A new era dawning for a Va. wonder

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Thomas Jefferson in his description of Natural Bridge.

December 18, 2013

When Thomas Jefferson first laid eyes on Natural Bridge, a 215-foot-high limestone arch that soars over a Shenandoah Valley creek, he was so impressed that he bought it and the land around it from the King of England for 20 shillings.

For the next 239 years, the Virginia landmark remained in the hands of private individuals. That long run will come to an end next month when a conservation group is expected to take possession of what Jefferson called it “the most sublime of nature’s works.” Natural Bridge, which lies about 45 minutes from Lynchburg and draws 200,000 visitors a year, may eventually become a state or national park.

The sale by the current owner, an 88-year-old District developer, Angelo Puglisi, opens a new chapter for the unusual geologic formation, whose glory days as a premier tourist destination are long behind it.

Natural Bridge was ranked with Niagara Falls as one of the two natural wonders of the New World back in the late 18th century, and a parade of prominent Americans made their way to see it, including James Monroe, Sam Houston and Martin Van Buren. Long before he was president, George Washington is said to have carved his initials into the rock while surveying it for Lord Fairfax.

But the bridge was eventually upstaged by the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone’s geysers and other discoveries. And the mystery of its origins, which were key to its early allure, became the stuff of grade-school textbooks.

Today, though, it remains enough of a draw that other attractions have sprouted around it, including a wax museum, a safari park and Foamhenge, a plastic foam reproduction of Stonehenge. The attractions’ owners and employees have come to rely on class trips and families out for Sunday drives for their livelihoods.

“Whatever happens to the bridge dictates what happens to all the other attractions,” said Mark Cline, Foamhenge’s creator and a Rockbridge County tourism board member. “We don’t want to see it turn into a cheap tourist attraction.”

Locals spent much of the past year in suspense over the bridge’s ownership. The stone arch and about 1,600 surrounding acres were initially put up for auction, with the possibility that the property would be split into as many as 35 parcels, said Jim Woltz, president of Woltz & Associates, whose Roanoke-based real estate firm is handling the sale. That prospect stoked fears of disjointed development schemes and landscape-marring mines and housing developments.

But preservation was the outcome that Puglisi said he wanted all along. The challenge was to find a buyer willing to take on the entire property — including a 150-room hotel — which Puglisi put a $39 million price tag on in 2007, on the eve of the Great Recession. He later took it off the market. When he put it on the market this time, he hired an auction house.

But even as the Dec. 18 auction date loomed, Puglisi and Woltz quietly pursued conservation groups and public officials. In November, Woltz announced a tentative deal that would allow a regional nonprofit group with holdings in Virginia and other states to own the property. The group has asked not to be named until it receives final government approval for the purchase, which is expected to close at the beginning of January.

Conservationists welcomed the arrangement as a way to stave off development and to preserve an important corridor for wildlife, including bears, coyotes and foxes, between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. Business owners and tourism officials also see opportunities to attract a wider audience if the bridge is rebranded as a state or federal park, as opposed to, as one resident put it, “an expensive fading-away natural attraction.”

The price of admission — as much as $19 — includes a tour of the wax museum, some nearby caverns and a reproduction of a Monacan Indian village. It also buys access to a butterfly garden and a play area.

For many potential visitors, that is a lot to pay, said Jean Clark, director of the Lexington and the Rockbridge Area Tourism Board. The bridge’s marketers have done a good job in recent years of catering to young families, she said, but putting the bridge and surrounding acreage “under a state or federal park umbrella would help change perceptions, making it feel more family-friendly and affordable.”

The bridge has never been a moneymaker like Luray Caverns, a privately owned Shenandoah Valley attraction that has made its owners multimillionaires. That was all right with Puglisi, who said he didn’t acquire Natural Bridge with an eye toward profit. He said it was the only real estate deal he ever made “from the heart” and “not from the numbers.”

He came close to not buying the property at all. In the mid-80s, a friend called him insisting that he consider acquiring it. Puglisi, who despite being born and raised in Washington, had never seen the arch, gave the standard response to someone offering to sell him a bridge: Not interested.

But his friend would not relent and eventually Puglisi made the three-hour trek from Washington. The 20-story expanse of rock did not disappoint. But it was the connection to Jefferson that clinched it for him. “I have great admiration for the first owner,” he said.

In 1988, Puglisi and a handful of minority investors that included his adult children paid $6.5 million for the property.

Puglisi fondly refers to the founding fathers as “brazen,” in a rolled-up-shirt-sleeves kind of way that one doesn’t typically associate with men in powdered wigs. He said he is grateful for their role in “creating a new world where millions of people who didn’t have anything could come and be anybody here.”

His father arrived at Ellis Island in 1901 from Italy and made his way to Washington, where he helped build Union Station. He eventually opened a grocery store with an apartment above it, which is where Puglisi was born.

Puglisi didn’t make it past the 10th grade at Eastern Senior High School, but he became a player in the District’s real estate market. He was part of the inner circle of parking magnate Dominic F. Antonelli Jr., who helped shaped downtown Washington, Southwest and Foggy Bottom. Puglisi also developed properties elsewhere.

In the District, Puglisi helped reimagine neighborhoods by replacing rowhouses with glass and steel buildings. At Natural Bridge, however, he sought to preserve as much as possible just as he found it.

He is proud to say that “The Drama of Creation” — a daily light show at the bridge that is accompanied by a soundtrack of music by Wagner and Verdi, among others, and narration from the Book of Genesis — has barely changed since Calvin Coolidge flipped on the electricity for the first show in May 1927. That display, without any reference to basic geology, might not have lasted in the Discovery Channel era had the bridge not been in private hands. But it has survived long enough now that it is considered an artifact of the bridge’s history, Woltz said, and is expected to continue after the sale.

Puglisi has seen the show many times. He used to go to the bridge with his wife about three times a year, he said. She enjoyed taking the mile-long stroll down the trail to the bridge, sometimes twice a day. But as her health declined in recent years, the regular visits stopped.

During a brief trip to Rockbridge County last week, Puglisi was stopped by Ken Robinette, 71, the brother-in-law of a longtime employee. Puglisi nodded as Robinette introduced himself, recognizing the name.

Like many local residents, Robinette has a long history with the bridge. As a youth, he and a friend once sneaked onto it at night and rappelled down one side. He told Puglisi that he was there, holding a water hose, the day in April 1963 when a kitchen fire burned down most of a previous hotel.

“The hose didn’t do a bit of good, did it?” Puglisi said.

“No, sir,” Robinette said.

Puglisi plans to return to the property soon for a final visit, after the sale of the bridge closes. “I have to see that,” he said, “so I can say, ‘Boy, I used to own it.’ ”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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