falling out of love in roanoke

Or more accurately, refusing to fall out of love in Roanoke, Virginia. Those were the sentiments I witnessed while circling about the town, passing by its endless cadre of abandoned buildings, all in varying shades of decay.

There are plenty of new buildings being built around town, too. Taubman Museum of Art, I’m looking at you. A recent addition, it was designed by Randall Stout who, no surprise here, worked for Frank Gehry for over seven years. This beautifully innovative building is shown below. However, it’s the only modern building you’ll see here, as it was the only modern building I found that possessed much character.

In town for the 8th North American Forest Ecology Workshop, I felt enormously privileged to spend my days in the lustrous Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center, where apples bobbed in water alongside great glass vats of various sparkling fruit-flavored beverages, across from platters of honey and chocolate creme-filled cannoli, homemade granola bars, ham and cheese croissants, and out-of-place hot dogs and buns. I also felt privileged to be sharing the conference center’s space with the Miss Virginia Pageant, of whom my most frequent sightings were the teen and preteen competitors. It’s safe to say our two groups remained easily identifiable throughout the week.

When not feistily taking notes, putting together my presentation, or eating my share of the aforementioned delicacies, I was out and about. I alternated between humiliating myself in attempts at long runs around town in the muggy evening heat, and taking pictures of the things I had noticed while running around town muggily. I definitely didn’t get mugged, though, as there seemed to be heavy police presence wherever I went. Maybe they had been warned of my arrival.

I quickly decided that it was the architecture I wanted to focus my attention on during my stay. When not focusing on trains, that is. I didn’t even buy any chocolate. Gasp!

I halfheartedly did try to buy chocolate from chocolatepaper, a shop selling (spoiler alert) chocolate and paper. However, my first time in the shop found me unexpectedly without my purse in my vast conference bag of goodies. My second time in the shop found me bored with their chocolate selection, so I went without. I ate another creme-filled cannoli from the Hotel Roanoke and called it good.

For the first half of my stay, I couldn’t help but think that the inhabitants of Roanoke had fallen out of love with their city. After all, abandoned lots and dilapidated buildings were on nearly every corner. As The Black Eyed Peas would soulfully query of Roanoke’s town planner, where is the love?

The more time I spent exploring, however, the more I appreciated what I was seeing. Unlike other places where old buildings are removed in favor of the New and the Improved technology, that was not the case here. New buildings are being built alongside the old, with renovations in the works for many of the older structures. In fact, the whole of downtown Roanoke is currently undergoing major revitalization efforts. The love is still there.

Renovated or not, these old buildings have character. While not a typical way of luring in tourists, I was successfully hooked by the style and grace that I found in architectural elements around town. And the (my counting skills are questionable here) 66- or 67-track rail yard on the west end of town didn’t hurt, either. I would gladly return to gentle, calm and somewhat sleepy Roanoke.

Roanoke is a convenient jumping-off place for exploring Virginia’s sector of the Blue Ridge Mountains. While my stay was brief, I made it out into the mountains once, to the beautiful Bottom Creek Gorge. I chased a snake, I took pictures of ferns, and I enjoyed chatting with others who, like myself, live to catalog every understory plant that they see in the forest.

For more information on exploring Roanoke:

The Roanoke Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau

101 Shenandoah Avenue NE
Roanoke, VA 24016

Consider splurging on plush accommodations at:

The Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center

110 Shenandoah Avenue
Roanoke, VA 24016

And if seeing a tall waterfall (albeit not the state’s largest), old cabin remnants, and a huge 9-stemmed basswood tree sound up your alley, head to:

Bottom Creek Gorge Preserve

Located in Montgomery County, VA.

Open daily, dawn to dusk

If you go, enjoy yourself. Just don’t find the rare chestnut lipfern, because I didn’t get to see it, and I’d be hella jealous of you.


12 thoughts on “falling out of love in roanoke

  1. I love how the stairs stop just a little bit before the top of the hill :) And I am 100% certain that you would’ve been crowned Miss Virginia had you stumbled on the stage. The chocolate glow would’ve made you stand out from the crowd, for sure.

  2. Maris: Thank you!

    Hannah: Funny story. So one of the mornings, the little misses were going through a roll call. By little, I mean this was the pre-teen category. Well, everyone answered the call of the roll except for a little miss named Emma. They called once, they called twice, they called thrice in a voice suggesting “How dare you sign up for Little Miss Virginia and then not deign to be here??!” I considered sidling over and joining in the festivities.

    I loved those stairs as well. I think that was my favorite sight around town. Dr. Claytor, are you there?

    1. I live in Roanoke and came upon this blog post while doing research on the Claytor Clinic. Dr. John B. Claytor was an OB-GYN who grew up and worked in the Gainsboro ward of Roanoke, a historically black neighborhood. Like most doctors of his era, he saw patients in his house — the tiled door step and the attendant stairs are all that remains of that house. He had eight children, and I think five attended medical school. So the Doctor built the clinic across the street so they could all practice together and serve the black community of Roanoke. Dr. Claytor was well known (if you’re African American and were born in Roanoke while he practiced, chances are he delivered you), but very humble (the clinic is named for his wife, not himself), so not much written history exists about him. Thanks for taking an interest in Roanoke’s history. We’re in the midst of a small revival. Jim Crow is thankfully a relic of the past, Roanoke now has two large hospitals and a medical school open to all. But that does mean that Dr. Claytor and his legacy must be preserved in the living people he helped bring into the world, as opposed to the buildings he once owned. (Not that some people aren’t trying!)

  3. What a nice bunch of moody photos–and, indeed, where is the ghostly Dr. Claytor? And was this his home site, or his office site; or perhaps it was both!

  4. Here in Brisbane, many of our older buildings were pulled down in the name of progress! But fortunately, about 20 years ago the city decided to see sense and now the buildings are protected. In fact, some of the old warehouses have been converted and 1 bedroom apartments can sell for about $500,000. Crazy! I love your exploration of this city. :)

  5. Mum: Moody moody indeed. The dark threatening skies helped to set the mood in Roanoke, as did getting drenched on during my walk to the conference banquet.

    I’m not sure about Dr. Claytor. What I didn’t realize until after I’d taken the stairs photo was that the old medical clinic, shown directly above, and next to the chocolatepaper photo, is the Claytor Memorial Clinic. These steps were on the other side of the block, so it appears that while one building remains, at least one other once existed. I’m curious too. Ghosts of Claytors past!

    Julia: It’s very interesting to hear about the state of architectural progress in Brisbane! That’s great to hear that the city is making money out of old buildings by making them hip once again. It reminds me of the old flour mills lining the Mississippi River in Minneapolis – amazing price ranges for lofts, such as you describe. I’m glad you enjoyed the exploration:)

  6. You’ve certainly captured a beautifully rustic type of vibe in your pictures (they’re lovely, by the way)…it seems like a charming place to spend a little time! But I guess I’m surprised – no commentary on the “Lost Colony”? Or does nobody care about that anymore? Or is it too trite to mention in a blog post? *knows nothing about Roanoke* :D

    Also…are the renovations to the old buildings meant to keep them looking old? Or are they updating the entire look of the buildings too? It always makes me kind of sad to see “classic” buildings get their classiness stripped from them. ;_;

    1. Mary: Lost Colony, eh? I had to look this one up, because even if I learned about it back in junior high, I certainly had no recollection of such a thing. As it turns out, the Roanoke “Lost” Colony was located in present-day North Carolina, on the coast. Current Roanoke that I speak of here is several hours inland in Virginia. It would definitely not be too trite to mention had I known about it, or been in the correct location. And now, even though I wasn’t, it’s been mentioned. Not too trite!

      I believe many of the old buildings are to remain old-looking – hence part of the charm in marketing them to the Roanoke yuppies (of which I saw none). Many of the buildings were simple brick structures with many windows; it’s probably not too hard to retain their charm, at least on the outside!

  7. I really wish I knew which street you were on when you too the steps to Dr. Claytor and the Memorial Clinic. I know I’ve seen them before. I guess I need to go for a ride and find it.

    Anyhoo, great photos and I’m glad you enjoyed your time in Roanoke.

    1. Kelly: Ahh but you’re in luck, as cartographic knowledge happens to be my specialty! The clinic that remains standing is on the small spur off Gilmer Ave NW that is labeled 1st St NW (facing 2nd St). The remnant steps can be found on Patton Ave NW, and N Jefferson St.

      I definitely enjoyed my time in Roanoke. It’s so different from where I live in every way – it was great to get this experience. I don’t suppose you happen to know some of the stories behind these buildings?

  8. Hi Emma, I’m a writer, photographer and a Roanoker. I love your impressions of the city and enjoyed your photography. You would appreciate some of the completed renovations. When you return,it might be worth to head to the suburbs to visit Baylee’s Best Chocolates on Electric Road for handmade sublimity. Give me a shout — I’ll take you there.

And now I'd like to pass the mic / So you c'mon and do anything you like ...aka, Leave your reply.

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