Petersburg Rising

This historic city has seen more than its share of financial and political turmoil in the years since the end of the Civil War. But today, an optimistic group of entrepreneurs, developers and creatives are looking beyond the empty storefronts and peeling paint, and working to reveal its charms to the tourists they believe will come when they see it has been a diamond in the rough all along.

Every spring, on a Saturday afternoon in May, downtown Petersburg comes to life.

When the Norfolk & Western Class J 611 locomotive pulls into the 200-year-old, usually deserted Union Station, billowing clouds of steam, hundreds of travelers deboard the historic engine coming from Lynchburg. A crowd of excited young children with parents struggling to keep them off the tracks welcome the newcomers as nostalgic train watchers snap pictures.

For the next few hours, the visitors roam the streets of the usually muted Old Towne. They shop at stylish boutiques like Bon Bon Imports on Sycamore Street and Penniston’s Alley Antiques on Old Street, or they grab lunch at one of the city’s many taverns, such as Brickhouse Run, an authentic British pub in the middle of Petersburg’s cobblestoned Cockade Alley.

By late afternoon, the visitors are gone, bundled back on the train and headed home. The street vendors load up their food carts and Petersburg once again falls into a slumber. 

Petersburg Mayor Samuel Parham.

“When the 611 train comes here, we get an influx of 400 people. They eat, shop and tour downtown Petersburg. I wish we had that kind of traffic every weekend,” says Petersburg City Council member Samuel Parham, who was tapped mayor in January of last year. 

Parham, tall, charismatic and in his early 40s, sinks into his chair at his City Hall office, reminiscing about better days when the beloved steam engine’s arrival was not an annual spectacle, but a daily occurrence. 

Located just 23 miles south of Richmond and founded around 1750, antebellum Petersburg for decades was a renowned industrial center and commercial hub for processing cotton and tobacco in what was then a mostly agricultural state with few major cities.

“During the Civil War, Petersburg was the supply chain for Richmond. Everything pretty much came through Petersburg,” Parham says with some wistfulness. And, he adds with a quick, confident smile, “It’s gonna be that way again.”

Comeback from Chaos

Optimism is a rare commodity in a city that has seen better days. Since the nine-months siege that ended with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s defeat and eventual surrender in 1865, reconstruction, racial tensions, the departure of its leading industries and a natural disaster late in the 20th century left much of the city in shambles.

In 2016, Petersburg plunged into its worst fiscal crisis to date, facing a $12 million budget gap and $19 million in unpaid bills. A state probe revealed years of mismanagement, but a team of outside consultants averted a total financial collapse by imposing drastic budget cuts. While Petersburg is still years from being wholly debt-free, the city, with a population of around 32,000, now enjoys an improved level of trust and faith in its financial soundness from the rating agencies, surrounding localities and the state.

Amid this fiscal chaos and political tumult, as well as continuing high poverty and crime rates, a group of local entrepreneurs, developers and artists have been working to bring Petersburg back into the spotlight, betting that its deep history and growing arts and dining scene will lure tourists to the city. 

“Citizens and business owners are doing it because nobody else is doing it, and that’s the attitude that people have here,” says Frannie Rawlings, owner of Dixie Restaurant on Sycamore Street, a Southern diner that was a Petersburg staple from the 1940s until its temporary closure in 2010.

Rawlings, 55, and her husband Charlie, 67, reopened the diner a year later. The menu, which hasn’t changed much in generations, includes traditional American fare, from the famous Dixie Dog (a red hot dog with a tasty chili sauce) to fried catfish, collard greens, spoon bread and pancakes the size of hubcaps. 

“We never actually intended to own a restaurant, but when this one became available it was one of those things. We had eaten here a lot, and we liked it and we missed it,” Rawlings says. “We were kind of betting on the rest of the community missing it as much as we did.”

Virginia’s Best Kept Secret?

Though the 2016 financial crisis derailed a lot of city projects, a positive consequence was that in the aftermath, the city handed over its three museums—the Siege Museum, Blandford Church & Cemetery and historic Centre Hill Mansion, an 1823 Greek Revival brick mansion where President William Howard Taft lunched during a visit in 1909—to the Petersburg Preservation Task Force, a nonprofit that now operates them. 

“That was a huge win for the city,” says Parham, noting that in the past, it hadn’t done much to support tourism. Moving management of the museums to a private group however, has freed up city funds to invest elsewhere. Says Parham, “It allows us to market the city better and create a new urban environment. We have to keep growing the city into the 21st century.” 

Charlie Rawlings says that tourism in Petersburg has been “purely organic, because of what people like us” have invested in Old Towne. “If we can get 10,000 tourists here each year organically, come on, I think with a little bit more money invested, the city could easily increase those numbers,” he says.

Petersburg may well be one of Virginia’s best kept secrets. A visit to the Cockade City—a moniker derived from the cockades worn by the Petersburg Volunteers on their hats in the War of 1812—is like a step into a textbook of colonial, antebellum and Victorian architecture, from the Old Towne district, which contains the largest number of 18th century buildings of any neighborhood in the city, to the elegant High Street lined with Georgian and Palladian dwellings and Federal townhouses. (There are seven local historic districts encompassing more than 700 buildings, according to the Historic Petersburg Foundation.) And watching the eerie glow in the sky over Petersburg National Battlefield in the morning feels like a trip back in time.

But standing shoulder to shoulder with history on the cobblestoned roads in the city center is a very different Petersburg. It’s become a dynamic and hip small town with a growing number of restaurants, such as City Table at Farmers Market—the most recent addition to a burgeoning dining culture whose menu features creole jambalaya, fish tacos and steaks—and galleries like the adjacent Petersburg Area Art League on Old Street. 

Developer Dave McCormack.

“What’s kind of neat about here is that there are all these undiscovered angles to this town, and a lot of layered history,” says Dave McCormack, 46, of Waukeshaw Development, owner of several businesses and apartment buildings in Old Towne. “A lot of people think about the Civil War, but that’s not really doing this town justice. I think Petersburg is one of those places where people really value authentic experience. It’s really not a well-known story outside this community, and I just kind of tapped into that and tried to create something that people would like and respond to,” he says.

McCormack, a New Jersey native with eyebrows as thick as bottle brushes, moved to Richmond in the 1990s as a student at Virginia Commonwealth University where he majored in creative writing. When he first visited Petersburg after hearing that the city was selling houses for as little as $1, he found a ghost town with a crumbling infrastructure and a wide swath of deserted homes and warehouses dating back to the pre-Civil War years. “There were just ruins everywhere, the place was just devastated. It was cheap for a reason, there was no opportunity,” he says. 

McCormack started buying up property while carving out his vision for a new downtown. He went from flipping houses and buying little buildings to developing his first major project in 2008, the Mayton Transfer Loft apartments, situated in three historic warehouses once integral to the city’s tobacco industry. “The whole thing was $30 million. At the time it was super risky, having this big paved parking lot and not a single tenant in downtown Petersburg,” he says.

Today, McCormack owns 13 businesses within a six city-block radius with an annual net revenue of $6 million. Among them are Saucy’s Barbecue, which he grew from a walk-up joint housed in a shipping container on the corner of Fifth and Bollingbrook Streets to a full-scale industrial-style restaurant; the 30-barrel brewhouse Trapezium Brewing Co. (located inside a 15,000-square-foot former ice and coal plant from the 1890s); the local hipster mecca Demolition Coffee; and 400 apartments. By concentrating his enterprises in the same area, McCormack has changed the demographics in Old Towne. 

“From the businesses that we have been part of creating, there are about 150 people that work in this neighborhood and live in this neighborhood alone,” he says. Most are young people who grew up in the Tri-Cities area who decided to stay, moving into the apartments and lofts above McCormack’s businesses.  

But Petersburg’s biggest economic driver remains its history, from its museums and sites of Revolutionary War and Civil War battles to its many historic homes. Efforts are also underway to highlight black history in the city that is today almost 80 percent African-American. 

Pocahontas Island, on the north side of the Appomattox River, is the oldest predominantly black settlement in Virginia. By the early 19th century, it was one of the largest of its kind in America with a population of 1,200 free blacks and whites living side by side.

The island’s population dropped to about 300 in the nearly 130 years between the Civil War and the tornado that ripped through the neighborhood in 1993, tearing the roofs off buildings and pummeling their antebellum frames. When it was over, most of the island’s 60 homes were either damaged or destroyed. 

Today, Pocahontas remains inhabited by about 80 proud, mostly elderly descendants of free blacks. Among them is Richard Stewart, 73, a U.S. Army veteran, local historian and founder of the island’s small Black History Museum that he opened in 2000 after retiring from the federal government. Inside is a jumble of historical artifacts, from a corroded set of slave shackles to faded 1950s newspapers documenting the frequent visits to the city by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose friend, the late Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, pastor at Gilfield Baptist Church, was King’s chief of staff and one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington. 

Stewart, who remains the museum’s curator, is one of few who believes that the twister that destroyed much of the island 25 years ago was “a blessing, not a disaster” for the island. “All that grant money came in after that. If it wasn’t for the tornado, Pocahontas wouldn’t be here now,” he says. The city too has vowed to fund the restoration of historic structures on the island, such as the Jarrett House, a brick building dating back to 1810 and the oldest extant structure on the island. Currently, the only signal that the abandoned home is of historical significance are chalk markings Stewart has made on the brick. Efforts remain slow, but Stewart is optimistic. “This is the place. Petersburg is on the rise,” he says. 

Hollywood and Others Take Note

While Petersburg is still on the cusp of being discovered as a major tourism destination, the city has become a landing spot for notable film productions, including TV shows from PBS’s Mercy Street to AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies and Showtime’s Homeland. Steven Spielberg’s Hollywood blockbuster Lincoln was shot here in 2011.

“Petersburg offers filmmakers an inimitable level of historical authenticity, with a picturesque downtown and carefully preserved historical buildings that have played as 1700s New York, Civil War era estates, a 1940s main street, and much more—all housed within an experienced, film-friendly city,” says Andy Edmunds, director of the Virginia Film Office, which has been instrumental in bringing major productions to the Commonwealth. 

The city’s vast wealth of historical properties has also lured many buyers from outside Virginia, allowing them to own a piece of history without having to spend a fortune.

“Petersburg is one of the few places in the country where you can still find an antebellum or grand Victorian house for a fraction of what they cost elsewhere,” says Brooklyn, New York, native Jeff Abugel, a freelance writer who arrived in the city from Iowa in 2006 with his wife Beverly.

Obsessed with researching Edgar Allan Poe’s ties to Petersburg, Abugel in 2009 purchased a Bank Street building where the poet had honeymooned in 1836 with his new bride Virginia Clemm. Abugel renovated the ground floor and one year later opened Hiram Haines’ Coffee & Ale House, named after a tavern at the same location where local writers, thinkers and artists had mingled in the 1830s. 

“I think the town’s incredible history has simply not been promoted properly,” says Abugel,who sold his coffee house for health reasons in 2013. Petersburg, he says, has hosted a who’s who of historical figures, including the Marquis de Lafayette, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Gens. Grant and Lee. “In most cases, these people were not just passing through, but have ties to many of the housesand civic structures that still exist. Sometimesit takes an outsider to recognize these things,” says Abugel. 

The spacious tobacco warehouses-turned-lofts and the low property prices also appeal to a growing population of artists that have made Petersburg their home in recent years, contributing to the creation of a vibrant art scene that comes alive once a month with Friday for the Arts!, an event series held at several restaurants and half a dozen galleries across Old Towne.

Aimee Joyaux, a local artist who works and lives downtown, says that the city has changed much since she moved to Petersburg from Indiana in 2001. Many taverns and restaurants feature local and regional bands on weekends, like the popular Sushi bar Wabi-Sabi on Bollingbrook Street, a cozy brick space with a cosmopolitan lounge upstairs.

Joyaux, 57, an art teacher at Richard Bland College with a passion for Southern folklore, and her husband Alain, 67, a retired art museum director, says she fell in love with Petersburg when she was in the area for a conference. The couple packed their belongings and purchased a 16,000-square-foot cotton warehouse for $32,000. Because most buildings downtown are zoned for both commercial and residential use, she uses her home as a studio and print shop. 

“There is not a lot of academic interest in art here, but there is momentum in the right direction,” Joyaux says. “There are studios popping up all over town, and you can see hipsters starting to show up, because the McCormack businesses attract them.”

Just a few street blocks away at his coffee house, McCormack takes a sip of water, always thinking about his vision for Petersburg as a place where the past meets new opportunities. 

“I’m ready to start another restaurant, I think the time is right for that,” he says. 

When asked what drives him to keep going in this place that so many have written off for so long, he pauses for a moment, his bushy eyebrows dancing across his forehead. “The emotional payoff in a place where the odds are completely against you and where there are a lot of disbelievers is exciting,” he says. “I love being part of the solution to big problems.” 


See the Sites

Blandford Church and Cemetery: Erected in 1736, this church oversees a cemetery that is the final resting place for 30,000 Confederate soldiers.

Pamplin Historical Park: A Civil War campus in nearby Dinwiddie County comprising four museums, three historic homes and the Breakthrough Battlefield of April 2, 1865.

Petersburg National Battlefield: Bringing the 1864-1865 Siege of Petersburg to life, the park also includes the site of the famous Battle of the Crater.

Historic Battersea: Built in 1768 by Col. John Banister, the first mayor of Petersburg, this Palladian mansion has undergone renovations in recent years and is open to the public.

Siege Museum: Recently reopened after years of repairs, the museum features Civil War exhibits inside the 1841 Merchants Exchange building, the only National Historic Landmark in the city.

Shop

Ciao Bella Old Soul: A staple among Petersburg’s antique and vintage shops selling custom built farm tables and more.

Ignatius Hats: Custom hand sewn hats in traditional and original designs since 1985.

Modvintique Interiors: Modern, vintage and antique decor and accessories.

Petersburg Pickers: Giant estate sales take place every Friday and Saturday, drawing people from across Virginia.

The Oak Antique Mall: More than 10,000 square feet with a huge inventory of antiques, primitives and collectibles.

Dine

Brickhouse Run: English-style pub located in a historic brick house in Old Towne.

Demolition Coffee: Industrial-chic coffee house with a wide selection of sandwiches and salads.

Dixie Restaurant: Southern home cooking served in a diner-like space.

King’s Barbecue: Family-run eatery offering slow-cooked barbecue, fried chicken and other Southern specialties since 1946.

Longstreet’s Deli: Neighborhood bar and restaurant with extensive wine and beer selection and live music throughout the week.

Tips Ribs BBQ & Catering: New in town but already famous for its smokin’ good ‘cue and friendly staff.


This article originally appeared in our April 2018 issue.

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