ST. PAUL, Va. — The squeals of power saws slicing lumber fill the air near the intersection of Fourth and Russell streets in downtown St. Paul, much as they have for the past nine months.
It's a brisk March morning and workers from Roanoke-based MB Contractors scurry about inside the vacant three-story, E-shaped brick structure formerly known as the St. Paul apartments and the Willis building.
Bright sunshine blasts through large glass windows illuminating a virtually empty, meticulously framed ground floor bracing for its next chapter.
The 1920s-era building is being transformed into the Western Front Hotel, a 27-room boutique hotel deriving its name from St. Paul’s once colorful, rowdy past. The project is being developed by Creative Boutique Hotels and Cornerstone Hospitality — the same Virginia-based partnership group planning to create Bristol’s Sessions Hotel.
“The Western Front is going to be driven and designed toward the end user being someone who enjoys the outdoors — Clinch River rafting, canoeing, tubing, fishing, the Spearhead [ATV] trails, hiking, cycling, all the outdoor activities that this region has to offer,” said Kimberly Christner, president and CEO of Cornerstone and a partner of Creative Boutique Hotels. “It will be high-tech so the millennials will enjoy it. It’s going to be a very rustic, really comfortable property.”
Due to some structural issues with the building, it won’t open this spring as originally announced, but it’s now expected to open by late summer, Christner said.
“That building has always been the linchpin of downtown as a major apartment house,” said St. Paul Mayor Kyle Fletcher. “It has had grocery stores, a liquor store, a big furniture store — and that whole street was the main drag.”
With declines in the coal industry, town leaders and community volunteers began more than a decade ago trying to reinvent St. Paul as a tourism destination, playing off its central location and proximity to the Clinch River.
“The town was able to work with the IDA [Industrial Development Authority] board to get control of this building,” the mayor said. “We wanted a hotel and we talked with this Boutique Hotels group and it sounded pretty good. … When the hotel opens, we believe it can be the linchpin again.”
Besides the hotel, the town is preparing to replace the water, wastewater and storm drainage infrastructure in and around downtown, where the hotel will operate, Fletcher said.
The $7.76 million hotel project was unveiled with great fanfare last February, when Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced the Western Front would be the first recipient of a $250,000 grant from Virginia’s new Tourism Growth Fund.
Additional funding sources include grants from the Department of Housing and Community Development and Appalachian Regional Commission, state and federal historic tax credits and low-interest loans from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority and the Virginia Community Development Corporation.
Work began last June, but the project is behind schedule because construction crews determined the building was structurally unsound. Workers have spent much of the past seven months addressing a series of issues, including joist issues, uneven floors and walls, according to project Superintendent Gary Barker.
“We had a lot of structural failures. The building was originally framed out of green hemlock [lumber] and they didn’t chase their loads in the correct manner. They would put a wall anywhere not thinking about how much weight was on that wall,” Barker said. “If it [lumber] hadn’t been green they’d [have] been in better shape. As it dried out, with all this loading that they hadn’t planned on, they created deflection down in every joist in the entire building. Every time we would push on it, there would be a heave over here or over there.”
The issues with joists and an uneven building forced the replacement of most of the original wood and a complex, time-consuming process of jacking the building.
Workers installed two tractor-trailer loads of material to shore up the building and utilized more than 200 jacks to methodically square it up.
“The far end of the building we pushed up an average of 8 to 9 inches,” Barker said while standing on the Russell Street side. “This end, we pushed up 2 inches — a quarter-inch every 48 hours. You would go to each of these 200 jack posts, jack it up a quarter-inch, shore your post up and move to the next one. Anytime somebody asked me why it took seven months to get where we are, there it is.”
Barker learned of another problem during one early visit to photograph and document spaces on the top floor.
“I’m in the back room and there’s carpet and something feels soft under my feet. I slam my foot down, and my foot goes through the floor. The carpet was the only thing holding me up, so that’s a pretty sketchy feeling. I backed out because I knew we had bigger problems,” he said.
Rotten floors have been replaced, and the “worst” plumbing Barker has ever encountered has been replaced.
Barker said townspeople of all ages have stopped in to share fond memories and stories about living or shopping in the building.
“The soul of a building is developed over time by all the occupants of the building, as each of them leaves their mark. This includes the people that built it and renovated it over time,” Barker said. “To demolish it is to wipe away all those years of interaction. Sometimes, there is no other choice, but one must consider the ties that the building has to the community before such a decision is made. In the case of the Western Front Hotel, almost everyone in the community has a story related to the building. The building is an embedded member of the community and worthy of renovation.”
The positive side of all this additional work is the project now has a significant supply of recycled wood that will be put to use creating decorative touches, Christner said.
“Every board we pulled out, all the beams we had to take out, we’ll use throughout the property,” Christner said. “For the bar, for some of the headboards in the rooms, bed frames. It will be a cool, funky property with a lot of repurposed items.”
Barker said about 80 percent of the original lumber was salvaged along with pieces of wavy glass, sections of pipe, mechanical fixtures and other components that can be used for decorative or functional pieces.
One of the most unique touches will be sections of salvaged jail doors that the town planned to discard, although their use is still being determined.
What’s in a name?
As a sleepy town of 1,000 residents straddling the line between Russell and Wise counties, only the hotel’s unique name provides a clue to St. Paul’s once rip-roaring past. From the late 1800s — when the Norfolk & Western Railroad first connected the town to the outside world — through the first half of the 20th century, when passenger rail service declined drastically — a portion of the town along the railroad tracks was home to saloons, dance halls and bordellos.
It was known as the Western Front, receiving the nickname during World War I, according to Mayor Fletcher, because that area was more dangerous than being on the battlefield.
“St. Paul, when it was being built, was kind of a wild place. The Western Front was kind of a legendary thing. It was always tough on the weekends with railroad people coming in and coal miners coming to town,” Fletcher said. “It was kind of like Dodge City.”
In addition to the Milton’s restaurant operated by Chef Travis Milton, the hotel will include a banquet room that will feature live music or can be rented for private parties and a gift shop featuring the work of local artisans, Christner said.
“For our hotel guests, we’ll have The Roost, which is a room with a pool table, darts, refrigerators, kitchen space and TVs where they can go and just relax after a day on the river or the trails,” Christner said.
Two second-floor outdoor alcoves will be available if guests want to dine or just relax and a lawn area behind the building will be set up for guest use.
“It will have fire pits, hammocks, barbecue grills and we’ll put a smoker out there so Travis can smoke a hog and we can have the community in for a pig picking,” she said. “We’re really trying to appeal to the community it’s in and attract people who’ve been looking for someplace to stay out there but haven’t been able to.”
The main building will include 27 rooms with king, queen and bunk beds. An elevator is to be added to the rear of the building.
Plans also include using the Dye building, a separate two-story structure at the rear of the property near City Hall. Current plans include having six guestrooms and a visitor center in that structure. Two other buildings that once stood on the property were taken down.
Much of the décor harkens to the coal industry, railroad and the namesake Western Front that are part of the region’s history.
“It’s going to be very rustic but very hipster with lots of technology. Very eclectic with a lot of warm colors,” Christner said. “We’re trying to keep as much of the history of the property visible to the people who stay here so it is truly an authentic property. We’ve maintained a lot of that history.”