‘A true community’

Once a fixer-upper, Staunton’s Newtown
now shining light in Queen City

Story by Chris Graham
newdominion@ntelos.net

People thought Michael Organ was crazy. That old home in Newtown was jaw-dropping beautiful, sure, but who in their right mind would stay at a bed-and-breakfast where you were as likely to get your hubcaps stolen or run into a prostitute or drug dealer as you were to enjoy the sunrise over Betsy Bell and Mary Gray?

“Gutsy” is the word Organ uses to describe his idea of the popular view of his move in 1982 to develop what has become the Belle Grae Inn, which encompasses the bed-and-breakfast, apartments designed for longer-stay corporate guests and an 80-seat restaurant.

There were people buying and rehabbing properties in Staunton’s Newtown neighborhood before Organ, but his move at the Belle Grae Inn is seen as a turning point in the historic neighborhood’s rebirth. More than 200 homes and business storefronts have been renovated in Newtown since 1982, and a recent tour of the neighborhood led by Newtown Neighborhood Association president Craig Peterson reveals that things are really just getting started to that end.

“There’s still a lot of potential here,” said Peterson, who bought his 703 West Beverley home in 2001 and set to renovating the structure that dates to 1792 immediately.

It ended up being a project several years in the making. “The half over here was livable. This one was not. We just thought, Well, we’ll fix it up and move in in 90 days. A year and a half later, we moved in,” Peterson said.

“It’s as finished as an old house is ever going to be,” Peterson said. “The older it gets, the more work it’s going to need. And it probably will need work forever. But what we’re doing now is the fun stuff.”

Part of the fun stuff is being a part of a neighborhood that has an active neighborhood association. You don’t get that as much – or at all – in subdivisions.

“It’s a neighborhood in transition, and in our experience neighborhoods in transition have a lot of opportunity for people to either build their personal life there, renovate a home, renovate an apartment or something, or conversely start a business that then becomes an anchor in the neighborhood. We sort of took both routes,” said Brian Wiedemann, who opened the George Bowers Grocery just down West Beverley Street from the Petersons last November and is engaged in an ongoing Newtown home renovation at the same time.

“One of the wonderful things about Newtown is the mix of people who have come here. They chose the place deliberately because they’ve got the spunk and spirit to tackle what in some cases a pretty desperate old building and restore it into being something beautiful and then be a part of the community,” said Katharine Brown, who purchased a Washington Street fixer-upper in 1996.

“There’s a wonderful neighborly feeling here. The formation of the Newtown Neighborhood Association did a lot to foster that, and continues to,” Brown said. “The Association makes it possible for a lot of people to get to know each other. So you’re not just moving into a neighborhood, and maybe the people next door will speak to you, and maybe they’ll bring you a plate of cookies, but you never know.

“We’ve got plenty of opportunities to check in with each other, to get new people introduced to the community. And I think we all share this sort of common experience of having worked to make the dream of rescuing an old place come true,” Brown said.

Sitting on the front porch of the Belle Grae Inn on a warm early-fall morning, Organ was asked, Was it worth it?

“It continues to be worth it,” he answered, without hesitation. “Every day I get excited about who’s coming and who wants to come and what their vision is. It’s so much easier in 2009 to show people what it used to be and what it is now. It gives them a little more assurance that investing in Newtown is a safe investment.

“It’s perfect for the couples who are coming here ready to retire who want to go back to the days of when the Beaver came riding down the street on his bicycle. June and Ward Cleaver are on many corners in Newtown. It’s a very, very loving, safe community of young people with strollers and old people with walkers and black and brown and white. It’s just a true community,” Organ said.

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