By Vickie Mitchell
The Taubman Museum of Art is the first sign that Roanoke, Va., might not be the town you were expecting.
Wedged tight among railroad tracks, downtown streets and an elevated highway, the ultramod museum is planted firmly in an otherwise traditional downtown. All shiny metal and glistening glass, with unexpected angles and sharp points, it is architectural origami.
“The exterior is as much a sculpture as the interior,” said David Mickenberg, the Taubman’s executive director. “It was felt that this would be a gateway to the city, an icon as Roanoke looks to the 21st century. It would stand as a symbol of progressive thought and movement into the 21st century.”
The art museum, too, reflects a modern-art take on the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains, which “define who we are in a cultural and geographic sense,” said Mickenberg. “Companies have told me the museum is why they moved here. They felt it was reflective of where Roanoke is going.”
Blue Ridge rules
For Roanoke, progress means moving beyond its identity as a southwestern Virginia city that Norfolk and Western railroad built to an area of 300,000 where the Blue Ridge Mountains and their beauty rule.
City manager Christopher Morrill speaks to Roanoke’s “railroad past and biomedical and environmental future.
“Rather than selling factories we are selling the outdoors,” he said. And doing so quite successfully, in fact. Last April, when Morrill and others visited with writers who were touring the area, thousands were visiting Roanoke for three major outdoor events: the Blue Ridge Bike Fest, Virginia’s largest motorcycle rally; the Blue Ridge Marathon, recognized as among the most challenging of road races; and the Blue Ridge Kite Festival.
Appreciating old and new
Thankfully, in Roanoke, moving forward doesn’t require steamrolling the past. In Roanoke, a well-made biscuit is still held in high regard, evidenced by the local following at the 70-year-old Roanoker, one of the five best places for breakfast in the South, according to Southern Living magazine. The city also is a place, marveled Morrill, where milk appears on doorsteps, thanks to Homestead Creamery. “We have a milkman who delivers milk and eggs to our house each week,” he said.
Nowhere do old and new fit together better than in a 62-block downtown that is compact, and in terms of meetings and conventions, complete.
The Hotel Roanoke, the city’s largest meeting property, is on a rise across the mainline railroad tracks from downtown. There has been a Hotel Roanoke on the spot since 1882, and today’s historic hotel is a far cry from the original three-dozen-room rambling Victorian built to house railroad travelers.
The Tudor-style hotel has 331 guest rooms; behind it is a modern, 63,000-square-foot conference center. The complex is a joint project of Hotel Roanoke LLC, the city of Roanoke and Virginia Tech and is managed by DoubleTree by Hilton.
The hotel and conference center are prime examples of Roanoke’s ability to blend history and high-technology. The conference center is a member of the International Association of Conference Centers and has been a Virginia Green Lodging Facility since 2005. The hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also a member of Historic Hotels of America.
The Hotel Roanoke is an example of how the city works to save its important pieces of history. Visitors who sit in the hotel’s lobby, surrounded by leafy palms, portraits of Civil War generals and wood-paneled walls, have a difficult time believing that the hotel closed, in ill repair, in the late 1980s. Thanks to a restoration masterminded by groups of locals, the hotel is today the important social and business hub it has always been.
For conventions and conferences that need more rooms than the Hotel Roanoke can provide, shuttles can be arranged to and from the Sheraton Roanoke Hotel and Conference Center, near the airport, a few miles away. It has 320 guest rooms and 17,000 square feet of meeting space and is adjacent to several other limited-service hotels. A recent $18 million renovation has given the Sheraton a contemporary look and a Shula’s Steakhouse.