Brigadoon in the Blue Ridge: the main street of the Shenandoah Valley town of Staunton, Virginia.
If Staunton has a sister city, it must be Brigadoon.
Who knew that a small burnished gem was hidden quietly away in the Blue Ridge about two hours southwest of Washington?
I recently set out to Staunton on a weekend road trip to visit the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Birthplace and Library, and to catch a couple of performances at the American Shakespeare Center — which is the only replica in the world of the Blackfriars Playhouse, Shakespeare’s 17th century London indoor theater.
I expected Staunton itself to be a charming enough small town —of the unprepossessing kind that Martin Mull describes as having the zipcode E I E I O.
In fact, it’s an historical, architectural, intellectual, theatrical, and gastronomic treat.
The main Street —named Beverley after the colonial landowner of Beverley’s Mill Place as the town was first known in 1732— is filled with interesting shops and impressive restaurants of the newly popular farm-to-kitchen-to-table variety.
There are two cinemas: the classic Dixie (which opened its doors in 1913 and was rebuilt after a fire in 1936, and is now a multiplex where Frost/Nixon was playing), and the Visulite art house (which was offering an Israeli Film Festival).
Staunton is a trove of Victorian and Edwardian design; several of the grander houses have become B&Bs.
In the prosperous period between 1891 and 1911, the architect T. J. Collins and Sons built some two hundred buildings in a range of styles and scales extending from classical to whimsical and modest to monumental. Collins was to Staunton what Mizner was to Miami.
Staunton’s Collins-designed Temple House of Israel. The 1925 building is one of the few (if not the only) Moorish-style synagogue in America. The stained glass windows were designed by Charles Connick Associates of Boston — considered second only to the Tiffany Studio in importance.
It’s possible to spend a couple of hours just wandering the hilly streets taking in the buildings and homes — and the illustrated walking guide makes the time even more interesting.
Staunton’s homes and buildings range from antebellum Jeffersonian to Tudor, with a Collins Venetian palazzo facade for good measure.
The town of some 23,000 residents is the seat of Augusta County. Back in the day (really back in the day, as in the mid-18th century) it was the westernmost county seat in the American colonies. The impressively classical and calmly yellow-and-white nineteenth century campus of Mary Baldwin College’s sits on top of a hill looking down on the city and across the valley to the hills. The College now incorporates the buildings and grounds of the Staunton Military Academy that closed in the mid-1970s.
Mary Baldwin College, founded in 1832 as the Augusta Female Seminary, was renamed in 1895 after Mary Julia Baldwin. She was one of the Seminary’s first students and served as its resourceful Principal during the Civil War and its inspiring and dynamic leader during the postwar years of growth and expansion. She died in office in 1897.
But the two places that make Staunton really remarkable, and which are alone worth a visit, are the American Shakespeare Center and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Birthplace and Library.
The ASC was a brainchild of scholar Ralph Alan Cohen, whose weighty title — Founding Executive Director and Director of Mission — belies his protean energy and enthusiasm. The small high wood-tiered hall presents plays the way Shakespeare’s audiences saw them — as seamlessly unfolding stories with a minimum of props and no special stage lighting. The result is surprising and, at times, downright thrilling.
The stage of the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse. The current repertory includes Hamlet and Tom Stoppard’s speculative offshoot Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, played by the same cast.
Although Woodrow Wilson only spent his first year in Staunton, he always considered it his home. His father was called in 1854 to be Pastor of the town’s substantial First Presbyterian Church. An equally substantial house —known as The Manse— went with the position, and that was where the future twenty-eighth POTUS was born on 28 December 1856. The Manse —which is adjacent to the Museum building— has been restored and refurnished with many original Wilson pieces, and a tour is part of the Museum visit.
When Wilson was a year old, his father moved onward (and upward) to a Pastorate in Augusta, Georgia. With the exception of some childhood visits to relatives — Woodrow Wilson wouldn’t return there until 1912; the new President-Elect chose to spend 28 December, his fifty-sixth birthday, in Staunton, the place where he was born.
Born in a house his father occupied: Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace — the manse attached to the Pastorate of Staunton’s First Presbyterian Church.
In 1924, two years after Wilson’s death, the trustees of Mary Baldwin College began raising funds and acquiring property for a memorial. The Woodrow Wilson Birthplace Foundation was established in 1938. Restoration of The Manse began in 1940. And the following year FDR traveled to Staunton to dedicate the restored building as “a shrine to freedom.”
The Museum is small but comprehensive and well designed. It also has an excellent on-line presence. Among the exhibits are a love letter (or, more accurately given its somewhat formal contents, a like letter) written on White House stationery to Edith Bolling Galt, the widower’s rather formidable intended. It is signed: “Tiger.”
President Wilson’s spiffy 1919 Pierce-Arrow limousine is on view at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library. Made at the company’s Buffalo works, it was waiting for the POTUS when he returned from France after signing the ill-fated Treaty of Versailles.
The energetic Staunton Chamber of Commerce has an excellent website covering every conceivable tourist question and contingency. The elegant 1924 Stonewall Jackson Hotel has been restored and is within walking distance (as is everything else in town) of the Amtrak Station. There are also a number of chain motels and a variety of interesting B&Bs.
Aside from walking around and appreciating the architecture and deciding which of the several excellent restaurants to choose, the American Shakespeare Center and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library are the must see venues.
The Collins-designed Dixie cinema fronts an Italian Renaissance facade with inlaid terra cotta designs and alternating masks of Comedy and Tragedy. All that and Frost/Nixon viewed from new seats if you sit downstairs.