What do Ella Fitzgerald, William Styron and the USS Enterprise have in common? Newport News, Va.
The “First Lady of Song,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier all began life in this city of 193,000.
Newport News sits on the James River on a tongue of land called the Virginia Peninsula that it shares with Williamsburg and Jamestown. The city itself is a spit of land, 23 miles long and three miles wide, punctuated by 30 parks.
Interstate 64 bisects Newport News, located an hour southeast of Richmond and three hours from Washington, D.C. Four airlines fly into and out of the Newport News Williamsburg International Airport, a 15-minute drive from major hotels.
Industry and military are lifebloods
The city’s lifeblood has long been industry and the military, with the U.S. Army’s Fort Eustis and the Newport News Shipyard its largest employers.
But during the past decade, the city has spread its wings. Mixed-use developments blend condos and hotels with shops and restaurants, museums have expanded, and the arts are stepping toward center stage.
This mix makes Newport News, which you quickly learn to pronounce “Newpert News,” a likely meeting destination for groups of up to 500. Its proximity to destinations like Williamsburg, Norfolk and Virginia Beach is a plus for postmeeting excursions.
The city’s major markets include associations, religious groups and government meetings related to the area’s military installations.
City Center adds vigor
Newport News’ largest meeting space is in the five-year-old, 256-room Newport News Marriott at City Center.
City Center is not the old industrial downtown the name implies; that downtown is several miles away, next to the shipyard.
City Center at Oyster Point is, rather, a vibrant planned development that surrounds a five-acre fountain. It has walkways and benches, lots of parking, a pub and restaurants, and upscale national retailers that include Coldwater Creek, Ann Taylor Loft and Talbots.
There’s also a coffee shop and a quirky local favorite called Jamestown Pie Company, whose pizza, desserts and pot pies come with a reminder that “round food is good food.”
The Marriott’s nautical theme is a nod to the water that made this city prosperous. The carpet has a wavy design, and breezy photographic art zeros in on knots and ship parts.
The centerpiece of the 25,000-square-foot conference center is a red-and-gold domed rotunda with a dramatic staircase, a grand piano and windows with views of the fountain.
A 12,000-square-foot ballroom and a 4,000-square-foot ballroom are divisible. Board meetings can opt for a presidential suite, five junior suites and a 12-person boardroom.
Omni surrounded by five acres
Less than a mile away, the 21-year-old Omni Newport News Hotel is set on five landscaped acres. Walking to shops and restaurants is not an option, but two large malls are nearby, and the hotel has its own nightclub.
The 182-room hotel’s Italianate lobby pairs Roman columns and a large Raphaelesque painting with overlooks of its restaurant and heated pool.
A 10,000-square-foot conference center, redone two years ago, includes a 5,880-square-foot ballroom and a smaller divisible ballroom that opens onto a patio. A tiered amphitheater seats 68.
Guest rooms include four 620-square-foot suites, two with fireplaces. The rooms, last redone in 2005, are in line for facelifts this year that will include flat-screen televisions.
Former Ramada now an independent
Just over 10,000 square feet of meeting space is tucked away in the independent Point Plaza Suites and Conference Hotel.
“It has the largest indoor hotel pool on the Peninsula,” said Sharon Petroski, director of sales and marketing for the Beck Co., which owns the Point Plaza and three other hotels in Newport News. Gas grills are available, a plus for a hotel where half of the 150 rooms are full-kitchen suites.
Built in 1969 and formerly a Ramada Hotel, the property’s last major renovation was in 2001, although soft goods and carpeting have been upgraded since then. Flat-screen televisions are in its future.
A 6,400-square-foot ballroom, with a separate entrance and foyer for registration, has a permanent sunken dance floor in the center of the room that offers two-tiered seating for meetings.
The 122-room Holiday Inn Hotel and Suites across the street has minimal meeting space but often houses those attending meetings at the Point Plaza.
Huntington is true founder
Although no one is certain how Newport News got its name, most think its namesake is Capt. Christopher Newport, who brought English settlers to found nearby Jamestown, then ran supply ships to sustain them.
The city’s real founder, though, was Collis P. Huntington, a California railroad magnate who extended the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad to Newport News to carry coal from West Virginia to where it could be shipped.
Ships were needed to carry the coal so Huntington built a shipyard that became the world’s largest. It put Newport News on the map.
Today, the shipyard is one of only two that build and service nuclear-powered submarines, and it is the sole builder of aircraft carriers for the Navy. Owned by defense contractor Northrop Grumman, it employs 20,000 people.
Mariners’ is national maritime museum
Huntington’s son, Archer, founded the Mariners’ Museum in 1932. Designated by the U.S. Congress as America’s National Maritime Museum, its wide-ranging treasures include intricate miniature ships crafted by August and Winnifred Crabtree and most of the USS Monitor, the first ironclad ship with a revolving gun turret. The Monitor saved the Union fleet in a battle with the Merrimac during the Civil War.
It was discovered in 240 feet of water off Cape Hatteras, N.C., and the 210 tons of artifacts found, including its engine and gun turret, are being conserved in a $30 million, 68,000-square-foot expansion built in 2007.
The addition includes a concourse, where events for 200 can be held under stars seen through skylights. The lobby, dominated by a one-and-a-half-ton gilt eagle figurehead, can host a 500-person reception.
The Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce claimed the entire museum for its September SeaFest Showcase, with 100 exhibitors and 750 attendees.
“It’s one of the Peninsula’s best assets,” said Michael Kuhns, chamber president and CEO, “with indoor and outdoor venues and a beautiful setting.”
The museum has two courtyards, including one with a true-to-size silhouette of the USS Monitor and the metal claw (called a “spider”) that was used to raise its gun turret from the ocean floor.The other courtyard adjoins a meeting room for 120.
James Thornton, director of environmental health and safety for Newport News Shipbuilding, used this room for a two-day meeting of directors of Northrop Grumman’s other sectors, which build satellites and aircraft.
“We wanted people who come from different parts of the country to understand the history of shipbuilding and its role in national defense,” he said. “So we included a two-hour tour of the museum. They were impressed.”
The deck of a USS Monitor look-alike that sits alongside the museum is one of its most unusual event spaces.
“You can have a cocktail reception for up to 150 there,” said Lindsay Allen, director of special events, “although it gets pretty hot in the summer. It’s black and not shaded.”
Museum examines Army’s moves
Less opulent but just as much a part of life on the peninsula is the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, home to the Army’s transportation corps.
With nearly 100 vehicles, the museum shows how the Army has moved men and supplies by land, sea and air from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan. It. It also shows how the past instructs the future.
“The Army values history,” said Matt Fraas, the museum’s education specialist.
The Army used horses and mules for transportation until 1953, when they were replaced by helicopters.
“But today they’re bringing back pack animals in Afghanistan,” Fraas said. “And when they needed to write a new manual for using donkeys there, they came here and looked at an old manual from World War I.”
Similarly, the seeds for the interstate highway system were planted in 1919 when the Army took a convoy across the country to test vehicles and roads.
“A young lieutenant named Dwight David Eisenhower was assigned to that convoy that took two months over rugged terrain,” Fraas said. “Years later, when he became president, the interstate highway system was built.”
The city-owned Virginia War Museum traces the U.S. military from 1775 to the present.
In addition to uniforms and equipment, its collections include the second-largest section of the Berlin Wall in this country and part of the outer wall of the Dachau concentration camp, liberated by American soldiers in World War II. Both were donated by veterans who were on the scene when the walls came down.
During events for groups of 50 to 80, guests can examine 400 propaganda posters from World War I through the Vietnam War.
One, depicting a mother and child, encouraged men to enlist for World War I after the sinking of the Lusitania. Another British poster inspired the familiar “Uncle Sam Wants You” image.
A more recent poster, the only one on which DC Comics ever permitted Superman to appear, shows the hero swooping in to rescue Bosnian children about to pick up toylike unexploded butterfly land mines that remain from the war in the mid-1990s.
Sculptures spice landscape
You’ll also find big art in Newport News. Twelve monumental sculptures adorn the medical center, the airport and other public venues. Five are at Port Warwick, an award-winning mixed-use development and home to Fin, a seafood restaurant with a private dining room for 38.
The brainchild of local developer Bobby Freeman, Port Warwick was named for the fictional city in William Styron’s novel “Lie Down in Darkness.” Its centerpiece is Styron Square, named for the Newport News native and Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
When Freeman built Port Warwick, he invited Styron to name the streets.
“So we have Nat Turner Boulevard,” said Suzanne Pearson, media relations manager for the Newport News Tourism Development Office, and other streets he named for writers, such as Philip Roth, Herman Melville and Walt Whitman.
Music in the air
There’s also music in the air in the birthplace of Ella Fitzgerald and the city where Pearl Bailey grew up. Free concerts are held nearly every night from May to September.
Thirty-five shows are staged each year on the campus of Christopher Newport University at the Ferguson Center for the Arts, which was designed by I.M. Pei’s architectural firm. Amy Grant, Blue Man Group, Wynton Marsalis, Diane Warwick are among the artists who have performed there.
The center’s three theaters and two lobbies can host events for 1,700 people. Its President’s Room, with dark wood walls and crystal chandeliers, is sometimes available on request for receptions for 150; the smaller Inner Circle Room hosts private gatherings of 75.
Behind-the-scenes tours and group packages are also available.
Nearby, the Peninsula Fine Arts Center can seat 250 people in its main gallery, with changing exhibits and movable walls; several small art-studio rooms are nearby. A courtyard with a waterfall is an option for small receptions.
William Styron once described the exhilaration of reading a great book. It “should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted,” he said. A meeting in his hometown could easily have the same effect.