Henry Lane Hull

by Henry Lane Hull

ROANOKE—I’m here in the Star City after an absence of many years. In my days teaching in Alabama I passed through Roanoke over 200 times en route back and forth to the Northern Neck. The city I am visiting at present is quite different from what I knew in my past life.

For decades the city has been known to most people for the large illuminated white star on the top of Mill Mountain and for the Hotel Roanoke. The star, erected in 1949, remains the world’s largest illuminated star.

Travelers who had not visited Roanoke knew of the hotel through its promotional activity across the Commonwealth with signs along highways and byways bearing the message, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Hotel Roanoke,” a modification of Francis Pharcellus Church’s famous 1897 answer in The New York Sun to a little girl who had written to ask if there was a Santa Claus. The meaning was clear, namely, that the Hotel Roanoke was Virginia’s Santa.

The hotel was built, owned and operated by the Norfolk and Western Railway, which donated the property to Virginia Tech in 1989, ending over a century of railway ownership. The university undertook a vast modernization program, rehabilitating the structure and adding a conference center in order to become a draw for conventions.

The signature offering of the dining room remains peanut soup and any visit to Roanoke must include consumption of at least one bowlful of it. The Regency Room offers menus designed for those with refined taste, who expect precise service. In that atmosphere they receive both.

Overlooking the train tracks, a pedestrian walkway bridge was built to link the hotel to the historic center of the city, many buildings of which also have undergone adaptation and restoration. Old brick warehouses and stores have been rehabilitated and given new life as restaurants and other commercial businesses. The City Market offers wonderful displays of fresh produce.

Several blocks beyond the historic core the Patrick Henry Hotel, built in 1925 after being closed for some years, has been reworked as an apartment complex. The elegant lobby remains, but in a basically unused state and one of the elegantly appointed ballrooms has survived as a venue for receptions.

One of the Patrick Henry’s great attractions was the needlepoint shop in the lobby, which drew needlework devotees from great distances. My neighbor, the late Margaret Hillier, regularly traveled to Roanoke to purchase needlepoint supplies, always saying they were the finest she could get anywhere.

Matching Virginia Tech’s efforts with the Hotel Roanoke, the city has laid out a number of greenways to encourage walking, jogging and biking, and implemented a free trolley service connecting the center of the city to the parks and the medical complex at the foot of Mill Mountain. Riding the trolley, one gets an excellent overview of what has been accomplished by the public/private partnership in bringing the city back to its days of former glory.

In that endeavor Amtrak has reopened rail service between Roanoke and Washington, D.C. Passengers can leave Roanoke early in the morning and arrive in the Nation’s Capital five hours later, returning in the afternoon, reaching Roanoke slightly before 10 p.m. The train arrives in D.C. in time for connections to the Northeast Corridor, thus reintegrating Roanoke into the East Coast transportation mix.

My three days here have been eye opening in may respects. Remembering the city before its urban decline, seeing it through that period and now experiencing it fully vibrant once again has been heart-warming. In the past I have thought of Roanoke as a place through which to pass. Now I think of it as a grand place to visit.