Roanoke's Taubman Museum of Art showcases American art in Frank Gehry-inspired design

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010; WE16

From the outside, I could understand why the residents of Roanoke have such a love-hate relationship with the Taubman Museum of Art. With its stainless steel appendages and a bulbous area that juts out over the sidewalk, this 81,000-square-foot steel, glass and patinated zinc structure seems distinctly out of place in a downtown filled with simple industrial-era brick buildings.

But then I went inside. The building, designed by Los Angeles architect and Frank Gehry protege Randall Stout, is a work of art in itself, with a dramatic 4,300-square-foot glass atrium and an illuminated glass staircase to the second-floor galleries. It's the type of ultramodern museum you'd expect to find in New York, not in an old railroad town of 95,000 people.

Before the $66 million museum opened in 2008, Roanoke was probably best known for the enormous star atop Mill Mountain that's illuminated every night (giving Roanoke its nickname, Star City of the South), the Tudor-style luxury Hotel Roanoke (built in 1882) and a few museums celebrating the town's railroad history. But the Taubman Museum has delivered a jolt to this once-sleepy city that most people bypass in favor of better-known destinations, Richmond and Charlottesville.

The Taubman's collection of American art had once been housed in a former warehouse nearby, sharing the building with the Science Museum of Western Virginia and the History Museum of Western Virginia. Then Peggy Macdowell Thomas, the last living heir of American realist painter Thomas Eakins and a Roanoke resident, bequeathed his portraits, personal effects and archival documents to the museum. The warehouse "wasn't appropriate for a museum with a collection of this caliber," said spokeswoman Kimberly Templeton, so the museum raised funds for the new building. Former ambassador to Romania Nicholas Taubman and his wife, Eugenia, donated more than $15 million to the effort, and the city pitched in $4 million plus the land.

I took in "Sordid and Sacred," a Rembrandt exhibit running until Feb. 7 that consists of 35 etchings, many postcard-size, of beggars, drawn between 1629 and 1654. I grabbed one of the magnifying glasses on hand to study the etchings and was amazed by the details on the faces, the clothing, the boots.

In a connecting gallery, North Carolina artist Mike Houston and West Virginia's Martin Mazorra are displaying their modern take on Rembrandt's etchings until Feb. 14. The highlight of "Jumpstart and Holler!" is a tent city, 17 camping tents printed and stitched with images of beggars. The two exhibitions complement each other, the old and the new -- quite apropos given that the museum itself represents a new twist in an old city.

Works by 19th- and early 20th-century American artists such as John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, Maria Oakley Dewing and John H. Twachtman are housed in two adjoining American art galleries. The works by Eakins and his wife, Susan Macdowell Eakins, are dominated by portraits of family members.

After checking into the historic Hotel Roanoke, I sent a tweet asking for restaurant recommendations and, to my surprise, got quite a few. For a city this small, the dining options seemed plentiful as did the number of active tweeters. I chose Metro, which had an eclectic mix of American fare, such as sliders, as well as dim sum and sushi. Striking up a conversation with some locals, I asked what I should do the next day. Their replies: Catch an indie flick at the charming old Grandin Theatre, visit the historic farmers market (the oldest continuously operating open air market in Virginia), listen to music at the Kirk Avenue Music Hall, eat at Zorba's Cafe in the City Market and hike to the top of the mountain.

I liked that last idea. Despite the frigid temperatures, I was determined to get to that giant star. The next morning, I bundled up and started up the Mill Mountain Star Trail with Heidi Ketler, a local freelance writer and friend of a colleague. Unfortunately, we didn't get far: The path was too icy. Thwarted, we headed back to the newly revitalized downtown.

We hit the farmers market, which is usually bustling with vendors selling organic meats, produce, artisanal cheeses, baked goods and more. But only Al Hubbard, a "squash cake specialist," had decided to brave the cold that morning. He let us sample his cakes, which he calls "Healthy Stuff."

Fortified, we drove back to the mountain and right up to "the world's largest man-made star," as the plaque beneath it declared. The 88.5-foot-tall neon star, built in 1949 by the Roanoke Merchants Association to kick off the Christmas shopping season, was such a hit that it's now illuminated year-round. And up close, it's quite impressive. But in the end, I decided that an even bigger star is Roanoke itself.

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