Correction to This Article
This article about an auction of businesses owned by the late Leo M. Bernstein in Strasburg, Va., misstated the location of the Wayside Inn, another Shenandoah Valley business purchased by the Washington banker. It is in Middletown, Va., not Middleburg.

The town that Leo M. Bernstein built may lose its historical charm

It's the rare auction that puts a key part of a town's identity up for sale, but it's equally rare that an entire side of a city block goes up for bid -- almost all of it with no reserve minimum price.
By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010

STRASBURG, VA. -- It was a fine romance, the Washington banker and the little town in the Shenandoah Valley, but Mr. B. is gone, and next week the block-long parade of businesses that constituted his love affair with Strasburg might be, too.

You want the old Museum of American Presidents? It's empty and out of business, just some gray carpet on the floor and blue paint on the walls. The quirky second-floor walk-up Jeane Dixon Museum, once a shrine to the famous clairvoyant, is bare wooden floors and rows of barren bookcases. The Great Strasburg Emporium, the warehouse-size antiques dealership, and the tiny Heirloom Emporium, specializing in Civil War-era memorabilia, are still open, but most stores are on monthly leases, awaiting whatever a new owner might want to put in.

The roadside attractions of Leo M. Bernstein, the late Washington financier with a fondness for the history and kitsch of the Shenandoah, go on the auction block July 22, two years after he died at age 93. It's the rare auction that puts a key part of a town's identity up for sale, but it's equally rare that an entire side of a city block goes up for bid -- almost all of it with no reserve minimum price.

"Without Leo, it just doesn't have the same meaning anymore," said Ami Aronson, his granddaughter and managing director of the Bernstein Family Foundation, the family's philanthropic entity that owns the property. "He was the soul of the place, he was the attraction. . . . You can find managers and run that business, but without Leo . . . We just don't want to be in this business anymore."

But a real-estate auction with no reserve! A tiny little town of 6,000 or so, with the row of antique-themed stores Bernstein developed smack at the town's main intersection, contributing nicely to the tax rolls, giving Strasburg claim to being "the antique capital of Virginia"! What if speculators get it for a song, then let it sit empty? What if the block-long strip reverts to being something like what it was before Bernstein arrived, a silk mill and a beer joint? What if there are no more 1920 milk jugs, little wooden chairs or handmade scented soaps to sell to tourists who peel off Interstate 81?

A 'bittersweet' end

Not to say the folks here are desperate, but this spring the town did get national publicity for briefly offering to rename the place "Stephen Strasburg" (for a day or two) if the Nationals rookie phenom would stop by and, you know, maybe throw a 101 mph fastball into a Victorian wine goblet down at the antique emporium.

"It really opens things up, doesn't it?" says Tim Taylor, the town's mayor, referring to the sale-at-any-price auction. "The way it's set up, you just don't know what's going to happen."

Sue Golden, a lawyer and farmer who lives nearby, toured the empty buildings on a recent afternoon, and said she's heard plenty of "nervous clucking" around town about what might come next. "It's just really very bittersweet," she said. "I'd have dinner with Mr. B. on Friday nights all the time. He was great fun and kind of squirrelly in a good way. He really put Strasburg on the map."

Bernstein made his money with banks and real estate in Washington, running or owning controlling stock in D.C. National Bank, Washington National Bank, Security National Bank and several others. He once renovated what was said to be Washington's oldest house, at 2618 K St. NW, but it was later razed to clear a way for the Whitehurst Freeway.

His long-term love affair, however, was with the byways and Americana of the Shenandoah Valley. Beginning in the 1960s, he bought the Wayside Inn in Middleburg, the Wayside Theater and the Hotel Strasburg and developed the Stonewall Jackson Museum and Crystal Caverns in Strasburg. He helped restore the Battletown Inn in Berryville and the Burwell-Morgan Mill in Millwood.

But his most significant restoration and revitalization project may have been when he all but created Strasburg's claim to being a regional antiques destination. In the 1980s and 1990s, he bought up a row of storefronts and warehouses at the heart of Strasburg and set up a series of antique stores and tourist attractions.

Shoppers could buy a walnut cupboard, a homemade quilt, a jar of preserves or just wander upstairs into the Dixon Museum and gaze into the self-proclaimed psychic's crystal ball. (Bernstein, an unabashed believer in the supernatural, took no end of delight in having been Dixon's friend and banker.) He had a house a few doors down (it's up for auction, too) and was an energetic local presence, holding court at the Wayside Inn or at Christina's Cafe.

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