Business partners Garrett Shifﬂett (left) and Ross Fickenscher ‘bet big’ that the Farmville area was ready for a project like the renovated Hotel Weyanoke, which opened for business in May. Weyanoke means ‘land of the sassafras’ in Algonquian, the language associated with the Weyanoke Indians, who historically inhabited a peninsula in what is now Charles City County. (Photo: Meridith De Avila Khan)
On a warm May evening, a few hours before the new Hotel Weyanoke’s opening night reception, Ross Fickenscher and Garrett Shiﬄett surveyed the view from the granite-topped bar at Catbird, the hotel’s rooftop lounge.
French and Ruffner Halls spread out before them on Longwood’s classical campus to the south. Farmville’s increasingly vibrant Main Street lay to the east, snippets of the Blue Ridge to the west.
Soon the venue would be packed with guests from across Virginia, sampling gourmet pizza and sipping specialty cocktails and craft drafts from Danville’s Ballad Brewing Company— another of the development duo’s successful historic-to-hip ventures.
The business partners who spotted Farmville as the next hot new place couldn’t help but reﬂect on the series of milestones the occasion represented, not only for them but also for Longwood and Farmville, which are enjoying the fruits of a college-town renaissance.
“We bet big on this project because Farmville is undergoing a transformation and we wanted to be part of it,” said Shifﬂett, who with Fickenscher has been renovating, rehabbing and repurposing historic properties—like converting old tobacco warehouses into urban lofts— for a decade in Lynchburg, Richmond and other locations.
“There’s an energy about this project and the community that’s unlike any other that we’ve experienced,” Fickenscher added.
The Weyanoke isn’t just Farmville’s ﬁrst boutique hotel. It’s also transforming Farmville’s restaurant scene, with options ranging from gourmet coffee to artisan pizza to upscale Italian dining.
Taken together, it’s only the latest project that is making downtown Farmville a growing destination for tourists, craft beer aﬁcionados, history enthusiasts and foodies.
Longwood has been an important partner for the Weyanoke since the hotel’s earliest years— and university leaders played a key role in encouraging its revitalization. Not only will the hotel serve as a convenient and attractive option for alumni returning to their alma mater, it also will encourage further development projects that bring more visitors to the town and to campus.
“It feels like springtime in Farmville in so many ways,” Longwood President W. Taylor Reveley IV said. “There’s palpable momentum and many good things happening. This hotel will be the catalyst for many more things. The vitality is real.”
Making old new again
Two months before the grand opening, Fickenscher and Shifﬂett were installing the original cast iron light ﬁxtures that adorn the front doors of the Weyanoke. The two lanterns— which have welcomed guests to the hotel since it was built nearly a century ago—may have some refurbished glass, but their charm and character is unchanged.
Fickenscher and Shifﬂett, partners in Richmond-based Aoss Ventures, specialize in making what is old new again. When the hotel was sold at auction in December 2012, they were unsure of which direction they would ultimately go with the property, which then rented rooms to Longwood students.
The hotel offers 70 guest rooms, ranging from standard queens to king suites. (DavidRobinsonPhotography.net)
(ABOVE LEFT) Valet parking is available at the main entrance to the hotel, located on High Street just across from Longwood’s French Hall (Alec Hosterman/Courtesy of Hotel Weyanoke). (ABOVE RIGHT) The Catbird rooftop lounge offers views of campus and downtown Farmville. (DavidRobinsonPhotography.net)
Eventually they realized that restoring the hotel and returning it to its original use made the most sense—a decision that came after stakeholders from the Farmville community and Longwood expressed their strong support. Given that it’s right across the street from Longwood and a block up from Main Street, we thought a hotel was most appropriate,” said Fickenscher. “Also, the Farmville community desired a higher-end boutique hotel with a lot of character, so it seemed like a natural ﬁt.” The Weyanoke is the ﬁrst hotel project for Fickenscher and Shifﬂett—an aspect that carried more risk but also more reward.
In 2015, they partnered with Williamsburg-based Cornerstone Hospitality and began the process of returning the hotel to its historic use. The partners soon found that securing ﬁnancing for a hospitality project in a town the size of Farmville and without a national hotel brand associated with it would be difﬁcult. There was one point when the lender was on the fence and Fickenscher knew what needed to happen: He had to go look at the hotel and feel what was happening in Farmville. “He went there the next day and called me and said, ‘You are absolutely right,’” Fickenscher said.
“He went to the property, walked up on the veranda and looked around, and thought, ‘This is perfect.’”
The 70-room renovated hotel opened this spring—just in time to host parents, alumni and guests for Longwood’s commencement exercises and Mega Reunion weekend.
“The importance of this project to Farmville is really what sets it apart,” Shifﬂett said. We do a lot of renovations of historic properties. But the coolest thing to me is that we are bringing back something that originally had such importance to the town of Farmville. We’ve not only restored the building but its importance to the town, as well.”
Hub of hospitality
The Weyanoke was originally conceived as a community development project by the Farmville Lions Club. When it ﬁrst opened in 1925, it was one of the largest and most regal of the hotels between Richmond and WinstonSalem, North Carolina.
It was a catalyst in turning Farmville into a hub of hospitality and a popular convention center—which the renovated hotel is poised to do again a century later.
At the hotel’s grand opening in May, Mayor David Whitus ’83 noted that between 1926 and 1928 the town hosted 10 statewide conventions, including the 1927 Lions Club convention at the Weyanoke that was attended by Helen Keller. He said Farmville quickly earned a reputation for being “Virginia’s friendly town.”
“We are still Virginia’s friendliest town,” Whitus said. “And we will again one day be hosting conventions and statewide events. Great things lie ahead for this town.”
(ABOVE LEFT) The Weyanoke logo can be found on items throughout the hotel, including bathrobes for guests. (ABOVE RIGHT) Campagna, an Italian restaurant located on the hotel’s lower level, is open for dinner and available for private parties.
A photo of Keller’s visit remains on display in the hotel, along with other historical items including old ledgers and a Currier and Ives print that were unearthed during the renovation. When the hotel opened, it was billed as “modern” and “strictly ﬁreproof” based on its all masonry and steel construction. Fickenscher and Shifﬂett tried to keep the historic fabric of the building intact as much as possible, saving and restoring many of the original components— including light ﬁxtures, doors, ﬂooring, windows and tin ceilings.
“Throughout the years our appreciation has grown stronger for the historic character of any building,” Fickenscher said. “It gives you a special feeling when you can peer through the windows and doors and see the waved glass.”
The hotel also continues to hold a special place in the memories of many Longwood alumni, who fondly recall staying at the hotel or having a meal there—which was a special treat.
While a student at Longwood, Linda Palmer Barnes ’67 enjoyed visits from her great aunt, who would take her shopping at Baldwin’s department store and then to lunch at the Weyanoke.
The hotel dining room, with its white tablecloths and ﬁne linens, was a destination for the prominent citizens of Farmville and the surrounding areas. High tea was served in the afternoon, and popular menu items included the pear and cottage cheese plate and liver and onions.
“Long after I left Farmville, my standard for measuring nice restaurants was the Weyanoke,” Barnes said. “I recall linen tablecloths and napkins, fresh ﬂowers on each table and a full service of ﬂatware, and Aunt Ruth made sure I knew how to use each piece.”
Farmville is for foodies
With three upscale restaurants and the rooftop lounge, the Weyanoke will once again be known as one of the ﬁnest dining establishments in the region.
Guests and local residents are raving about the new food options: Sassafras, a coffee and pastry shop; Efﬁngham’s First Call, an artisan pizzeria; and Campagna, an upscale Italian restaurant and wine bar open for dinner only. Menu items from the hotel’s restaurants can be brought to Catbird on the rooftop as well.
The hotel’s executive chef is Frank Paris III, a recent ﬁxture in the Charlottesville culinary scene and formerly executive sous-chef at Primland Resort in southwest Virginia. He was trained in the intensive apprenticeship program at The Greenbrier, a premier hotel and resort in West Virginia.
John Shideler, the Weyanoke’s general manager, formerly was the general manager of the Williamsburg Inn and worked for Colonial Williamsburg for 25 years. He and his wife relocated to Farmville, and he loves hearing from local residents when he’s at work or walking around town.
“We have gotten great guest feedback on the property and the staff,” he said. “I tell our guests the property can be great, but it’s the staff that make it special.”
Cornerstone is experienced in developing boutique hotels, reinvesting in small communities and repurposing historic buildings—the hospitality management company’s other properties include the Craddock Terry Hotel in Lynchburg and the Bolling Wilson Hotel in Wytheville.
There are 27 rooms in the historic part of the Weyanoke, with the remaining rooms in a new residential wing that almost doubled the original size of the hotel. In addition to the hotel’s luxurious accommodations, amenities include valet parking, adjoining individual rooms, large walk-in showers and two elevators.
The hotel showcases several partnerships with Farmville-area businesses. The coffee mugs in each room were made by Longwood art professor Adam Paulek at Mainly Clay, a Main Street pottery shop; the furniture was purchased at Green Front; and guests can rent bikes provided by The Outdoor Adventure Store to go for a ride and explore High Bridge Trail State Park.
With the Weyanoke, upscale restaurant options, two breweries, a wine bar, the Moton Museum’s addition to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail and the Longwood Barnes & Noble Bookstore’s downtown location, the burgeoning vibrancy and revitalization of downtown Farmville is real. The town is increasingly becoming a weekend getaway spot for culture, shopping and outdoor activities—and is a true embodiment of the state’s tourism mantra.
“People come to Virginia for outdoor adventures, great places to eat, shopping and history, and Farmville has all of those things we love statewide in one location,” said Wirt Confroy, director of business development for the Virginia Tourism Corporation. “Farmville is such a wonderful place—it’s alive and thriving— and so indicative of why Virginia is for Lovers.”
Efﬁngham’s First Call restaurant is known for its craft beer and artisan grilled pizzas. The restaurant’s name is a nod to local history: Legend has it that the historic Efﬁngham Tavern in Cumberland County was the site where the ﬁrst patriot called for independence from Britain. Photos by Alec Hosterman/Courtesy of Hotel Weyanoke. (Courtney Vogel)