Lofty Goals in Little Orange

home of Richard Robinson and Megan Marlatt in Orange, VA
home of Richard Robinson and Megan Marlatt in Orange, VA (Richard Robinson - For The Washington Post)
By Patricia Dane Rogers
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 23, 2006

Many artists dream of the loft life in New York City, still the unchallenged epicenter of What's Happening. But ending up in the city that never sleeps was not in the cards for painter Megan Marlatt and her husband, photographer Richard Robinson. So they got as close to the fantasy as they could: Orange, Va.

"We couldn't make it to the Big Apple so we came to Little Orange," Robinson says of the tiny town and Orange County seat in the heart of Virginia hunt country.

Here, the couple have transformed a once gloomy second-floor apartment in a commercial building facing railroad tracks into a wide-open aerie that all but shouts, "Artists live and work here."

Marlatt's painting of a zaftig Eve and Adam (with strategically placed fig leaves) is splashed across a bright red armoire. A leaning canvas depicts one of her trademark works: a super-size jumble of plastic promotional toys and fast-food figurines. These co-exist with Robinson's hushed black-and-white images of Rome, Paris and Katmandu, limned in light.

Orange (pop. 4,120) was not a random choice. A favorite with history buffs, the village sits near the site of a major Civil War battle known as the Wilderness. Two presidents, Zachary Taylor and James Madison, were born close by. Montpelier, Madison's storied house, is currently in the midst of a major restoration project that Robinson is documenting.

But for Marlatt and Robinson, the location -- in full view of the Blue Ridge Mountains -- was more a matter of convenience than history. Her day job as associate chair of the studio art department at the University of Virginia requires her presence 30 miles away in Charlottesville; his work as a teacher at Randolph-Macon Woman's College and as a busy freelance photographer takes him to Lynchburg, Washington and beyond.

"Orange," says Robinson, was "a happy medium," with a growing arts community to boot.

The couple, now in their mid-forties, had been living there for several years when Marlatt discovered the building in 2000. In its most recent incarnation it had been a pool hall, and before that, according to landlord Murcelle Coleman, it housed a restaurant called Mary's Lunch in the heart of Railroad Avenue, a once-thriving African American retail area. When Marlatt saw a "for rent" sign on the ground floor, she knew the space would make an ideal studio. Nearly 30 feet wide and 80 feet long, "it had the room, the light and continuous wall space that I needed for my painting."

The rental apartment above her new studio seemed to have the same generous footprint as the space below. Where others saw a warren of boxlike rooms bisected by a charmless, narrow hallway, Marlatt and Robinson envisioned loftlike spaciousness, like the homes of artist friends who had pioneered loft living in emerging New York neighborhoods.

They'd already done the conventional "three-bedroom, two-bath ranch house thing," says Robinson. "The openness of a New York loft where artists can live and work was the model," Marlatt says. "I thought it would be great if Richard could work upstairs and we could live there, too." They told Coleman that if ever she wanted to sell, they would buy. Two years ago, they paid $133,000 for the sturdy 1917 brick facility.

Flanked by a police station parking lot on one side and an abandoned building on the other, their new home was gritty, urban and forlorn. But promise was in the air. The picturesque old Southern Railway train depot across the tracks had just been converted into a visitors center. The town's commercial historic district, which included Railroad Avenue, was listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1998 and on the National Register of Historic Places the next year.

According to Jay Harrison, executive director of the Orange Downtown Alliance, a nonprofit agency charged with revitalizing the neighborhood, Railroad Avenue is poised for a comeback. "Plans are in place," he says. If they're implemented, "this once busy street where Megan and Richard live will become a lively pedestrian corridor again."

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