- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2002

STAUNTON, Va. - The Blackfriars Playhouse rings with chatter as a throng of Roman citizens loudly discuss Caesar's murder. In variously colored togas draped over modern shirts, slacks and suit coats they strut across the stage, their voices rising in crescendo, building up to the delivery of some of Shakespeare's most famous lines.
"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears "
It's Act III, Scene II of "Julius Caesar," and many in the audience of 70 high school students including a company of military-school boys in crewcuts and trim gray pants lean forward onto the lower gallery's oak wood railing, listening to Antony's speech, looking stunned perhaps at the very idea that in the middle of this pastoral valley they are able to soak up the full panoply of Shakespeare.
It's no surprise to anyone who knows this town. The "Queen City of the Shenandoah" has made itself a weekend destination, and the Blackfriars, an authentic replica of Shakespeare's 1596 indoor playhouse in London, is the jewel in its crown.
Finished just last year at a cost of $3.7 million by Shenandoah Shakespeare, a 14-year-old acting troupe determined to make Shakespeare accessible, the brick Elizabethan playhouse in the center of town is the only re-creation in the world of the first English indoor theater. It drew 50,000 visitors last year and has given a new boost to a town determined to preserve itself.
Indeed, at a time of generally slow tourist visitation across Virginia, Staunton's numbers are slightly up over last year's.
"Speaking conservatively, we get at least 100,000 visitors per year," says Sergei Troubetzkoy. A native of Richmond, Mr. Troubetzkoy has been director of the Staunton Convention and Visitors Bureau for almost 14 years. The Virginia Tourism Corp., he adds, says repeat visitation to the city of 24,000 is much higher than the state average.
"Part of it is the perception that we're quiet and safe," Mr. Troubetzkoy explains. "If you're dealing with the stress of living in D.C. and you're looking for a getaway, you're not going to go to another large city. You're going to go someplace quiet."
Add to that quality the ease of getting about. Because Staunton's downtown is fairly small and parking is ample including several convenient decks and large lots visitors normally leave their vehicles behind and walk everywhere. The city offers a free trolley service for those who wish to ride.

Staunton (pronounced STAN-ton) was founded in 1747 and 100 years later had become important as a transshipment center because of its rail connection to eastern Virginia. Alongside its C&O; station, its many warehouses usually were packed with grain, fruit and cattle, all awaiting the next departing train.
That business long gone; the warehouses have been restored and converted into shops and restaurants. With dozens of other old edifices preserved and spread across more than a dozen city blocks, Staunton obviously is a place where the past matters. Add several attractions including the Blackfriars in town and the Museum of American Frontier Culture on the outskirts and the 125-mile drive from Washington is suddenly worth the effort.
Two historic districts the Wharf and the Beverley make up much of Staunton's downtown. The five-block Wharf area (so-called because the railroad acted like a river) is centered on the restored C&O; Station. Built in 1902 in the bungalow style, with impressively large eaves, the structure today boasts two fine eateries: the Pullman Restaurant and the Depot Grill. A metal pedestrian bridge that stretches above the station and the tracks offers a fine view of the city rising into the hills in the north.
Across the cobblestone street sits a long row of beautifully preserved two-story brick warehouses. Strikingly painted in brick red, forest green and cream with deep aquamarine trim, they house such businesses as the Jolly Roger Haggle Shop, with a skull and crossbones on the door, and the Wilderness Adventure Shop. The Garden Gate, smelling strongly of incense, sells gardening implements, candles, frames and knickknacks.
Nearby stands the once-luxurious three-story American Hotel, built in the late 1850s by the Virginia Central Railroad. Here in 1874, the Stonewall Brigade Band which had provided the music for Confederate Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's forces during the Civil War serenaded President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant during a whistle-stop. Interestingly, at the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Grant had allowed these musicians to keep their instruments because, he said, he had enjoyed hearing them from across the lines.
A few blocks away, at SunSpots a store offering decorations made of glass and copper the main attraction is Phillip Nolley, a glass blower with 22 years' experience. Visitors sit on a metal bench and watch the craftsman through plate-glass windows.
"This afternoon I'm making large glass marbles that will become ornaments," he explains. With their brilliant swirled colors greens and reds and blues the 2-inch-diameter creations resemble the "cat's-eye" variety once coveted by the playground set.
Gathering clear molten glass from a 2,100-degree furnace on the end of a 3-foot-long metal rod (called a "punty"), Mr. Nolley rolls the glass on a metal table until it forms a long cylinder 2 inches wide. He next dips it into bins holding tiny bits of colored glass "that will make," he says, "all the stripes or spots or specks of color" then adds another layer of clear glass on top.
After further rolling (called "marvering"), Mr. Nolley shapes the 6-inch-long cylinder into marbles using a ring tool and "jacks to pinch them off." The final destination is a 950-degree oven (called an "annealer") where the glass will cool very slowly over the course of a day.
The result? Four dazzling "cat's-eye" marbles that will sell for $10 to $15 each.
Another interesting structure in the Wharf District has housed Bruce A. Elder Antique and Classic Automobiles since 1989. Built in 1912, the three-story, 27,000-square-foot building was for years the home of Augusta Motor Sales, once the largest car dealership in the South.
"I have thought of giving impromptu tours on Fridays and Saturdays," says owner Bruce Elder, an outgoing 45-year-old. "People always show up looking through the windows."
It's easy to see why. Behind the glass sit two jet-black classic coupes: a 1948 Plymouth Special DeLuxe "meaning it has all the extra trim and a fancier interior," Mr. Elder explains with only 20,000 original miles on it, and a 1941 model of the same make, this one with running boards, similar to the car Humphrey Bogart drove in "The Big Sleep."
Upstairs sits a 1929 Packard that appeared in "The Cotton Club," with Richard Gere and Diane Lane, and a gorgeous gray touring car made in 1938 by the German tank manufacturer Horch.
"This was one of three autos delivered to the Luftwaffe high command," Mr. Elder says, "and was used by General Hermann Goering. This one is for sale for $275,000."

None of these buildings in the Wharf District would be standing still if a determined group of residents had not fought for their preservation.
"It was in the late '60s, during the height of urban renewal," explains 39-year-old Frank Strassler, executive director of the Historic Staunton Foundation Inc. "Buildings were being taken down at an alarming rate. A plan put forth by an engineering firm called for large sections of the downtown to be taken down. Part of it was for a highway coming through."
That was the final straw.
"Those people gelled and did all the proper things to become a nonprofit," he continues, "and became a thorn in the side of the political leaders in the community at that time. They purchased some of the historic properties, but a lot of it was going to the City Council meetings and shouting and fighting very hard, working to garner public support. The paper at first called them 'Hysterical Staunton.'"
Those same preservationists formed the Historic Staunton Foundation Inc., in 1971.
"We don't operate that way at all today," Mr. Strassler says with a smile. "Nowadays, we're very involved with the city government, we go to the City Council meetings and encourage redevelopment."

At the north end of town a short trip aboard the free trolley named Lady Rebecca in the Staunton Fire & Rescue Station sits a magnificent fire engine, a 1911 Jumbo built by the Robinson Fire Apparatus Co. of St. Louis. Painted bright red with gold and green trim, it features a 5-foot-long, six-cylinder, 700-horsepower engine and has the ability to pump 750 gallons per minute.
The Blackfriars, however, remains the center of attraction. The brick structure at 10 S. Market St. in the Beverley District is unremarkable on the outside. Inside the doorway, however, the 1596 theater is all there, in 57,000 linear feet of gorgeous oak: the upper and lower galleries behind beautifully turned railings, the Lord's Room, the 50-by-24-foot stage and the stalls facing it.
"We currently have three shows in production," says Executive Director Ralph Cohen, "'Julius Caesar,' 'Twelfth Night' and 'Richard III.' So someone coming in for the weekend could see all three the show that Friday night, the Saturday night show and the matinee on Sunday.
"This is a building where the English language was built," he says. "This theater is about listening, and hearing and trying out new words."

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