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COVER- West Main Street: Then and now

Published 1/17/2008 12:00:00 AM in issue 703 of the Hook


The results of a City zoning law forcing owners to reduce the square footage of signs are evident after nearly three decades since this shot. As of 2008, the city and UVA are still trying to figure out what to do with West Main Street.

In 1979, Chicago resident Duncan Brown was a UVA first-year taking his first photography class. His assignment: take a walk down West Main Street.


"I was definitely out of my element," he recalls. "Nobody ever went down West Main back then."

Brown never became a professional photographer. He dropped out of UVA in 1982 to open a restaurant and arcade over on JPA called Professor Fethers (a reference to Poe's story, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether), worked at GE Fanuc for a time, then left for Chicago to work for a company that, appropriately enough, made pinball machines. 

But he says he still likes to take photographs with "interesting compositions" and appealing light angles. Indeed, the photos in this series, finally published after 28 years, have the quality of paintings, with subtle details sure to arouse memories for locals familiar with West Main.

Brown, who is white, says he got a lot of "odd looks" from people, including the "evil eye" from the African-American man he snapped leaning over a rail on a bridge. Although Charlottesville was integrated, the city's African-American community has always had a strong social presence along West Main, particularly in the Starr Hill neighborhood, established in large part by the Ebenezer, First Baptist, and Mt. Zion Baptist churches, and the Jefferson School. Anecdotally considered a high-crime area, the one-mile stretch of West Main between UVA and the Downtown Mall has stubbornly-- proudly?-- resisted urban renewal.

"I've always been into photographing decaying things," says Brown, "and there was a lot of that in 1979."

Fifteen years later, not much had changed. A 1993 urban design study commissioned by the City concluded that West Main had "become a district of occasional economic activity, vacant lots, and empty buildings."

According to Charlottesville Pavilion manger Kirby Hutto, who operated a restaurant called the Cotton Exchange (now L'étolie) from 1985 to 1992, West Main has always had a reputation as a rough neighborhood. Before it became the Cotton Exchange in the 1970s, he says, that building was home to the Buddy Buddy Club, a dive bar and flophouse that served the railroad culture of the time.

"That's when West Main was rough as hell, I imagine," he says. "Even in the eighties, we had fights, break-ins-- it was rough." In fact, Hutto remembers a t-shirt the original owners of the Cotton Exchange used to sell. "The Cotton Exchange, a bar on the wrong side of the tracks," it read, picturing a guy stabbed on a bar stool.

In 1991, a prominent UVA alumnus, parent, and medical researcher, 64-year-old Gerald Aurbach, was killed on West Main by a rock thrown from a passing car, an incident that confirmed for many people West Main's image as an unsafe area and prompted city and UVA officials to act.

UVA President John Casteen proposed building residential colleges and helped foster the idea of a sports arena along West Main (à la JPJ), an idea that was met with resistance from the neighborhood. Later, the 1993 urban design study overseen by Boston architect William Rawn called for infill buildings, a realignment of Jefferson Park Avenue, and three undergraduate residential "colleges" to be built by UVA.

In 1995, that design plan received a major award from the American Institute of Architects (A.I.A.), but in the same week the award was announced, UVA decided to abandon the project. During that time, the City was also in talks with local developers about plans for the mammoth parking lot on the Union Station property, but those talks also failed to produce anything concrete.

That same year, local film makers Chris Farina and Reid Oechslin released their documentary West Main Street, which included interviews and compelling shots of the streetscape to paint a portrait of a community stubbornly trying to preserve its identity.

In the mid-'90s, West Main experienced a renaissance of sorts, as restaurants like Southern Culture, the Blue Ridge Brewing Company, and Continental Divide created a vibrant night life. Today, places like Maya (in the old Southern Culture spot) and Zinc are trying to keep that alive, but the brown paper over the windows at Starr Hill Music Hall, which closed last year, suggests the neighborhood is still in transition. 

In 2003, when the city was re-zoned to encourage denser, more pedestrian-friendly development-- especially along urban corridors like West Main-- there was hope that private developers would make the improvements the city and UVA could not. However, after fours years, the Amtrak station and its gravel parking lot still look almost the same as in Brown's 1979 photo. The suburban-style Walker Square townhouse complex now looms in the background, and Cream Street 10, a new luxury condo complex on the other side of West Main, beckons well-heeled urban pioneers, but West Main still seems reluctant to play along.

At a recent Planning Commission meeting, the city was busy proposing a new set of zoning changes for Downtown and West Main. Prompted by concerns-- some might say overwrought concerns about high-rise buildings springing up like weeds on the Mall and eclipsing the sun-- the new zoning seeks to lower the by-right height limits and density requirements. However, the proposed zoning would actually extend existing height limits to the City's 101-foot limit and allow for greater density on West Main. 

"West Main has not thrived like the Downtown Mall," architect John Matthews said at the PC meeting, "and you can turn it around with these recommendations. West Main needs our attention more than the Mall."

Later, Matthews urged the Commission and City Council to act promptly, saying his firm had clients willing to spend $25 million on West Main. "But these people may pull out if they don't know what the zoning will be," he added.

How will the city and West Main respond? Will we have to wait another 28 years to see?


Times change
Not much about the two clocks on the corner of the bus station has changed, although someone finally got around to synchronizing them. "Back then, I remember it always having two different times," says Brown.



Bye, bye, baby
What's remarkable here is that the utility lines still cut nearly identical paths through the air, and Ebenezer Baptist still looms in the background. Even the hooks on the sign frame remain, although Charlottesville Diaper Service, thanks to Huggies and such, has gone the way of the dodo. But notice the clever slogan: "Tops for Bottoms."



Sign of the times
Last year when Mel's wanted to spruce up its famous sign-- courtesy of Abundant Life Ministries, who gave owner Melvin Walker a service award and offered to pay for the redesign-- the Board of Architectural Review insisted that the original skeleton of the sign be preserved. However, as Brown's photo of the Duck Inn shows, the City forced an earlier owner to lop off half the lighted arrow. (And while Mel's is still a great deal, it's hard to beat a home-cooked chicken dinner for $1.50!)



Makin' the copies
Defying the arrival of the information age, the Charlottesville Office Machine Company sold and serviced typewriters well into the 1990s. In fact, they still do at a new location on Carlton Road. Today, the original building is for lease.



Groovy wagon
How about that stylin' Pinto! The old Expresso International is barely recognizable today, as virtually nothing from the old facade remains. Later called Zippers and then Northern Exposure, the building is now home to Spry's BBQ. (Expresso International, which opened in 1971, later became the Italian Villa on Emmet Street, and more recently, the Espresso Italian Villa, famous for serving breakfast until 2am.)



All Het up!
While Walker Square replaced the forest in the background, the structures housing the Amtrak train station and Wild Wing Café (built as Union Station in 1885) look pretty much the same, including the vast gravel parking lot to the left. Oh, and that funny sign? It belonged to a radiator repair shop.



Time's sentry
The old iron gate in front of the First Baptist Church still tilts in the same direction, watching over a changing streetscape, the lost buildings, and, of course, the evolution of fashion. Built in 1828, the church once sheltered wounded Civil War soldiers, then became one of the city's first African-American congregations. What's striking here is how utterly restrained this section of West Main looks today.



Exchanging times
Once called the Buddy Buddy Club, a dive bar and flophouse that served the railroad culture of the time, this building housed the Cotton Exchange restaurant in the late 1970s, then later one of the first upscale restaurants on West Main. Fifteen years ago, chef Mark Gresge opened the Tea Room Café before changing the name to l'étoile. During the '90s, it was also Edgar's, Stella's, and Bistro Baline. Rumor has it that the site was once a cotton storage facility, but Kirby Hutto, who owned the Cotton Exchange in the 1980s, debunks that, saying it was named after the famous Cotton Exchange in Memphis.



Antique building
Bernard Caperton operated his Caperton Antiques and Appraisals for 35 years until his death in 1989. In 1998, UVA bought the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, turned its front door into a window, and made a home for the Medical Alumni Association.



No vacancy
In the 1890s, it began as the Hotel Gleason and the Imperial Café. In the 1930s, it was the Albemarle Hotel. In the early 1970s, it had become a hotel for transients, and in 1976 the city condemned the building. Mostly vacant from 1977 to 1981, the space was finally restored as part of a community revitalization program. Today, the building is managed by Stonehaus Inc. and is home to the Quest Book Shop, Cottage Consignments and Antiques, the Virginia Film Festival, and UVA's Reading First in Virginia academy.



Store bought
Reflected in the glass door of a loan or banking company called Public Finance (read: loans up to $2,300 with up to 4 months to pay!), where Kane Furniture stands now, Brown captured the old Ben Franklin five and dime. Briefly, the building was home to the Mine Shaft, a notable music venue, along with the nearby and now demolished Trax and Max building. Today, it's home to UVA's Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy.




Makin' the copies!!!

Mr. McNair- Very fine piece, the nature of change. I wish you'd provide a link or photos if you have them to the unexpected bulldozer story, the bulldozer that knocked down the building in the background of the CHO Office machines photo, without a demo permit. Ask Hawes, he remembers everything!

posted by bill emory at 1/18/2008 9:25:54 AM

If you want to see the whole set, and some additional ones I took around the downtown mall a year later, you can find them here:


(Forgive the sluggish response of my poor little overtaxed web server...)


posted by Duncan Brown at 1/18/2008 10:35:58 AM

What amazes me is how many details I recalled when my memory was jogged by this photo essay. Thanks for sharing a wonderful reminder of our collective past.

posted by Connie at 1/20/2008 12:22:09 AM

Photographs of Main Street taken by John Shepherd ca. 1976 (from the ACHS website)


posted by expat ch'villian at 1/20/2008 2:23:34 PM

Very well done. It brings back many youthful memories such as Saturday stroll from Sears to Ben Franklin.

In the set titled "Time's Sentry", only the right-hand side of the old gas station was lost. A second story was later added.

With more changes planned for West Main, now is the time to take another series of photos.

posted by Steven Meeks at 1/20/2008 6:48:57 PM

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