Living It Up Downtown 

A loft, a hotel, a penthouse: Inside three urban retreats.

The view from his sixth floor apartment at Cary and 23rd streets not only faces the sunset but it also overlooks a unique Richmond landscape that includes the river, the highway crossovers, the tobacco warehouses and downtown’s high-rises. It’s all within view. McNeill gets a kick out of drinking his coffee in the morning and watching the cars flow down Interstate 95 with people going to work. Then he joins them too: His office is in the West End. The proximity to the interstate is one of the things he likes best about living in the Bottom.

Before joining Free Agents Marketing, McNeill worked for WRVA-AM radio station and lived in five houses in different areas of Richmond. Prior to that, his work took him to cities all over the South. In each place, he lived in the suburbs but longed to live downtown.

Now that he does, McNeill doesn’t spend much time at home. He uses his apartment as a landing pad. He spends much of his time out of town on business or visiting friends in the suburbs, but enjoys coming back home to the city. He likes the conveniences of city life — walking to a nearby restaurant, for example. He says the lack of a supermarket, until recently, didn’t bother him because he would just stop off on his way home from work. Getting his laundry delivered to the door isn’t bad either.

“It’s fun for me. I’m single. I like to have parties,” he says, “People like to come down here because it’s different from what everybody else has.”

Yet in the three years he’s lived downtown, McNeill has developed a lifestyle that doesn’t mesh with most people’s idea of downtown living. He goes for a regular two-mile hike down and around the river, watching eagles and ospreys. He grows orchids, and once had eight blooming at the same time. He even has a garden of potted vegetables.

“Richmond is just one of those special places and living down here just makes it all worthwhile,” he says. “You’re kind of in the hub of it all.” — Carrie Nieman, photos by Scott Elmquist

Lofty design works for engineering student.

“This place is custom fit to me,” says Sky Huvard, with a satisfied grin, as he surveys his domain. His compact, 325-square-foot loft apartment is on the ground floor of a turn-of-the-last-century storefront in Oregon Hill. “Starting with the standard dimensions of a bed and a bathroom, I modeled a bunch of different configurations on my computer,” he says, “One of the things I knew I wanted was a divider to keep at least part of the space private.”

As he sips his cocoa-spiked coffee, the 22-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University information-engineering student with a Medusa-like head of brown hair points enthusiastically to various features of his digs. It’s clear that Huvard is proud of the yacht cabinlike organizational discipline of the habitat he designed and built with his father’s help.

The most dramatic feature of the space is a sleeping loft that divides the front living area from the kitchen. This platform is elevated high enough to allow room underneath for a small home office and closet. Huvard says the height of the upper berth was determined by “how tall I was on my knees.” Since he hasn’t gotten around to building steps, he crawls into bed via a yellow metal ladder.

The small galley kitchen has an undercounter refrigerator and microwave oven. There is no stove. One luxury, however, is a deep sink: “It’s easy to fill and hard to overflow,” Huvard says, sounding like a guy who doesn’t wash dishes any more than he has to. More counter space is provided by a hinged countertop made of laminated pine 2-by-4s that can be raised, allowing access to a seldom-used back door. “The coolest thing is that it’s kind of a draw bridge,” he says. .

Huvard’s apartment is furnished mostly with hand-me-downs from his grandmother. But one prized item is an Aeron desk chair, an ergonomically designed chair that has become a contemporary classic.

The apartment’s concrete floors are covered in gray, industrial carpet squares that can be installed easily. “I’ve already replaced quite a few,” Huvard says.

A distinguishing characteristic of the loft: the front display window where dozens of plants enjoy the even light from the north. The plants sit on galvanized sheet metal trays designed for the space by Huvard’s father, Anthony, who worked alongside his son in developing the space. The pair completed the project in about two months for less than $3,000, including the kitchen and bathroom.

Huvard likes the convenience of his apartment being just a few steps from many of his classes: “There are no parking issues.” — Edwin Slipek Jr., photos by Stephen Salpukas

A Richmond couple finds living in a hotel has its advantages.

“We were joking that the whole hotel is our apartment,” says Elizabeth Stewart Bennett, sitting in her apartment that spans what used to be a string of rooms in a corner of the Hotel John Marshall’s fourth floor.

She’s hardly joking. She and her husband, Rod, have been living in the John Marshall since February. Their company, Fabulous Hospitality, has a contract with the hotel to manage day-to-day operations, plus run all food services, including catering and the new John Marshall Martini Kitchen and Bubble Bar restaurant.

When the Bennetts are hungry for a meal, they have a chef and a 3,000-square-foot kitchen at their disposal. That’s good because their apartment doesn’t have a kitchen. What it does have is a living room, dining area, two bedrooms, an office, a room-sized closet and a whopping five bathrooms.

That they think of the whole hotel as their house extends to their trusted staff — some also live in the hotel — who they think of as their children. Living and working in the same place works well for the couple. They keep late hours working hard to make sure their new restaurant is running smoothly. When you’re going home at 3 a.m., it’s nice to just take the elevator upstairs. “With the amount of hours that’s demanded of us 24 hours a day,” Rod says, “if we didn’t live here, we would.”

The idea of living in a hotel isn’t new to the Bennetts — both lived in hotels they’ve managed: Rod at the Homestead and Elizabeth at several Omni hotels. What is new is that the couple have all their furniture and personal effects with them this time. Excess furniture and belongings spill over to furnish two other rooms of the hotel and part of the restaurant. Two of their leather couches, vintage liquor posters and Elizabeth’s rooster collection all can be found in the Bubble Bar.

When they get a chance to break away from work, the Bennetts say they enjoy city living. “All our services are right here,” says Elizabeth pointing out the windows in different directions to the tailor, dry cleaner, bank, coffee shop, wine store, Penny Lane Pub across the street, Capitol Ale House a few streets away and the Carpenter Center around the corner.

“You’ve got to like an urban environment,” Elizabeth says. “If you like to go out and garden, this wouldn’t be for you.” Rod agrees, “This is very conducive to our lifestyle. We don’t like to drive to the West End to eat dinner in a strip mall, that’s just not us.”

Elizabeth has had fun researching the John Marshall’s history. It opened on the day the stock market crashed in 1929 and boasts former guests such as Elizabeth Taylor, Bob Hope and Elvis, she says. Today, aside from the Bennetts and some of their staff, the hotel rents out 63 rooms and several long-term accommodations for guests such as a set designer for the new ABC drama, “Line of Fire.”

The luxuries of living in a hotel include access to a concierge, maid service, phone messages taken by the front desk, room service, grocery delivery from the restaurant and membership to the nearby YMCA. The only drawback, they say, is a lack of green space where they can walk their two miniature schnauzers, Ursula and Winston. As a result, the Bennetts say they’re looking to buy a home at the river as a retreat for their days off, Sundays and Mondays.

As the Bennetts, along with the hotel’s owner, former Williamsburg Mayor Gilbert L. Granger, try to revitalize the hotel, their hope is to raise enough money to restore the John Marshall to its original grandeur with a combination of luxury apartments (with kitchens) and hotel suites. They have big plans for the hotel: There’s talk of retail space on the first floor, including a gourmet-grocery store and a Starbucks, and ideas for a private club on the top floor. But until that time, the Bennetts have one big house at Fifth and Franklin. — Carrie Nieman, photos by Stephen Salpukas




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