Continuing on our trip through the VA Blue Ridge area, we spent a day in Roanoke. Our city stops included a visit to the city's centerpiece hotel, lunch at a 1930s "tavern" and a tour of an unusual downtown art museum.
Roanoke was first called "Big Lick" in 1852 because it was near a large outcropping of salt near the Roanoke River that drew wildlife. It became the town of Roanoke in 1882 and two years later was chartered as the City of Roanoke. The name Roanoke is thought to originate from an Algonquian word for shell "money." This was also the name of the river that bisected it, presumably the source of the shells. Roanoke's location in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the middle of the Roanoke Valley between Maryland and Tennessee, made it the transportation hub of western Virginia.
The Norfolk and Western (N&W) Railway manufactured steam locomotives in-house and N&W's Roanoke Shops made the company known industry-wide for its excellence in steam power. The Roanoke Shops employed thousands and designed, built and maintained the famed classes A, J, and Y6 steam locomotives. The shops built new locomotives until 1953, long after diesel-electric had emerged as the locomotive choice for most North American railroads. N&W was the last major railroad in the United States to convert from steam to diesel power about 1960.
The Roanoke Hotel was listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1995 and the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
The hotel was built in 1882 by the N&W Railway (now part of the Norfolk Southern Railway) which had recently built its administrative offices in Roanoke, bringing in over a thousand railroad workers. Roanoke's landmark former passenger rail station was built across the street from the hotel. The hotel opened on Christmas Day 1882. In July 1898, a fire started in the kitchen and shut down the hotel for several months. The restored hotel reopened early in 1899 and in 1938 was remodeled to give it a more Tudor look; additional wings were added in 1947 and 1955. Despite fire and depression, it served as the city's social hub for more than a century.
Its original 34 rooms had grown to 384 rooms by 1989 when N&W deeded it to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) for $65,000. After the flag lowering ceremony on November 30, the hotel was closed; a sale of its contents continued for 17 days.
In 1992, the "Renew Roanoke" campaign was launched to raise money to reopen the hotel. Virginia Tech had set a deadline of December 31,1992 for the needed funding. By late fall, the campaign was short $1,000,000. In an unprecedented Christmas-time fundraiser, the campaign succeeded in raising over $5,000,000. Norfolk Southern donated an additional $2,000,000. The Hotel Roanoke reopened in 1995 with a conference center built adjacent to the hotel. A pedestrian bridge constructed over Norfolk Southern's railroad tracks links the hotel and conference center to downtown Roanoke.
Lunch was at the Texas Tavern which is still run by the family of the original owner. The Texas Tavern was founded by Isaac N. (Nick) Bullington and opened in February 13, 1930. Bullington was the advance man for the Ringling Brothers circus who travelled a year ahead of the circus booking shows. His plan was to open a small short-order restaurant and on his travels, he collected recipes, ideas and plans on where to locate his business. The original recipe for the Tavern's “Famous Chile” came from a hotel in San Antonio, Texas.
Roanoke, Virginia was one of 10 cities that Bullington considered. He chose it because it as a railroad city it was growing fast. Ownership of the Texas Tavern changed hands over the years, all within the Bullington family. Nick died in 1942 and his son, James, became the sole owner. In the mid 60s, Nick Bullington's grandson became General Manager, purchasing the business. Its current owner is the great grandson of the original founder and took it over in 2005 — 73 years to the day the Tavern originally opened.
Hamburgers were 5 cents in 1930 and hot dogs were not on the menu. Then in 1960, hot dogs and hamburgers were 15 cents each, jumping to 85 cents each in 1989. It's now $1.30 for either one and chile is $1.70 a bowl.
After lunch, we headed to the Taubaum Museum of Art on the corner of Norfolk and Salem Aves in downtown Roanoke, VA, described as "the wreck of the flying nun" by critics. Formerly The Art Museum of Western Virginia, it started in 1947 as an offshoot of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, with an exhibition in the Hotel Roanoke. In 1951, this "Roanoke Fine Arts Center" was incorporated as an independent organization and renamed the "Roanoke Museum of Fine Arts." It moved to downtown Roanoke's Center in the Square in 1989.
In 2005, a new design for the museum was unveiled showing the unusual design that led to much debate in the local media. Unexpected increases in the cost of materials escalated building costs from $46 million to $66 million. The museum was renamed the Taubman Museum of Art after a donation of $12.5 million from Nicholas Taubman, former chairman and CEO of Advance Auto Parts. Taubman, a Roanoke native, formerly served as the U.S. Ambassador to Romania. On November 8, 2008, the Taubman Museum of Art opened in the newly completed building. The museum now has a free general admission policy largely due to continuing contributions from the Taubman family and Advance Auto parts.
Roanoke was not the most attractive city we toured; its long history with the former Norfolk and Western Railway is its major claim to fame. Grenville will post about the city's railway ties and the other museums we toured during our visit.