Friday, November 16, 2007

Staunton’s Historical Beauty

This month, TRR took a journey back in time while visiting Staunton, one of the best preserved Civil War era towns in Virginia. Located less than an hour north of campus, Staunton is an artistic haven, an architectural pleasure and an historical beauty that can easily be accomplished in a day’s activities.

Start your day at the Frontier Culture Museum, located just off of I-81 exit 222. This living history museum features five working farms that represent the daily lives and agricultural heritage of the people who immigrated to America.

After a stop at the desk of the visitor’s center inside the main building, be sure to see the movie that details how the buildings were dismantled in their native lands, shipped across the ocean or overland, and reconstructed here. In about two hours you can visit farms from Germany (1710), Northern Ireland (1730), England (1690), and two distant counties in Virginia (1773 & 1850).

After learning about the culture of early American farmers, head west to Staunton’s historical downtown. Don’t be fooled by the two miles of strip malls and other modern-day eyesores, just follow the signs to the historical downtown. After you cross under the railroad bridge, you’ll realize you have stepped back in time.

Park near the Visitor’s Center on New Street or in the adjacent garage. Everything you will want to see is within walking distance or available via the free trolley service that stops throughout downtown. If it is a nice day, take a walking tour of the city’s architecture after obtaining a copy of the “Self-Guided Tour of Staunton’s Historic Districts” which contains descriptions of 84 historical homes, buildings, and churches.

If its time for lunch, TRR recommends The Beverly Restaurant, just around the corner from the Visitor’s Center. It may seem like the d├ęcor has not changed since they opened in 1960, but the home-style menu and Southern hospitality at a terrific price cannot be matched.

While walking down Beverly Street, you will see one of the best preserved Civil War-era main streets in the South. Staunton was the gateway to the Shenandoah Valley, “the Breadbasket of the Confederacy,” because of its railroad link to eastern Virginia. Staunton was designated as a training center for troops and became a vital supply depot to the Confederate army. Amazingly, the city’s architecture was left largely intact by Union soldiers occupying the city in the summer of 1864.

Two blocks south you will find the historic train station where you can catch an Amtrak train to Washington, New York or Chicago three times a week. Be sure to climb the stairs and cross the iron pedestrian bridge over the tracks to take in the best view of the town. The station also houses two great restaurants - seafood and steaks at The Depot Grille or fine dining at The Pullman Restaurant. Other options can be found amongst the art galleries located in The Wharf buildings across the street.

Just west of the station, in a wonderfully preserved historic building, you will find Sunspots Studios, a perfect example of the many art studios and galleries in Staunton. At Sunspots, not only can you browse the one-of-a-kind pieces of art glass and copper, you can see them being created. In the back of the studio, you can watch the daily glass blowing demonstrations by artists who interact with the onlookers. We all agreed this stop was the highlight of our visit to Staunton.

Before returning to your vehicle, consider visiting one of the many other great attractions. On the same block as the Visitor’s Center you can find the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Blackfriars Playhouse. The hotel is a recently restored historical wonder offering luxurious accommodations at reasonable prices. The Playhouse is home to the renowned American Shakespeare Center (see review by John Powers?? from last month’s issue), a perfect end to the evening.

Two blocks north and east of the Visitor’s Center is the birthplace and Presidential Library of native son Woodrow Wilson, the first southern-born U.S. President elected after the Civil War. Finally, if you choose to embark on the Trolley, be sure to get off and enjoy Gypsy Hill Park, with its 214 acres of recreational areas, creeks, picnic areas and playgrounds.

The next time you find yourself seeking a day of entertainment, jump in you car and head to Staunton. I guarantee an enjoyable day of history, architecture, and the arts in a charming southern town.
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The Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia; www.frontier.virginia.gov/; 1290 Richmond Ave; (540) 332-7850; Open daily; $10 adults.

Staunton Visitor's Center; www.staunton.va.us/; 35 South New Street; (540) 332-3971; 9:30-5:30 Nov-Mar, 9-6:30 Apr-Oct; Info on all Staunton attractions.

Self Guided Walking Tour; www.virginia.org/site/description.asp?attrID=31649; Obtain pamphlet/map from Visitor’s Center

The Beverley Restaurant; www.thebeverleyrestaurant.com/; 12 E. Beverley St; (540) 886-4317; Open Mon-Fri breakfast, lunch & early dinner and Sat breakfast & lunch

Sunspots Studios; www.sunspots.com/; 202 South Lewis Street; (540) 885-0678; Free to the public; Open daily, Glass Blowing Demonstrations most days.