32 Reasons to Love Lexington

From thinkers and makers to doers and risk-takers, Lexington is putting on a fresh face. Today, this once sleepy college town, where Lee and Jackson still loom large, is fast becoming a newly intriguing destination.

The details are telling—early edition Dickens by the bed at an inn, steaming risotto served in local earthenware bowls at a café, a bit of jazz floating on the sidewalk on Main Street. If Lexington would like to position itself as a thinking person’s destination, it’s making some notable inroads.

This was once a hamlet, then a town, now a city, in a county that’s one-third national forest. One broad, crenelated skyline holds posts and flagpoles; another looking south brims with trees and steeples. Farmers and artists mingle with professors from Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute, where top-tier students yield a long legacy of achievement. For the most part, Lexington thinks well of itself and, in its own gentle way, gets the visitor to agree.

It starts with the speaking tradition, a long honored expectation that students and adults will make eye contact—that people will speak and likely know who they’re addressing. It is the ethos of acknowledgement, “a sense that we’re all related somehow,” as one resident puts it. Thus, rights are mostly respected, but secrets are hard to keep, setting up a polite tension of informed opinions.

There is civility and precision and critical thinking, and no lack of ambition. A list of Lexington’s achievers includes a world-renowned photographer, one of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists, a pair of professors turned brewers, and the champion for a newly-resurrected beloved local music venue.

The cerebral and sensory stimuli around town are weighty: rare firearms in the VMI Museum, the kitchen garden of Stonewall Jackson, summer concerts in a quarry, a bookshop exploding with material for all manner of study. There’s something beneath the surface here, an internal geology that rewards effort, but prefers humility. A good time can be had, and will likely resonate well beyond the staying.

This is our guide to the people and places of a changing Lexington, where new finesse meshes with longstanding traditions of hospitality.

Optimists, Entrepreneurs & Makers

Lexington “is like living in the middle of a landscape painting,” says plein air artist Jean Marie Tremmel. She paints outdoors in all seasons, finding new fields and foothills to capture with groups or alone. Tremmel and her husband, sculptor T.J. Tremmel, formed WareHouse in the fledgling Industrial & Arts District downtown, where they’ve converted an old building into multi-generational housing and art studios. An adjacent gallery shows their pieces in clay, walnut, soapstone and oil. A Mother’s Day studio tour is always well attended.

Cabell Gorman opened an art gallery downtown in September, joining nine others showing local and outside artists to a growing audience. “My job is to bring joy to people’s lives through art,” Gorman says, and she has turned an old hair salon into a sparkling storefront, Cabell Gallery, that’s part of the First Fridays art openings.

Native son and esteemed painter Cy Twombly, the only 20th-century artist with a permanent installation in the Louvre, who died in Rome in 2011, remains among the city’s most prominent cultural figures. Photographer Sally Mann continues to dazzle the art world with her lyrical images and narrative writings from a farm near town, where locals still recall her physician father, and where her husband is city attorney.

Beyond art, the Virginia Horse Center “is one of my favorite things,” Cabell Gorman says of the sprawling facility nearby. “People who aren’t familiar with Lexington may not know about it, but you can go to the rodeo, or a hunter-jumper show or a mustang rally—just really interesting things that people might not know are happening in our state. There’s a different sense of life and activity and involvement, and you can’t miss that.”  

Spencer McElroy, a 27-year-old W&L graduate, led the charge to reclaim an outdoor music venue, Lime Kiln, with a board of volunteers primed to present good music. The site is captivating, he says. “You go in, and you’re in a 12-acre park with old kilns and huge 50-foot quarry cliffs and old log cabins. It’s just really cool, a hidden gem three minutes from downtown. And the bands share that feeling—they don’t normally play at places like that, so a lot of energy is created.” The venue, first opened for performances in 1967 by W&L students, has climbed from insolvency two years ago to sell-out crowds for sought-after acts. Sponsors are lining up for a slate of 2015 performances, and board members are considered local heroes.

Northern Virginians Lai and Betsy Lee picked Lexington for their business incubator, Start Here, and turned a 1920s building into shared retail and office space. “There’s so much untapped potential here,” says Lai Lee. Now, with the city’s fiber optics backbone in place for the past two years, “and with the natural beauty and great universities,” he continues, “why isn’t everybody coming here?” He points to yearly Entrepreneurial Summit pitch competitions, led by W&L professor Jeff Shay, that get student juices flowing; some of the winning concepts are already on the market.

The Lexington shopping experience is hands-on, with local owners present and visible in their stores. Among the options: major daily newspapers and business journals at The Bookery, locally-roasted beans at Lexington Coffee Roasters, and confections and gifts from a number of specialty shops. Pumpkinseeds is a fashion boutique run by Siobhan Deeds, wife of state Sen. Creigh Deeds, its sign outside proclaiming it the “cutest darn store ever” and its goods a spirited mix. Nearby shopkeepers offer antiques, jewels, garden goods, clothing and kitchenware, and an appreciation for the sale.

“One of the really nice things about this place is that it is extraordinarily tolerant,” says Douglas Harwood, who publishes the monthly Rockbridge Advocate. “As long as you’re not in somebody’s face with unacceptable behavior, we pretty much put up with each other’s foibles and quirks. It’s an accepting place with huge educational and cultural disparities, religious disparities, but everybody learns to get along. If it were less diverse, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.”

Harwood is known for riling things up with reporting and commentary under the paper’s motto, “Independent as a hog on ice.” Sacred cows may not be amused, but Harwood has landed in the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame for his efforts. The W&L alum’s Saturday night radio show on campus station WLUR, now in its 43rd year, plays music from ancient Greece to modern America. And Harwood is the keeper of such intel as students’ habit of rubbing for luck a certain part of the George Washington statue, and the resulting need for it to be repaired on more than one occasion.

The Art of Hospitality

Over on Main Street, refurbished buildings are unmistakable signs of change. The six-story Robert E. Lee Hotel, built in 1926 and restored last year by developer Ugo Benincasa, hosts an occasional dinner theater and plenty of weddings in its ballroom. Upstairs, the savory Italian restaurant Rocca comes with a balcony for starry nights and orecchiette sometimes served by Christine Taylor, a resident who home-schools her 10 children and now works for one of them in the restaurant.

Then comes The Georges, a posh two-building boutique hotel created in 2014 by VMI alumnus Teddy Gottwald and his wife Ann Parker Gottwald, who have introduced a chic, comfortable glamour to these historic environs. (Guests must book well in advance for reunion weekends.) Hand-picked books on the nightstands in 18 guest rooms, sumptuous tiled and papered washrooms and an assured touch from reception to departure show off a high standard. Pastries and local-foods breakfasts are set next to a two-sided stone fireplace, and fresh flowers are the perpetual amusement of innkeeper Tina McCarthy. Laughter is encouraged, but quiet is available.

The Georges’ attached piano bar and lounge, Haywood’s, is designed as a tribute to Ann Parker’s jazz-loving father. It has fast become a social force with a corner window vantage, chef Chris Jack’s enticing menu of bisque and brisket and its embrace of local musicians.

W&L music technologist and performer Graham Spice is one: “It’s fantastic to have a place like Haywood’s where I can play. It may be background music to some, but I’m thrilled that it’s a possibility. And I would say it’s a harbinger of the energy here—that Lexington is getting its swagger.” Spice views the scene as a native son who left for Nashville and returned to town to raise a family. “It’s not up to our parents’ generation to maintain the culture,” he says of recent momentum. “And this does feel like something new and exciting.”

As in other trendy places, local foods predominate on Lexington menus, with farmers on a first-name basis with young chefs and restaurant owners. Exemplars of the movement in addition to Haywood’s include The Red Hen downtown, where chef Matt Adams and his pastry chef wife Becca Norris Adams turn out succulence with charm, brewing their own ginger beer and bitters, sourcing local fresh game, fish and produce and respecting their regional origins.

The same is true for an unlikelier outpost tucked inside the YMCA, Kind Roots Café, where customers can buy duck and chicken eggs by the dozen or experience high-flavor heartiness, vegan to bacon, among a cadre of regulars. Jonathan and Sarah Cummings started the business three years ago “to put the best possible product on the plate,” Jonathan says, “and to make healthy food absolutely amazing. We’re a family-oriented spot that wants to give the community good food and to spend our money on good products” that are responsibly raised nearby.

Pure Eats, in a former gas station, is popular for grass-fed beef burgers, fresh doughnuts and Homestead Creamery milkshakes on a patio in the center of town. The list goes on, from piquant tacos at Mano to bluegrass and muffins at Sweet Treats to polished comfort specials at the Bistro on Main and the venerable but updated Southern Inn, its anachronistic red neon sign proof that time needn’t change everything.

Pronto makes pitch-perfect croissants and gelato, and Meg Hall, sometimes known as the cheese savant, turned hobby into career selling artisan oils and cheeses, including a prized 7-year Quebec cheddar, at Cheese To You. Organic and vegetarian foods at Counter Culture Cafe get a fair share of faculty business, and other dining rooms and watering holes keep the independent spirit alive with the graciousness of another era, but the additive-free consciousness of now.

Breweries are impossible to miss, particularly the massive new Devils Backbone plant on the northern edge of town, both catalyst and indicator of economic progress. Five years earlier, two W&L professors started Blue Lab Brewing Company, a micro-brewery and tap room, adding a well-supported diversion with guitars and tastings year-round. The Shenandoah Beerwerks Trail maps 13 breweries from Harrisonburg to Natural Bridge, including Devils Backbone and Blue Lab Brewing Company. (Editors’ note: as of Aug. 9, 2017, Blue Lab is temporarily closed while they search for a new location. Please refer to their website for updates.)

History, Nature & Community

History, clearly, will always be a touchstone in Lexington. The George C. Marshall Museum and the Lee Chapel are among the city’s most-visited historic sites, and tourism is up at all of the area’s attractions as their revivified marketing message spreads. Michael Anne Lynn, site director of the Stonewall Jackson House downtown, offers a portrait of the Confederate general that might otherwise go untold: “What draws people to this house is Stonewall Jackson the backstory—the community leader, teacher, family man,” she says. “Even if people know where he was every minute during the war, they come here and learn something new.” Perhaps it’s that he taught natural and experimental philosophy at VMI, or that his arm is buried in the family cemetery, the rest of him at the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery where a host of historical markers make a captivating tour.

Through it all, Lexington holds to its traditions. Full dress parade by the VMI cadets is a must-see; the band is one of the best in the country and often figures in presidential inaugurals. Old time music jams and farmers’ markets share air with high profile speakers and performing artists. A dozen or so blacksmiths continue to operate, and neighborhoods of historic brick houses are largely intact.

Boxerwood Nature Center and Woodland Garden, a meandering respite west of town, is beloved. “It is a place of reflection, where I go to be rejuvenated,” says Linda Cummings, who directs community engagement at W&L. “It’s great to be able to explore the trees, the wildflowers, the beauty of nature, and it’s still evolving,” with 2,500 specimen dogwoods, maples and conifers and a dedicated volunteer base to maintain them.

Economic activity runs alongside a strong altruistic spirit. A collective resolve to respond to the needs of others, many times church-based and unfailingly well organized, has resulted in programs such as the volunteer-run Community Table. This restaurant experience, often with live gospel music, is a weekly cash-optional event for local folks. Volunteer chef David Faulds began there by donating a batch of soup and now leads the kitchen’s bistro-style meal production. “The goal is to nourish the spirit as well as the body,” Saulds says, “and we encourage people to sit with others, to try foods they might not otherwise know about,” to be served, have conversations and feel connected, regardless of circumstances.

Nature is omnipresent, with mountain trails and rivers spreading out in all directions. “Everything’s right here and real close,” notes sculptor T.J. Tremmel. He came to Lexington, he says, “because it has four perfect seasons and fantastic outdoor activities right up against it,” and perhaps most importantly, room to stretch in unexpected ways.

Which is precisely what Lexington is doing.

For more information about visiting Lexington, go to MainStreetLexington.org and LexingtonVirginia.com

This article originally appeared in our April 2015 issue.

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