By Josh Baldwin
The property formerly known as the Fort Savannah Inn, or more colloquially to those of us that enjoyed a few drinks in its basement, “The Fort,” has long been seeking an overhaul —in particular because of its prime location at the entrance to historic downtown Lewisburg. While the main inn appeared as a throwback to the pioneer days, the surrounding hotel structures had seen much better days.
A few years ago, the idea was proposed to build a lake on the property. “Lake Lewisburg” had its supporters and detractors but ultimately it was the “big thinking” that became the impetus behind the community getting serious about restoration of a site that had become an eyesore upon entering one of the most attractive historic downtowns in the state.
“I was involved in the Lake Lewisburg project with TAG Galyean and others. I thought that it was a great idea,” explains Brandon Johnson, a local attorney and board member for the Montwell Park project. “TAG saw the need to change the entry way to our downtown and it was a bold idea. However, for various reasons the Lake did not occur. But, the idea to beautify our entryway, to enhance our downtown, and to create a destination spot caught hold.”
Joining Johnson is Joe Lovett, another local attorney, and Florian Schleiff, a local contractor whose stamp can be found on a number of downtown restoration projects. The three men began to develop a plan to renovate the entire property as a nod to our agricultural past and future, with an emphasis on environmental sustainability and open green space.
The first stage of the plan got underway immediately, as the two remaining dilapidated hotel structures were razed and a full remodel of the Fort Savannah Inn began in earnest.
The Fort Savannah Inn has an interesting history itself. An old mill house on the property burned in 1963. After the fire, a number of people donated logs from various log homes and the current structure was chinked together as an old country store.
“We’ve had a couple people come by to see what we’re working on and they’ll say ‘That section over there was my grandfather’s house,’” says Laura Bozzi, who works with Appalachian Mountain Advocates, the Lewisburg-based non-profit organization that operates the facility. And the group is taking great strides in not only restoring the building with respect to its past, but also employing a number of local artisans in the process and using as much local product as possible, part of the overall mission of developing with sustainability in mind.
“On site we salvaged all of the Fort Savannah that we could,” explains Florian Schleiff, also a board member for the project. “The main visible piece is the large log structure, which now has skylights and gable end windows to let as much light in as possible. This is meant to serve as the anchor for the other elements of the project and hopefully will generate excitement in the community to participate.”
Schleiff’s team has done an impressive job in turning a rough looking space that probably hadn’t seen any updates since MASH was on television, to a sun-filled open layout with a back deck that will overlook the future park and farmers market. The upper floor houses a restaurant that seats 150 people and will serve affordable farm-to-table fare. A stage was built using repurposed bowling lanes and provides a home to an elegant, black full-size grand piano. The stage is lit with state-of-the art LED lighting and sound system.
Montwell will be joining forces with Carnegie Hall’s Outside The Bricks program to bring two shows to the stage this coming January— indie-rock musician Joe Pernice with celebrated author/NPR personality/singer-songwriter Wesley Stance on January 8th and world-class percussionist and band leader Pedrito Martinez on January 24th.
“Carnegie Hall is excited about our partnership with The Spring at Montwell Park,” says Lynn Creamer, Artistic Director at Carnegie Hall. “It is a wonderful opportunity for members of the community to experience our programming “outside the bricks.” Overall, we think the project is positive for our city and we are happy to work with Joe and his team as they provide another venue for artistic expression in our community.”
The log structure will now house a restaurant and performance space, called “The Spring,” that will be available for everything from live music to public talks and meetings to classes on farm-to-table issues and practical workshops such as canning vegetables for winter use.
“At The Spring, we plan to host events of interest to the community, whether that’s a book reading by a regional author or an old-time music show,” explains Bozzi. “We designed the space so that it can accommodate many different functions.”
The lower level of the space will soon provide a local home for High Rocks Girls Academy functions and programming. But the program will not be limited to just the High Rocks girls. Instead, the organization will offer coed workshops and recreational activities for 12-18-year olds.
“As both an educator and a parent, I’m excited for this opportunity for young people in our community to have a safe space to learn, play, and interact with each other after school,” says Devin Preston, Program Coordinator for High Rocks. “One of High Rocks’ main tenets is to create a judgment-free zone, which I think most kids really crave.”
A major part of the overall plan for Montwell Park owes a debt of gratitude to Paul and Mary Lindquist, owners of Montwell, the 19th-century estate that overlooks the site. Mary’s father and mother were instrumental in developing the property as a museum years ago. In fact her mothers’ name was Rothwell and her father’s Montgomery—blending the two names is the inspiration behind Montwell. The Lindquists donated four and a half acres to the project in 2013, bringing the total acreage of the project to just under seven acres.
“We had always wanted to take the land and do a park to dedicate to our parents,” says Mary Lindquist. “When this idea came along it really fit into what we have been envisioning for so many years.”
Inasmuch, and to ensure the Lindquists’ vision remains intact throughout the future, the developers put in specific restrictions so that the property that curtail other developments.
“The deeds protect the property into the future by restricting the kinds of activities that can take place there,” notes Bozzi. “There will never be any kind of industrial activity, for example. It will always be a community- centered site with open space.”
Once the log structure is completed in the next couple months, the organization will begin construction on a large, covered farmers market pavilion that will house at least 40 individual stalls for growers and artisans alike. Construction is slated to begin in spring of 2014 with the growers and vendors moving into their new digs for the 2015 market season.
Further down the road, the organizers look to begin developing the open, public park aspect of the project, building walking trails, benches, picnic tables and native plant gardens. There are tentative plans for a small water feature with natural, native plants that will clean the pollutants from storm flow before dropping into the expansive karst system that lies below the site. A possible amphitheater has been drawn into the overall plan as well, but Bozzi is quick to point out the second phase of the project is still in the preliminary discussions and that those amenities could still be a few years away.
Although many of the features that will ultimately be part of Montwell are still in the design and development stage the progress that the group has made in a short period of time is remarkable, especially when you consider how long the property at Lewisburg’s Northern entrance went sadly under-utilized. With ingenuity and cooperation the old Fort is being brought into the future and is poised to become an anchor of Lewisburg and the Greenbrier Valley for generations to come. For more information, visit www.thespringwv.com.