Portsmouth, Va.: An Olde but a Goody

The restored art deco Commodore Theatre has a restaurant on the first floor that serves dinner before shows.
The restored art deco Commodore Theatre has a restaurant on the first floor that serves dinner before shows. (By Wessel Kok)
By Diane Daniel
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My Aunt Margaret was aghast. A couple of years ago, I introduced her to a friend and mentioned that she and my mother had grown up in Norfolk.

"Portsmouth!" Aunt Margaret barked. She was used to people getting the two confused or, more often, simply overlooking Portsmouth for larger and wealthier Norfolk. But her own niece?

I apologized profusely, especially since I was quite familiar with the Portsmouth of the '70s. When I was growing up in Raleigh, N.C., we spent many a weekend with Uncle Marty and Aunt Jane in their quiet neighborhood miles from downtown. We never went into town because it was deadsville and, according to Dad, full of "bad elements": flophouses, shuttered stores, pawnshops and the like. After my aunt and uncle passed away two decades ago, I never returned.

So when I learned that Portsmouth had an Olde Towne Historic District, I was skeptical. I imagined a contrived shopping area surrounded by blight, but I wanted to see for myself. It was with low expectations that my husband and I headed to our bed-and-breakfast in Olde Towne on a recent Friday.

I'd envisioned a smattering of historic homes, not the tight rows of beautifully restored Victorians and Colonials and the lively blocks-long historic main drag of High Street. Later I learned that Portsmouth claims to have the most historic homes among cities between Alexandria and Charleston, S.C. I couldn't wait to tell Mom.

We stayed at the Patriot Inn, a 1784 Colonial that Iowa transplants Ron and Verle Weiss beautifully restored in 2000. Although you can barely see the Elizabeth River from the inn because unappealing buildings block the view, it's right there. The inn conveniently sits just across from one of two landings for a year-round ferry to Norfolk, five minutes across the river, and a seasonal water taxi. And because Olde Towne borders the river, its hotels attract boaters who want to take a break at mile marker zero on the Intracoastal Waterway.

It was too dark to see much that night, so we drove 10 minutes west to Port Norfolk, another historic neighborhood that's not as dolled up as downtown. Port Norfolk and Victorian-filled Park View are in a pre-gentrification stage, both still containing a nice urban mix.

We easily located Stove, the Restaurant by the mod graphics on the outside of its low-standing building. While we waited for our table, I chatted with Dave Nye, one of two people I happened upon that weekend opening a night-life establishment in Olde Towne. That's got to mean something.

"When I was a kid, no one went to Norfolk and definitely not to Portsmouth," said Nye, a Virginia Beach native. "But there's a lot of stuff coming up in Olde Towne."

Once seated, I asked our server who had created the colorful primitive-style paintings on the walls, and I was shocked to discover it was chef and co-owner Sydney Meers, a darling of the regional restaurant scene. Like he doesn't have enough to do? The quirky menu, with its "foodtionary" of Meersisms, is a hoot, but the Stove's Southernesque offerings are awesome. My velvety scallops were the best I've ever had, and my husband's steak was perfect.

We spent Saturday soaking up Olde Towne and felt lucky to start the day as interlopers on a special walking tour led by Eric Price, portraying Col. William Crawford, who founded Portsmouth in 1752. He's one of the guides for the city's popular Lantern Tours.

In a tour along cobblestone sidewalks, one of the first stops was in front of three homes from the 1840s built by sea captain Benthall Brooks and, across the street, the Pass House, where Portsmouth residents were required to obtain passes to leave the city during the Civil War. Those houses, like many here, have lovely English basements, where a large portion of the basement is aboveground and has regular windows.

Peeling off the tour, we zipped along the waterfront walkway to the rather worn but informative Naval Shipyard Museum. The exhibits are in cases that look as though they were built in the '50s, which made me wonder how much the city really values its shipbuilding tradition. Portsmouth thrived and half died with the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (named for the county and once called Gosport Shipyard). The operation, founded in 1767 and bought by the United States in 1801, is the Navy's oldest continually used shipyard.

Antiques stores dominate the retailers, with a few galleries thrown in. The nicest is Vincent Hester Gallery (607 High St.), a fine-art and craft shop set in a century-old restored building. Owner Barbara Vincent Hester pointed out the contemporary silver sailboat charms her family designs to raise money for Edmarc Hospice for Children in Portsmouth.

We capped the day with a showing of "The Bucket List" at the funky Commodore Theatre, a restored 1945 art deco beauty whose first floor doubles as a restaurant. It was booked for dinner (mostly bar food), so we sat in the balcony and enjoyed the movie. I was surprised to see so many youngsters at a flick about old geezers, including the children and grandchildren of our B&B owners. Evidently the Commodore is the place to be on a Saturday night.

Before leaving town the next day, we searched for the site of my mom's former home. I say "site" because when peacetime severely reduced the number of shipyard employees, parts of Mom's once-thriving community of Newtown, adjacent to the yard, became blighted. In the 1960s the city displaced the residents and razed all of Newtown to build an industrial park.

We couldn't even find the corner Mom had lived near, but we did locate Gosport Park, a well-tended block-long space that overlooks the shipyard and tells its history. Although the park rests atop Newtown soil, the narrated history doesn't mention the former community.

I'm not going to tell Mom that part, only that her once-struggling home town is undergoing an impressive about-face.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company