The Heart of Fredericksburg

How will the growing and dynamic interplay of the arts, entrepreneurship, retail, dining and development change the future for this 300-year-old city?

On its exterior, the LibertyTown Arts Workshop in downtown Fredericksburg is a big unremarkable building, a purple-painted box made of cinderblock. In its previous incarnation, it warehoused plumbing supplies for a local hardware store.

Extraordinary, however, is the beehive of artistic activity inside—a maze of 27 studios giving sanctuary to more than 60 artists and artisans who ply their crafts in clay, glass, paint, wood and photography. Quite a few of them—painters, woodworkers, potters—have earned acclaim well beyond the small city of Fredericksburg, which has a population of about 28,000 and sits on the west bank of the Rappahannock River.

On the right day, you can wander the halls of this building and watch professional artists at work—painter Kathleen Walsh coaxing quiet detail into one of her natural landscapes; Bill Harris turning his brush to a scene that could be drawn from a Raymond Carver short story; or Christina Bendo etching fine drawings into a clay pot.

This is Fredericksburg’s lesser-known bit of magic. A creative undercurrent ripples through the community in ways that have begun to supplant the region’s more familiar draws—its deep history and status as a bedroom community for D.C. road warriors. And although LibertyTown sits at the corner of Liberty and William streets, at the outer edge of Fredericksburg’s business district, it is a focal point for entrepreneurship and collaboration in this town.

When I walk into the arts center on a cool, sunny Friday afternoon in late January, it’s not quite my first time. I’m a Richmonder with a cabal of friends in the ’burg, so I’ve worn down a path to the city. Today, I’ve come neither to shop nor to watch artists make art, but to meet its owners, Kenneth and Dolores “D.D.” Lecky, both 35 years old and now in their third year running the center.

In September 2013, the couple—he’s a photographer, she’s a potter—purchased the arts center and took over operations from its founder, long-time resident Dan Finnegan, who has thrown and sold thousands of salt-glazed, wood-fired clay pots since moving to town in 1980. His work at LibertyTown helped galvanize the local arts community over a decade-plus. Finnegan, renowned widely for his craft, also inspired and taught scores of potters through the years, which is partly why the city today has a small army of artisans working in ceramics, including D.D. Lecky. The center itself is a learning hub for aspiring artists of all kinds.

“It’s rare to find communities like Fredericksburg that have such a strong root in a makers’ market or in that sensibility, because people like Dan are rare,” says D.D.

A story is unfolding about the future of this place—about how the arts and entrepreneurship have developed a strong interplay here, about how the city’s retail and dining scenes are evolving, and about how a spate of development will change its face as townhouses and condominiums rise up among church steeples and historic red-brick architecture. City boosters and officials began to address these realities somewhat in July 2013, when they established the downtown area as a “Main Street” community, a program begun by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to revitalize traditional downtowns and enhance the overall quality of life and commerce.

If you look at a map of the greater Fredericksburg region, the city is like a Rappahannock oyster sandwiched between two squares of cornbread—Stafford County to the north and Spotsylvania County to the south. These neighboring localities are marked by the suburban flux of traffic between subdivisions, along big-box motor miles. Apart from signage along the fast and furious Interstate 95, the town center’s quaint appeal is largely hidden from highway travelers. Thankfully, its very walkable downtown, along William and Caroline streets, offers a slower pace, a chance to park the car, walk the brick sidewalks, browse in a shop or grab a comestible.  

The greater region banks on heritage tourism, of course, branding itself more recently as a place that’s “timeless.” Certainly, its nearly 300-year tale has allure: Visitors to the area generated close to $6 million in tax revenue for the city in each of the last two years on record. The city has a concentrated 40-block district listed on the National Historic Register that contains more than 350 buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries—everything from rebellion to revolution. George Washington spent his boyhood across the river at Ferry Farm, long before commanding troops against the British crown, and his mother, Mary Washington, lived here until her death. James Monroe began his law career in Fredericksburg, and Thomas Jefferson started writing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom here. Some of the first “urban” combat of the Civil War occurred in Fredericksburg’s streets, where buildings still bear the battle scars. And its bloody battles left thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers buried in Marye’s Heights above town at what is now a national battlefield park.

Out-of-town influences continually infuse the city. On downtown’s northwestern shoulder is the University of Mary Washington, with an enrollment of about 5,000 students, and at the historic district’s southeast end, the Virginia Railway Express, which extended its reach to Spotsylvania last November.

Bill Beck, who owns Beck’s Antiques and Books on Caroline Street, notes that even though it’s getting a facelift, Fredericksburg retains much of its small-town character. He likens the historic district to an open-air museum. Beginning at the Rappahannock where the port city’s wharves once stood—enabling overseas trade and shipment of the region’s biggest export, tobacco, until the mid-19th century—the town’s layout moves uphill through commerce to government, banking, worship and then to residential living. “So you’ve really got, in three blocks, all of America,” he says. “You can’t ask for a better package.”

Beck, a 62-year-old Fredericksburg native who was the city’s mayor from 2001 to 2004, lives with his wife, Susan, upstairs from his antiques store where he has done business since 1985. He has seen the booms and the busts downtown, and now the transformation happening with new activity on the dining and retail scene. “All in all, I think downtown is now sort of back on an upswing again,” Beck says one afternoon from his seat on a c. 1815 Boston mahogany settee in his shop.

Karen Hedelt, the city’s director of economic development and tourism, says the newer class of business owners staking their claims downtown in the past four or five years seem well-matched for the hyper-local marketplace: “A lot of it is driven by a new perspective and a new generosity in their spirit, that you’re not fighting over a dollar. You’re building something that will bring dollars to everybody.”

Other shops bring a personality to the retail mix that lives up to the nickname given to the town by locals—FredVegas. It’s a playful recognition that, sure, it’s a small town, but if you come here, you should still expect to have fun. Among shops in this category is Hooked, on Princess Anne Street. Hooked is the creation of Mike and Lauren Skinner. They describe Hooked as a “lifestyle store,” but it’s more like a retro-culture treasure chest. You can get shiny new reproductions of, say, a Hulk Hogan T-shirt, or some gently worn vintage dresses. And there are millennial toys, too—old Nintendo game systems, working Polaroid cameras (with film in good supply) and vinyl record players. If you stop in, you may get lucky and be greeted by Sgt. Pepper and Padmé, the couple’s English bulldogs.

Two doors down from Beck’s shop another creative couple, painter Gabriel Pons and potter Scarlett Pons, co-own and operate their eclectic PONSHOP Studio and Gallery. The two met at Virginia Tech, graduated, married, moved away for years and then longed for a change that eventually led them to Fredericksburg. “In our past lives,” Scarlett Pons says, “we were both architects living in New York.” After moving here, they worked out of a studio at LibertyTown for four years, next making the leap to their own space six years ago. Their shop deals largely in creations by Virginia artists, including their own. Around town you’ll find Scarlett and Gabriel Pons’ work at local restaurants or businesses that have commissioned them for murals, T-shirts, dinnerware or other customized items.

And that’s a part of the “feed your own” ethic here that became clearer to me as I looked closer. The benefit of the community’s smallness makes for a more personal expression of the buy-local, eat-local trend that’s flowing strong in Fredericksburg. For instance, the city’s one microbrewery (for now), Spencer Devon Brewing, serves its “mug club” members in ceramic steins from D.D. Lecky’s pottery wheel. Scarlett Pons designed and made dishes that go on the tables at Kybecca, a restaurant on William Street.

The makers’ market in town extends to the community’s sense of preservation and philanthropy, I came to learn from a friend, Jason Gallant, a Fredericksburg native who owns Rappahannock Restoration, which specializes in historic city properties. Beyond private clients, Rappahannock Restoration—as well as another contractor, Habalis Construction—donate repair and renovation services to maintain historic properties such as the Mary Washington House and the Rising Sun Tavern. Gallant tells me he’s also committed to help provide housing to clients of Empowerhouse, a local nonprofit that serves victims of domestic violence—a pet cause of city resident and philanthropist Doris Buffet, the sister of billionaire Warren Buffet.

But the ultimate handmade trend that’s building cachet in Fredericksburg is culinary. It hasn’t happened overnight, but the city’s dining scene has hit its stride. A stretch of William Street is now known as “restaurant row” because new culinary players are stepping in next to tried-and-true favorites. On the list of well-established restaurants would be La Petite Auberge, which opened in 1981 and only recently changed hands from one generation of chef, the French-born Christian Renault, to the next, his son Raymond Renault; Castiglia’s, a well-ensconced go-to for Italian cuisine and pizza; and Bistro Bethem, which is named for the family that runs it and serves a menu that changes with the supply of local ingredients in town.

Meanwhile, Beth Black and chef Joy Crump, owners of the celebrated Foodē (that’s food-ie) restaurant on Caroline, spun off a second project last May, a brunch-to-lunch eatery called Mercantile, several blocks from Foodē. Crump, of course, has celebrity status in the local scene for her appearance last year on Bravo’s Top Chef; she also was invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York City in April, a culinary honor.  

“Fredericksburg is getting there,” says Matt Thomas, who co-owns Kybecca restaurant with his sister Rebecca. “We have a lot of restaurants compared to our population. … For a town of its size, I think the food scene is fairly well-developed.” Kybecca opened in 2005 as a wine and beer retailer, but upgraded to a wine bar in 2008. Then, in 2013, after a neighboring retail space went vacant, it expanded to a full-service restaurant serving a menu developed by chef Wade Truong that Thomas describes as “elevated but accessible American cuisine.” You’ll find a good standard here—shrimp and grits—but also a more of-the-moment sous vide beef chuck roast served with chevre yukon mashed potatoes. In 2011, Thomas developed a craft cocktail program, something not common in the local scene at the time.

Despite this fast evolution of culinary sophistication, there are a few tried-and-true places that mean Fredericksburg to me. I rarely miss a chance to hit the historic Carl’s Ice Cream custard stand outside of downtown where a long but fast-moving queue is standard and my regular favorite is a giant hot fudge sundae made with chocolate. A friend of mine from Northern Virginia goes for a concoction we call the Drowning Wizard—a strawberry sugar cone dunked in a chocolate malted shake.

The city’s burgeoning food culture also has called to some regional chains from around the state. When I was on Caroline Street one Friday, I dropped into Benny Vitali’s for a mammoth slice cut from a pie the size of a small UFO. The 28-inch pie is their thing. The chain is rooted in Blacksburg with almost a dozen locations scattered across the Commonwealth. The place was crowded with lunch traffic, a mix of tourists, college kids and business people. It is decidedly unpretentious—it’s a pizza joint, after all—but that’s true of many things in the city.

In 2008, the city committed to a deal that offered $100,000 in incentives—including a $25,000 grant and various tax abatements—to lure Richmond-based Capital Ale House to Caroline Street. Just last year, two other Richmond chains set up shop along William Street: the popular doughnut shop Sugar Shack and the beer-centric restaurant Sedona Taphouse.

It’s the appearance of Sedona Taphouse just outside the city’s historic district that signals some of the growing pains ahead for the city on the point of architectural character and preservation. Its modern façade contrasts with its older, small-town surroundings, as do the dozens of new residential units phasing in along William Street.

From there new construction extends along three consecutive blocks between William Street—the eastward main route into town—and Amelia Street, which runs parallel going west. In the past five years, real estate developers have gotten busy downtown, claiming vacant or unoccupied lots for infill construction: Three new upscale condominium and townhouse projects, all four stories high, are rising up within steps of Hurkamp Park, where a weekly farmers’ market runs. Amelia Square, the first to build out completely, features 20 brownstone townhomes, which went on the market in 2014 starting at $700,000. Two of the units sold for more than $1 million, characteristic of the soaring property values as demand builds in the downtown market. Those upscale buyers, says Karen Hedelt, are people discovering the live-work-play formula that Fredericksburg has always had, but is increasingly more desirable, especially to empty nesters in the suburbs. “They come downtown to events and to dine and just to enjoy our culture,” says Hedelt. “So, they’re ready to shuck themselves of that big house and buy a nice condo where they can shut the door behind them and go off on a three-week trip somewhere and live a very different lifestyle.”

On a chilly Friday morning, I meet up with Paul Cymrot, a friend of mine for 15 years or so who owns the cheery Riverby Books on Caroline Street, which deals in rare and used books.

Cymrot walks me around the historic district, directing me to points of interest, such as the former hotel where Winston Churchill once stayed. Other visitors to Fredericksburg, he notes later, include Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens and Patsy Cline, among many others. At the corner of George and Princess Anne streets we see the historic National Bank Building and the adjoining property that are at the heart of a crossfire of civil lawsuits, including one between the city and its own architectural review board.

It’s clear to me, hearing a rumble of construction blocks away, that Fredericksburg’s renaissance is proving to be both exciting and messy. Its small-town, upper-class feel is swirled in with a proto-hipster vibe and working-class undercurrent. If I had to describe it in a few words, I might say Fredericksburg is a place with charm, a bit of polish and more than a little grit.

But also a place with a giving heart, as Joy Crump, a Los Angeles native, points out to me. That’s what convinced her to make the move here with Beth Black, to call it home and set up shop: “This community rallies around small business like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s a community with long arms, that just wraps itself around you.”

This article originally appeared in our April 2016 issue.

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