The rundown facade of the Thomas Deen building in St. Paul, Virginia, belied the once-impressive department store's better days.
The four-story brick building opened its doors to customers in the early 1920s, but over time, the structure was as forgotten as the discarded tires it housed some 100 years later. As Elizabeth Gilboy, the director of the Community Design Assistance Center, an outreach center in Virginia Tech's College of Architecture, Arts, and Design, and the center's team explored the site in fall 2020, they recognized their unique place at the intersection of the building's history and future.
Since 1988, the center has worked with more than 230 communities on hundreds of projects to assist communities, civic groups, and nonprofit organizations throughout Virginia to improve their natural and built environments through community engagement and interdisciplinary design. In addition, the center provides paid learning experiences for architecture, landscape architecture, and interior design students as they are immersed in the participatory design and planning process.
"Where there is a vision, there's opportunity," said Gilboy, who has served as the center's director since 2000. "If our team can help the stakeholders think through their ideas and create that vision in a graphic format or rendering, that concept can be used to apply for funding. Sometimes, individual projects build upon each other toward a larger goal, or it might be a cornerstone project, like the St. Paul project, where the town received a grant of $990,000 to move forward."
The Western Front area of St. Paul had a rough-and-tumble reputation in the late 1800s as it grew from an influx of early railroad transients to the center of Southwest Virginia's coal mining industry. The town boasted a population as high as 4,000 in the coal camps, but when the industry declined, the population dwindled in the mid-1900s and the town's future seemed bleak.
Without industrial opportunities, the area's natural beauty and historical resources emerged as central elements of the community's economic revitalization. The Clinch River, the most biodiverse waterway in the Northern Hemisphere, runs through St. Paul and attracts visitors for many outdoor recreation activities. The Clinch River State Park, Virginia's newest state park, and Oxbow Lake offer hiking, biking, birding, and wildlife. The Spearhead Trails extensive off-highway vehicle trail system is less than 20 miles away.
In 2020, stakeholders from Saint Paul approached the center to create a design to repurpose a historical, multi-story structure near the railroad tracks, the only remaining original building on the Western Front. The building, which was a popular department store owned by merchant Thomas Deen, had fallen into disrepair, underwent significant structural alterations, and became a storage space for a local business. The vision was to redevelop the building as a distillery with a tasting area, outdoor seating, and a demonstration area as well as retail space for locally produced shelf-stable foods, merchandise, and artisan products.
Developing the conceptual designs from the vision, the center's team created ideas and sketches that led to final floor plans and renderings using computer-aided design software. Participants navigated planning, presentations, and feedback sessions through the COVID-19 global pandemic. The project design process concluded in July 2021 and the visual concept documents were included as "evidence of readiness" as part of the grant application submitted by the town of St. Paul and St. Paul Tomorrow Inc. The $990,000 Industrial Redevelopment Fund grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development for the Thomas Deen Distillery project was awarded in December 2022, and the early stages of the redevelopment process are now underway.
The Thomas Deen Distillery is a key project in the St. Paul revitalization and streetscape that includes the Riverside Drive area just a few blocks from downtown. Attractions in the area include the recently renovated Western Front Hotel, farmers market, restaurants, the Sugar Hill Brewing Co., an outdoors outfitter, the historic Lyric Theatre, and access to the Bluebell Island Nature Trail and A.R. Matthews Memorial Park.