Awakening a Village 

A landmark gets new life in Montpelier.

Montpelier, a rural village 25 miles northeast of Richmond in Hanover County, was once a gentler, 18th-century version of the pit stop. As travelers on horseback and stagecoach left Richmond along the Mountain Road for Gordonsville, Harrisonburg and points west, they often stopped at Montpelier's Sycamore Tavern. Built around 1732, the tiny, one-and-a-half-story inn is snug against the road in a grove of huge, gnarled trees. It was the fourth stop beyond Richmond where, in a 5-mile-an-hour universe, horses were refueled with water and feed.

By the early 20th century, automobiles were chugging along the Mountain Road. The old tavern was rendered obsolete by Montpelier's new, white-frame filling station and general store. And a handful of other buildings — a lumber mill, an Episcopal church, a post office — also lined the thoroughfare to gain the fleeting attention of travelers. Highway strip culture was born.

A constant in the community, for as long as most can remember, is the red brick former Montpelier High School. It was built in 1929 and sits on a lawn directly behind Sycamore Tavern. Its design is unmistakably Andrea Palladio-inspired. The central core is joined to two symmetrical wings by hyphens that contain round-arched front doors. The standing seam tin roof, painted green, is a friendly reminder that this is rural Hanover County, not the Veneto.

Since 1992, the old school has served as The Montpelier Center for Arts & Education, and recently the building received a subtle rethinking and major restoration under the deft guidance of Marcellus Wright Cox & Smith, a Richmond architecture firm. In its rehabilitated form, the building houses a full art-exhibition schedule, a branch library, performances, arts classes and flexible space for receptions, dances and lectures.

While the building's exterior was mostly untouched, surprises await inside. The original floor plan was distinguished by a U-shaped hallway that led to classrooms on the outer side. The classrooms have been converted into studio spaces.

The hallway encircled a modest-sized auditorium. The architect kept the hallway intact — it now constitutes the center's gallery space — but transformed the auditorium.

The raked wooden floor was leveled so that the space would be more versatile. The stage was reinstalled. But most dramatically, three of the four auditorium walls were ripped out and replaced by continuous walls of clear glass windows. These are triple hung so that they can be pushed up to allow for greater circulation and movement if the occasion demands (The triple-hung, first floor windows on the garden side of the Wickham House of the Valentine History Center were the inspiration).

The ceiling of the auditorium rises above its surrounding structure to allow for windows in upper reaches. "I never liked any kind of room without natural light," says principal architect Fred Cox.

The center's renovation hits the absolute right note. There's nothing gussied up or cute about the place. The architect respected the space to the point that it appears that the 75-year old walls themselves told the planners what they wanted to be. This was no small feat, since Marcellus Wright Cox and Smith is a firm with a strong resume of major performing arts centers including restoration of the Carpenter Center, University of Richmond's Modlin Center for the Arts, and theaters at Collegiate and Steward schools.

Montpelier residents will be marking the 75th anniversary of the old school this fall. There is much to celebrate. Not only is the building revived and alive but the surrounding grounds look great. Nearby there are the Ruritan Club building, ball fields, walking trails, and Sycamore Tavern now houses the Page Library, a local archives. Only the boxy, single-story former Vocational-Agricultural Building behind the arts and education center awaits a new use.

As rural metropolitan Richmond gets increasingly suburban and homogenized, places like Montpelier are increasingly rare. But this village is proof positive of what can be accomplished when enough historical architectural fabric survives to be reinvigorated by citizens with a deep love of place and enlightened leadership. S

The Montpelier Center for Arts & Education will be celebrating its 75th anniversary in the coming months. For more information go to montpeliercenter.org or call 883-7378.

Saturday, Aug. 28

Sizzlin' Summer Music Fest

Anniversary celebration kick-off event with Steve Bassett, Ululating Mummies and five other musical acts performing at the Montpelier Center from 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m.. Tickets cost $10-$15, under 12 free. Call 883-7378.

Sunday, Aug. 29

Spiritual and Gospel Music Fest

Presented by a community of churches at Bethany Baptist Church, 14683 Bethany Church Rd., from 2-4:30 p.m. Donations accepted.

Friday, Sept. 17

Dinner Theater

"The Letter" will be performed by The Old Dominion Drama Guild at the Hanover Community Center, 14662 Bethany Church Rd., featuring The Barfield Company Dancers and Eclesia. Dinner at 5:30 p.m., show at 7. Tickets $30, call 883-5292.

Sunday, Sept. 19

Classics on the lawn at Oakland

A reception on the grounds of the Page family plantation in rural Montpelier at 7 p.m.. Tickets cost $50 and include an assortment of Virginia wines, heavy hors d'oeuvres and entertainment by Belle Arte Strings Quartet. Call 883-5355.

Saturday, Oct. 16

Diamonds are Forever

The 75th Anniversary Gala at the Montpelier Center for Arts & Education, 7:30 p.m.-12 a.m., with music by the Gypsy Swing Quartet and the Midnight Movers. Black tie optional. Tickets are $100, call 883-7378.

Sunday, Oct. 17

Homecoming Reunion at the Montpelier Center for Arts & Education 2-4:30 p.m. For information call 883-7249.

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