrollment increase by almost 300 students over the next few years.

In 1864, Union General Philip H. Sheridan was sent into Virginia with orders to “[do] all the damage to railroads and crops that you can.…we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.” Sheridan’s campaign through the valley was called “The Burning,” and although Charlottesville was basically left alone, Sheridan did drop in and burn down the train station.

When the war ended, the station was rebuilt, and by 1870, Charlottesville was the busiest stop on what was now called The Chesapeake & Ohio line. In 1905, the wooden station was replaced by a grand, colonial mansion, brick with white columns, signifying the importance of the railroad in a newly powerful America. Thirteen trains a day were running through town by the 1920s. The Charlottesville freight yard was crowded, busy and big, covering the entire area between East Market Street, Carlton Road, and the end of the Downtown Mall. There was a semi-circular building called a roundhouse where the trains were serviced, a sand tower, a water tank, several wooden tool houses, an inspection pit, and a 115′ wooden turntable where engines could be turned around and sent back down one of the many tracks reaching out like fingers.

The first steam locomotives ran on wood, a few on oil, but after the Civil War, coal became the railroad’s dominant energy source. So you needed coal and you needed a way to get it into the trains. At first, stations relied on a pile of coal and men with shovels, but by the end of the 19th century, most train depots had elaborate towers to house and dispense coal to the waiting trains. Early towers were made of wood, later towers steel or concrete. By the 1940s, some stations had towers that stood hundreds of feet high and spanned multiple tracks. The Charlottesville station had a wooden coaling tower originally, until in 1942 the Ogle Construction Company built a 91′-tall, concrete bullet capable of holding 300 tons of coal.

Even as they hit their peak, the writing was on the wall for steam-powered trains. As early as 1910 they began to be replaced by cleaner, easier to use diesel trains; by the ’50s the demise of the steam locomotive was basically a fait accompli. Railroad traffic declined through the 1960s and ’70s. In 1979, Amtrak moved its operations to Union Station on Main Street, and three years later, commercial trains ceased stopping at the Charlottesville C&O station altogether. In 1986, after 136 years of service, the station was shut down despite protests from local members of the National Railway Historical Society, who’d been running nostalgia trips through the station since 1964. The turntable and most of the yard were destroyed the following year, leaving the tower standing alone beside a significantly smaller number of tracks, while the station, converted into offices, sits across from the Transit Center, facing its replacement.

In 1995, Live Arts Theater executive director, Will Kerner, and artistic director, John Gibson, worked together to organize a play at the coal tower. Written in 1956 by a Swiss playwright, The Visit starts and ends at a train station and deals with a small town confronting the influence of wealth. (Courtesy Live Arts)


Negative space
Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “The Vacant Lot” begins: “Mrs. Coley’s three-flat brick/Isn’t here any more.” A vacant lot is a place where something no longer is, where a part of the city has disappeared and never been replaced. It’s a romantic term, “vacant lot,” something from the 1950s, from an episode of “Leave it to Beaver.” In a city’s negative spaces, kids find places to play, to hide, to kick rocks and search for mystery.

When I was growing up, vacant lots were more likely places where kids went to have sex, get high, and search for ways to hurt themselves. The small island of dirt, woods, and trash where the coal tower still stands, east of downtown and west of the highway, was certainly such a place.

You can see it if you’re standing in front of Mas or crossing the Belmont bridge. It’s been called a “landmark” and an “icon for the Charlottesville downtown,” in various articles and blogs, and in 2008 it was designated as one of 74 Individually Protected Properties in the City of Charlottesville, which means it can’t be altered or demolished without a public notice and review.

Currently there’s little in the way of protection, save for a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire that forms a tight square around the base of the tower. The surrounding ground is covered with broken glass, mostly from bottles of beer, and every manner of convenience store trash. Old clothes, cardboard, the remains of campfires, and a few piles of what look to be human shit. There’s also a whole hell of a lot of leftover coal.

In 1995, Oliver Kuttner bought the coal tower and the roughly 10.7 acre of woods, dirt, and trash that surrounded it. From his office in the old Skatetown building on East Market Street, he had a perfect view of the tower as it loomed above the warehouses on the other side of the road. He’d always liked it, and so when he had the chance he bought it from the city for the bargain price of $10,000.

The place was wild, overgrown. There was no clear path to the tower. Kuttner built a rough road there and did some landscaping. He planted trees and a row of boxwoods.

Originally he wanted to turn the tower into a house and live there himself. (What else does a big kid do with a vacant lot but build a fort?) The idea soon expanded to include a 30,000 square foot building with offices and apartments. What he wanted was to build a neighborhood, the same way he did when his Glass Building led to the small but vibrant “warehouse district” across the tracks on Garrett Street.

The city wanted an official plan, but that’s not really Kuttner’s thing. Neighborhoods, he says, should grow organically. The city didn’t agree, and Kuttner’s dream of living in the coal tower came to naught.

The same year that Kuttner bought the tower, John Gibson was living in San Francisco. He’d been in Charlottesville before that, working at Live Arts Theater, and he was about to head back to serve as interim artistic director (a job that wound up lasting 15 years.) Will Kerner, the theater’s executive director, had previously suggested that they find a play to perform at the abandoned coal tower. Gibson walked into a used bookstore and bought a copy of the play The Visit. He sat on the sidewalk outside the store and read the whole thing cover to cover, and when he was done he had a vision, 3,000 miles away, of a complete production at the old coal tower.

Written in 1956 by a Swiss playwright, The Visit starts and ends at a train station. A wealthy woman arrives in her small hometown of Guellen, a name loosely translated as “shit,” and offers to make the townspeople rich if they’ll kill the most popular man in town. In the play, the townspeople faced a moral dilemma, one that forced them to question who they, as a community, were.

“It was coincident with a time when property values were rising and lots of people had questions about Charlottesville selling out,” Gibson said. “I didn’t equate [the play] with Charlottesville, but it certainly felt resonant at that time.”

Artist Chrissy Baucom was living Downtown, and on lazy summer days she would ride her bike or walk along the tracks to the old coal tower, where she would sit and draw, waving at the engineers as they rumbled by, high and lonesome in the cockpits of their trains. Back then the east end of the Mall was undeveloped and open, and the tower, she says, “stood alone, surrounded by trees like a beacon.”

In 1994, she sat and painted the tower in oil, outlining it in black on a red and yellow sky. The following year that painting was used as the cover of a local music compilation called Dear Charlottesville, (comma included), lending the tower a vague patina of cool. The CD and accompanying live shows (one at Live Arts and another at the old Prism Coffeehouse) were largely organized by C-VILLE Weekly owner Bill Chapman as a benefit for radio station WTJU.
Chapman doesn’t remember any particular reason why the painting of the coal tower was picked for the cover, except that it was a CD of local music and the tower was, in his words, a “local landmark.”

When he returned to Charlottesville, John Gibson moved back into the same apartment he’d lived in before in the 500 Court Square building. Built in 1924 as the Monticello Hotel, it was, at nine stories, Charlottesville’s first “skyscraper.” Gibson’s apartment was on the sixth floor, facing south, and in the mornings he had a clear view of the sun rising over the concrete monolith jutting out of the trees down by the railroad tracks.

The vision of a play at the coal tower became a reality in July of 1996. It was not easily done, as simply securing the site proved difficult. Oliver Kuttner was very willing to host a play on his land, even pitching in to help with the landscaping. But because of the nearby train tracks, a complicated series of permissions had to be sought from the City, CSX (the current incarnation of the C&O railroad), and a company offering scenic train rides that held some kind of right of way to the tracks.

A suitable path had to be built and the undergrowth weed-whacked. Twenty-five tons of gravel was spread on the surrounding ground. Local private school St. Anne’s-Belfield donated a full set of bleachers, which were hauled across town on a truck and lifted by crane into position at the site. There were portable restrooms and a ticket booth. Electricity was donated by the owner of one of the businesses below the tower on East Market Street and a crew of workers from Sprint set up three telephone poles.

“It was a brutally hot summer,” Gibson remembered. “The backstage was the underneath of the coal tower, and it was like a refugee camp. It was beyond squalor.”

There were, naturally, still trains running along the tracks, and the actors developed what Gibson called “train pace.”

“The cast would get the signal and they would double their pace trying to finish whatever scene they were in before the train arrived. And if they were unsuccessful, they held in place and just waited. … [T]hey would just stand there for 10 or 15 minutes, and the audience stood there, and we all just took a collective pause, and it was beautiful, and the train would pass and the noise would subside and we would carry on.”

The coal tower lent the proceedings a unique atmosphere. In a Daily Progress article from that summer, cast member Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell said the site “gave off a feeling of ancient ruins.” Kay Ferguson, who played the lead role, said the tower produced “a slight sense of unease.”

“You’re not quite within your world here,” Ferguson said. “You see these big things hanging over you that might fall down and kill you.” Not, as it turned out, an idle fear, as one night several tons of coal came pouring out of the tower, landing on the exact spot just vacated by an actor.

The day after the near-disaster, Gibson and a few other crew members went back to shovel the mountain of coal off the stage. In the daylight they could see that the pile was only about half coal, the rest of the debris consisted of the bodies of dozens of dead pigeons. “It was like the graveyard of the elephants,” Gibson said. “Generations of pigeons had died and had filled up the space. The pigeons were the residents of the coal tower then.”

They had run electricity up the tower, put lights all over it and even inside it, so that at a climactic moment, the tower would burn with light. It’s a moment that he remembers very clearly, “the first time we flipped the switch and they all came on and that thing was a lit part of the Charlottesville landscape for the first time in a long, long time. And it was so moving and so beautiful.”

(Photo by John Robinson)


Dark tower
“The tower has become a hangout for homeless people and local youths, and the property is strewn with construction debris and signs of habitation, including blankets, empty bottles and food wrappers. The area also has a reputation as a meeting place for drug users…” – The Daily Progress, Aug 23, 2001.

After The Visit, the path to the tower was suddenly clear, and the area became easily accessible to anyone looking for a place to get a little lost. When he was first dreaming of living there himself, Oliver Kuttner ran into a couple of kids who hung out there regularly and asked them if they wanted to help clean it up for a little money. They said yes, and they did, impressing Kuttner by admitting that they’d only worked two hours and spent the rest of the day goofing off. Today, those two kids are landlords and business partners with Kuttner down in Lynchburg.

My friend Lucky was born in Charlottesville in 1959. He grew up on South Street in a two-story house, now torn down. The house had an old coal bin in the basement, and he remembers the coal sheds down at the railroad yard where his granddad used to hang out, often taking Lucky with him. When he looks now at pictures of the place from the ’30s and ’40s, they remind him of what it looked like when he was a kid, fully operational, filled with trains, everything covered with oil and coal dust. It was a rough area, a dangerous place, at least in the mind of a little boy.

There was still passenger service at the C&O station through the ‘70s, but Lucky never rode the train. When he was 10, his family moved to Crozet. As a teenager in the ’70s, he would come into town to party, and sometimes late at night when he couldn’t make it back home he’d sneak into the train station, lay down on one of the benches, curl up and go to sleep. Many years later, after time in Baltimore and time in prison, he’d find himself sleeping there again, underneath the abandoned coal tower.

“It’s not a real healthy place to stay,” he told me. “People urinate, crap.”

I asked him if it’s scary to sleep there.

“Well I guess it would be for somebody that wasn’t used to it,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. It doesn’t bother me, you just gotta be aware of what’s going on around you. Other people coming up and down the tracks. You don’t want to get over friendly, especially if you got anything. If you got booze, or money, or something like that, it’s not a good place to get caught.”

There have been many nights over the years when Lucky has spent the night at the tower, either because he had no home at the time, or because his wife had kicked him out of whatever house they’d been staying in.

“A lot of my adventures came through this way. For me it was just a place to drink and smoke dope,” he said.

Until very recently, there was a staircase that wound around the tower, allowing access to the main coal compartments as well as the small room at the top. Lucky says his brother-in-law claims to have been inside the tower, but Lucky never has. The staircase is now gone, the tower surrounded with a chain link fence. Getting inside would take a lot of effort.
Somewhere between 1996 and 2001 the coal tower became a familiar place for mall kids, gutter punks, and the homeless. A lot of people, young and old, lived there over the years and many more went there to get stoned, get drunk, or just get away. Twenty-year-old Craig Nordenson was one of those kids, said to live on and off inside the coal tower. “That’s like his favorite place,” his half-brother Mike would later tell the press. Nordenson, he said, was a “victim of society.”

There were kids hanging out near the coal tower early in the morning of Saturday, August 18, 2001. Lucky, his brother-in-law, and a friend were there stealing 2’x4’s from big stacks beside the tracks.

“I heard ’em, they were, you know, laughin’ hee, hee, hee, hee, and they had a little dog, yappin’. And well, they weren’t botherin’ us, so we didn’t bother nobody. And sure enough, a couple three hours later, next thing you know, you could hear the gun. Me and my brother-in-law, we were still outside, you could hear the gun when it went off, pow, pow.”

Katherine Johnson was 16, Marcus Griffin was 23, and Arthur Woodward was 24. They were sitting in the darkness by the tower drinking whiskey. Nordenson thought Woodward had heroin and wanted to steal it. He walked towards them with a gun and the three kids ran. Nordenson followed, shot Johnson near the tower and then hid. When Griffin and Woodward came back, he shot Griffin. Woodward got away.

The police searched the coal tower Saturday. By Sunday they had heard the name “Craig Nordenson,” and so they searched the tower again.

Monday night they think they have him. He’s hidden inside the tower. They crowd around it, flashlights pointed upwards. Someone up there fires a gun down at them. A helicopter hangs in the sky at midnight. The tower is ablaze.

Infrared scanners show something warm curled and waiting high up in the top of the tower. A policeman crawls up inside. Around 2am bystanders on the bridge hear several shots. The night drags on.

Tuesday morning there’s still no sign of Nordenson. The police bring ladders and search the tower’s many nooks and crannies. They find nothing. They fill the area with tear gas, but Nordenson is already gone, running across the roof of nearby Wayne Oxygen and across Market Street to Jefferson, where he hides in a shed in somebody’s yard. There’s another standoff, negotiations, the police give him a Whopper, Mountain Dew, and cigarettes, and then they fire more tear gas. Nordenson surrenders, shirtless, and smoking. He pleads guilty. He says he stole the gun from his brother because he wanted to kill himself.

John Gibson watched the standoff at the tower from his apartment. “We saw the helicopters, we saw the whole thing. It was horrific.…I had an intimate connection with that place, I had bled on that ground, and to know that I had bled there for art, and that was not the last blood shed there, was a deeply unsettling feeling.”

The shootings in 2001 altered the way the coal tower was seen by many people in town. It became the “infamous” coal tower, a place inhabited by bums and junkies and those scary kids. From then on, when the tower was mentioned, it was always in the context of two things, the crime that was its present, and the development that was to be its future.
On July 30, 2010, Kevin Morrissey, the managing editor of UVA’s award winning literary magazine The Virginia Quarterly Review, walked out to the coal tower and called 911 to report a shooting. Then he shot himself in the head.

Why he killed himself is a question that has been and will be discussed endlessly. What I wonder is why he picked the coal tower, a place that, despite its isolation, is ultimately intensely public. Was it a practical choice? Was there some connection between that tragic place and the tragedy he held inside? Maybe, like many other creative people over the years, he was drawn there. Or maybe he found himself there accidentally, washed up by the current that propels so many lost souls.

In the seven-year period between 2003 and 2010, crime records show there were two reported suicides in the area near the coal tower. There were six incidents of vandalism, five thefts from vehicles, two drug violations, two assaults, and one rape. This is by no means a complete count. Not on that list is the 2005 beating and attempted rape of a woman by three men, right there on the tracks by the tower.

A partly cloudy day in late March. James and Joe are sitting in the woods behind the tower on two makeshift benches, passing the butt-end of a cigarette and a 40-ounce bottle of beer.
“I saw you taking pictures,” James says to me when I walk up. “You know two kids were killed here?”

Both of them are homeless. They’re not here all the time, but they’re here often. James is wearing jeans, hiking boots, and a black t-shirt. He has red hair and a beard going gray, skin covered in freckles and homemade tattoos. His face is red and blotchy, a mess of scabs, but his eyes are a beautiful blue, a light, weightless blue, like the upper reaches of the atmosphere where the air grows thin.

“I was there that night,” James says. He was right behind the coal tower when he heard a gunshot. “I got scared,” he says, “I heard her scream. He shot her first. Then he told the boy, ‘Get down on your knees motherfucker! How you like me now?’”

James and Joe pull out a fresh 40. James tells me that he knew the young girl who was shot, Katy Johnson, that she seemed very nice. I ask if he knew the guy who shot her.
“No. If I did, I’d have shot him. You don’t kill a 16-year-old girl. Now he’s facing life without parole.”

“Like Huguely,” Joe says. “He shouldn’t have killed that girl.”

“[Huguely’s] got 26 years,” James says, “Unless the judge drops his sentence.” I ask if he thinks that will happen and James gives me a look. “With all the money that family has?”
James was born here in the 1950s. He remembers when the coal tower was still operating, how the trains would pull up underneath and the belly of the tower would open up and rain black dust down.

“It used to have two lights up on top. You could see them from Ridge Street.”

He and Joe sleep out there some nights.

“Me and that tower are kin,” James says.

Lucky, 59 years old and “basicaly homeless,” grew up on South Street in Charlottesville and has, over the past two decades, spent many nights hanging out at the coal tower. “A lot of my adventures came through this way. For me it was just a place to drink and smoke dope,” he said. (Photo by John Robinson)

Marking time
Should our tragic places be erased? It’s a question that’s been asked about the St. Clair Avenue house where 26-year-old Jayne McGowan was murdered in 2007, and about Yeardley Love’s 14th Street apartment, but the answer’s probably obvious. In 2002, a 19-year-old man fell backwards out the window of a loft above the Downtown Mall, brushed an outdoor table at Hamilton’s and landed on the bricks. Somebody has died everywhere.
Oliver Kuttner sold the tower property to Coran Capshaw in 2003 for $5.48 million, a lot more than he paid for it. Capshaw planned to develop the property as well, keeping the coal tower and adding four buildings, one nine stories tall, with houses, condos, restaurants, and parking lots. In 2007 the initial plans were O.K.-ed by the city, and the Coal Tower development, said to be the biggest in the city’s history, seemed to be finally moving forward.

When the financial shit hit the national fan in 2008, the plans were toned down a bit. From The Daily Progress in 2009:

“A new preliminary site plan shows a project that is purely residential, with one- and two-bedroom condominiums spread out over four 50′-tall buildings. Three of the buildings measure 31,681 square feet each, while the fourth is a whopping 332,728 square feet. Also shown is a parking garage with 453 vehicle and 151 bicycle spaces.”

In 2011, Capshaw’s coal tower project was renamed City Walk and given a new emphasis on “connectivity.” The plan was for Water Street to be extended through to Meade Avenue and for biking and walking trails to go in everywhere. People would live there and ride bikes and walk dogs and push strollers around their family friendly new home. News reports said construction was slated to begin in 2012.

So far, there’s no sign of change at the tower. A muddy road already connects Water Street to Meade. Walking along it on a recent rainy day at dusk I saw the bones of a dead animal wrapped in black plastic, three or four rotting mattresses, broken computers, and a white cat that glared at me from underneath a blooming dogwood tree. For such a small piece of land, there’s a surprising amount of wilderness. Smaller trails break off from the main road and disappear into dense thickets.

Down one of them there’s a clearing with a makeshift camp and a dark shape that turns out to be a man hunched over in a poncho. From somewhere behind me, near the spot where I’d talked with James and Joe, I hear voices. I turn and leave.

The coal tower is a vacant lot with a long history, a dark spot on our city’s map. There’s a shattered mosaic of issues that surround the tower, from the fight over what to do about the crumbling Belmont bridge, to the city’s seemingly endless thirst for Downtown condos, to the inconvenient truths of crime, trash, and homelessness. Ultimately, the coal tower is tangential to all of this. Little depends on whether we tear it down or not.

Except, of course, for those of us who have a romantic attachment to the past. It seems entirely antithetical to the way the world is meant to work, shunning change and forward movement and clinging futilely to things long since meant to have died. Our town, which still asks with a straight face what Thomas Jefferson would do in any given situation, seems especially prone to the disease of nostalgia.

And that’s ultimately all the coal tower is, a totem to the past. It stands nestled in a copse of trees a stone’s throw from LexisNexis and SNL, two businesses whose work completely defines our times. The coal tower, on the other hand, serves no purpose and has no meaning in the modern world. The real reason it’s survived all these years is probably that it would be very expensive to destroy.

Lucky asked me one day what I thought should be done with the tower, and at the time I didn’t have a good answer, except to lamely say that every town needed secret places to sneak off and get high. What I should have said was that I see the coal tower as a headstone, marking the death, not only of Katherine Johnson, Marcus Griffin, and Kevin Morrissey, but also of Charlottesville’s industrial past. And maybe, though it might be a stretch, of some mythical golden age before houses downtown became unaffordable and bohemia became fashionable. And if we tear down or obscure our headstones, then there’s no way to find our dead.

I think this is a better way to put it: When Chrissy Baucom painted the tower in 1994, she did so because she liked its sense of decaying history. It represented, she said, “old Charlottesville, the place I fell in love with, a sleepy Southern town that felt almost magical.” The coal tower is a reminder of so much of our town’s past, and as we forge ahead towards our future, those reminders become increasingly valuable.

“The painting I did was about the grand spirit of the building, not the awful things that people did inside of it.” The building, Baucom said, is no less beautiful. It’s Charlottesville that has gotten uglier.

Editor’s note: For reasons that had to do with the space allotted to the story and its narrative flow, I edited out portions of this story that would have made it more comprehensive. A reader suggested that we’d forgotten about one particular phase of the coal tower’s artistic history, so I’ve added back this paragraph as an appendix…

* In the summer of 2000, as part of a UVA sponsored art exhibit called Hindsight/Foresight: Art for the New Millennium, artist Todd Murphy stuck a huge steel frame on top of the tower and draped it with a flowing white dress. The piece was described as “a nameless faceless monument in honor of Sally Hemings.” It was beautiful in many ways, its ends lifted up by the breeze, its body rendered translucent by the setting sun, but for the most part the sculpture was met by locals with bemused confusion. It was the last major piece of art to involve the tower, and although the dress is gone, the steel frame is still there.

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