Philip Clayton, landlord of the Red Hen in Lexington, Va., was taking a scenic river cruise in Basel, Switzerland, with his wife when he heard the news that his tenants had asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave the tiny restaurant in the town he has called home since 1954.
“We were on a boat run by a Uniworld company, and all their employees are either from Romania or Bulgaria. They’ve never even heard of Lexington, Va., and I’m sure it went right over their heads,” said Clayton, just back from his European vacation. “They weren’t watching the Red Hen story at all, as far as I could tell. But we saw it, of course, on TV. We watched CNN occasionally on the boat, and that’s when we saw it. It was quite a jolt.”
A former U.S. Air Force and commercial airline pilot, Clayton has owned the building that houses the Red Hen since 1991. He’s not sure exactly when the building was erected, but its origins may date to the early 19th century. Over its life span, the building has been used as a book depository, a pool hall and the offices for a real estate firm. When Clayton bought the place, he renovated it and began leasing it out, once to his own lawyer.
Then in 2008, Stephanie Wilkinson and her business partner, John Blackburn, signed a lease for the space and transformed it into an elegantly modern restaurant in a historic structure. They renovated the property on their own dime, too, Clayton said. “Everything they put in was first class,” he added.
Blackburn has since sold his stake in the restaurant to Wilkinson and Red Hen chef Matt Adams. But whoever has been in charge, Clayton said, they have always been outstanding tenants. They’ve never missed a rent payment. They’ve maintained the property to the point where, Clayton said, “they have taken the burden completely off my shoulders.”
“There really hasn’t been much of any issues,” Clayton added. “And they take care of them when there are issues. They’ve always taken care of them. . . . It’s been a good relationship.”
On June 22, the usually conflict-adverse Wilkinson asked Sanders to leave the Red Hen after the press secretary and her party had already been served a cheese board. Clayton said he was “disappointed” that three days later, President Trump would take time away from more pressing concerns — he singled out North Korea and the separation of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border as just two examples — to tweet about a private business concern in Lexington.
“Disappointed,” Clayton reiterated, “but I had to respect it.”
He had to respect it because, as a former Air Force pilot, Clayton still respects the chain of command, which leads straight to the commander in chief. Nonetheless, he didn’t agree with Trump’s assessment of his building.
“If it looked that bad, I would have stepped in and suggested that we paint it, and I haven’t,” Clayton said. “In my opinion — and that’s my opinion only — I find it very attractive. I’m not the type of guy who needs a sparkling new paint job on a building. To me, the patina of an old paint looks rather pretty. So I guess the president and I disagree on that point. But I respect his opinion. I respect it to the hilt.”
Clayton wouldn’t say if he supported Wilkinson’s decision to eject Sanders. “Two things I don’t really discuss are politics and religion,” he said. “That sort of falls under that category. So I’m going to let it lie.”
If you must know, Clayton didn’t vote for Trump. He didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, either. “I vote for whoever I feel would best run the country,” he said, and in 2016, Clayton decided that a write-in candidate would be better than either one from the major parties. He wouldn’t name the person.
“I want to respect his privacy,” Clayton said. “This is just something I did to satisfy my own feelings. I can tell you he’s military.”
On their return from Europe, Clayton and his wife, Ava Tucker, stopped in Washington before leaving on Friday for Lexington, nestled in the Shenandoah Valley. Clayton said he hasn’t reviewed his property to see if it was damaged from protesters who turned the streets outside the Red Hen into the latest battleground between America’s warring political factions. Clayton said he was, at present, more concerned about another one of his properties, Maple Hall Inn and Restaurant 1850, which was flooded during a recent storm.
Nor has he talked with Wilkinson or Adams since the incident. He said he didn’t want to push them. “I mean, they’ve got enough on their plate to worry about without hearing from me,” he said. But he’s also heard worrisome rumors, amid reports that protesters have shared Wilkinson’s personal information on social media and message boards.
“There was a speculation — and I’ll highlight speculation — that there was some threats against Stephanie. I certainly hope that’s not the case, because she’s a real lovely, dear human being.” Wilkinson could not be reached for comment on Friday.
The Red Hen has been closed since the controversial evening in which Sanders was given the boot. It’s supposed to reopen on July 5. If so, that would mean Wilkinson and Adams have gone nearly two weeks without any revenue at the Red Hen. Would Clayton be willing to cut them some slack on rent during the crisis?
“Oh, certainly,” said Clayton, who owns many properties in the area. “There’s a lot more to being a landlord than just collecting rent. . . . I’ve certainly looked after them, and that’s part of my responsibility as a landlord. They’ve come to me before, and I’ve told them, ‘If you ever need any additional help, come to me again.’ And if they do, then they’ll get it.”