The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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October 7, 2013

Montwell Park taking shape in Lewisburg

LEWISBURG — Although the property was years from being known by its present name, the seeds of Montwell Park were planted in the psychedelic ’60s, long before the Fort Savannah Inn was built in the bowl of land on the northern edge of Lewisburg’s historic district.

Civic-minded developers first turned their eyes toward the U.S. 219 frontage of one of Greenbrier County’s many sinkholes following a 1963 fire that destroyed the old mill-house on the site.

“A group of citizens brought in a collection of log houses to assemble a building that they thought could be used as a kind of country store and restaurant,” explained local contractor Florian Schleiff, who is involved in the current Montwell Park project.

“Then, in 1964, several small log houses were added to the edges of the property to add a historic village look that would attract tourists.”

One of those early visionaries, Schleiff said, was the father of Mary Montgomery Lindquist, who, along with her husband, Paul Lindquist, owns and lives in the early 19th century estate — dubbed “Montwell” — that overlooks the site.

Although the 1960s country store project never found its footing as a tourist attraction, the location’s suitability for a tourism-related business received a boost when state officials decided to feed Lewisburg’s lone interchange with Interstate 64 onto U.S. 219, funneling all of the highway’s traffic directly past the cabin-dotted expanse only a block from the center of town.

Soon, a local entrepreneur purchased the property and built a lodging establishment, incorporating the log structures that were already on the land.

Taking its name from the Revolutionary War-era  fortification built in the heart of the settlement that a few years later would be officially christened Lewisburg, the Fort Savannah Inn’s 66 motel rooms were constructed behind the log lodge, which served as a reception/registration space for guests, as well as housing a restaurant and once-popular lounge.

One of the motel buildings had the unfortunate distinction of having been built atop a natural stream, which, over time, eroded the structure’s foundation, making its imminent demolition a public health and safety issue.

Thanks to resources being pulled together by the local nonprofit group Greenbrier Valley Restoration Inc., the mill turned country store turned inn is today on the cusp of a new incarnation, this time as a public park.

In addition to Schleiff, those involved in the nonprofit include attorneys Brandon Johnson and Joe Lovett and the Lindquists, who gave the project a huge boost with the donation of 5 acres of undeveloped land located between the Montwell estate and the 2-acre Fort Savannah site, as well as lending the estate’s name to the park.

“We went to the Lindquists as neighbors, to let them know what we had planned for the property,” Schleiff explained. “After a half-hour visit, they said, ‘We would like to donate 5 acres as green space to the project.’”

Mary Lindquist had a heartfelt connection to the property, thanks to her late father’s part in the 1960s country store project, according to Schleiff.

“When we approached the Lindquists, she felt her father’s vision was so valid, and it could now be fulfilled,” Schleiff said. “They loved to see we weren’t going to just pave over the land or build a big hotel.”

“Without the Lindquists, this might not have been possible,” Johnson interjected.

Schleiff credits Lovett, who serves as executive director and lead counsel for Appalachian Mountain Advocates, with seeing the potential in the property.

“Joe had the idea,” Schleiff emphasized. “He wanted to create a place that would connect all of the farmers and their products to the community.”

Lovett’s brainchild is a park that will provide a permanent home for up to 40 farmers’ market vendors, with a pavilion to shelter both vendors and patrons; a common green; and a venue for local artists to market their products.

The log lodge is in the midst of a major overhaul that will end with it housing a newly-airy restaurant dining room beneath a skylit beamed ceiling, anchored at one end by a massive reconditioned fireplace and at the other by a modest raised stage suitable for musicians or lecturers. French doors will lead from the back of the dining room onto a 750-square-foot wooden deck overlooking the park.

Eventually, the developers want the park to include walking paths, gardens and a small water feature — a pond rather than the grand “Lake Lewisburg” that was proposed for the site several years ago. The plan calls for around 70 percent of the 7-acre site to be landscaped.

“Because we’re not driven by a financial goal, we can really ‘green it up,’” Schleiff pointed out.

‘We’re doing this project cooperatively with Greenbrier Valley Theatre and Carnegie Hall, to connect further with the arts in Lewisburg,” Johnson said.

In addition to the arts community, the developers have reached out to civic organizations and found equal support and enthusiasm there.

Following a presentation on the plans for the park, the Lewisburg Rotary Club expressed an interest in supporting construction of a “small amphitheater” on the property, Schleiff said.

The Greenbrier Historical Society, owner of North House Museum and The Barracks, the latter of which is adjacent to Montwell Park, is also taking an interest in the project, according to Schleiff.

“They see it as a great opportunity, with the parking that will be located near The Barracks and the foot traffic that the park will bring in,” he said, pointing out that the small creek that runs underneath one of the soon-to-be demolished motel buildings also cuts between The Barracks and the park. The Historical Society and park developers are discussing the possibility of constructing a bridge and walkway for pedestrians to safely connect the properties.

“We’re also looking at an easy way to get across 219 from here,” Johnson said, noting the proximity of the historic Andrew Lewis Park just on the other side of the highway.

State transportation officials are looking at the possibility of linking the two parks via an underground passage, rather than taking a bridge over the busy road, Johnson said.

“This is such a rare opportunity, to have 7 acres of green space in the middle of town,” Johnson remarked. “It’s a game changer. It’ll be a destination, a real focal point.”

Schleiff added, “It will be a gateway to downtown.”

Cooperation from city and county government has been key to the success of the project thus far, as Lewisburg City Council is contributing $165,000 toward stormwater remediation, demolition and re-grading the site. The Greenbrier County Commission is working with the county’s Solid Waste Authority to obtain a waiver of an anticipated $45,000 in landfill tipping fees for the debris that will have to be removed from the site after the old buildings are razed.

Schleiff emphasized that Montwell Park is a phased project, with the restaurant scheduled to be the first component that will open to the public, perhaps sometime late this year, with construction of the farmers’ market pavilion — complete with electricity — slated to start in the spring.

Greenbrier Valley Restoration has begun the application process to be designated a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which will allow individual and group donations to be made tax-free, Lovett said at a recent city council meeting.

Schleiff and Johnson said they welcome contributions of money, materials and ideas.

“It’s inclusive,” Johnson said. “We welcome suggestions.”

Several local businesses and craftsmen have already given price discounts and donated materials and time to the project, making it a true community venture.

Anyone interested in contributing to the development of Montwell Park or in finding out more about the project is encouraged to contact Laura Bozzi, the park’s program manager, at 304-645-6482.

— E-mail: talvey@register-herald.com

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