In my family lore, there is a not-so-mythical place known as “back seat land.” As a frequent occupant of this space, landscapes and buildings that filter through my memory are most often framed by the dimensions of the back seat car window, and many a long winding road trip was enlivened by peeks of historic towns or the profile of a grand, mysterious building. One of those memories is the expansive hillside building perched above the town of Buena Vista in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley – the late-19th century Buena Vista Hotel, better known to generations of locals as Southern Seminary.
Now the commander of the driver’s seat, I took a weekend jaunt to Virginia, pulling off of the Interstate to explore many towns I’d previously only sped by, and revisiting the visions from childhood. I instantly recognized the rambling red brick and frame building as the same shadowy memory from years ago. The crescent shaped building stands three and a half stories, with a raised basement, and a facade fairly bursting with movement from porches, gables, and towers. It is the Queen Anne style on steroids – and a breathtaking sight. The origin of the impressive building is rooted in the economic boom of the 1890s – a period of growth brought on by the expansion of the railroad (in this case, the Norfolk and Western Railroad).
Situated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and on the east side of the Maury River, the favorable location of Buena Vista meant a community existed long before the creation of the Buena Vista Company, a land development company taking advantage of the railroad expansion. But the boom years of the early 1890s propelled the town’s growth with force. These late-19th century land companies, often supported by northern investors, promoted themselves (they had to sell shares, or stock, after all) with flair and drama. One of the first acts of the Buena Vista Company was the construction of a hotel on a plateau overlooking the town – a sumptuous structure designed to dazzle potential investors as well as provide comfortable accommodations.
The first incarnation of the hotel, though, fell victim to fire in the summer of 1890. Undaunted, the Buena Vista Company trumpeted plans to rebuild one of the “most substantial and beautiful structures of modern times.” The completed Queen Anne and Romanesque hotel (look at those massive stone arches over the windows and doors) was “indeed among the most impressive of all the Valley boom hotels,” and two years after it was finished, some 600 structures had been built in town below. The discovery of a large seam of iron ore contributed to the prosperity of the town at this time; the town was described at the time as “one of the many new towns that seem to have sprung up as if by magic in some parts of Virginia.” Buena Vista had arrived – but then the panic of 1893 struck.
Railroad overbuilding – and the unstable financing that prompted it – lay at the root of this nationwide depression. The hotel seemed to close before it opened. And when the building was purchased by Dr. Edgar H. Rowe, a Methodist Minister and head of the Bowling Green Female Academy (founded in 1867), its new role as educational center was secured. A branch of Rowe’s school opened in the former Buena Vista Hotel in 1901, and by 1907, the glorious building became the main branch of what would become Southern Seminary, a women’s college known as “Southern Sem.” Declining enrollment and financial issues forced the closure of the school in 1996; it was purchased that year and became a Latter Day Saint’s affiliated institution known as Southern Virginia University.
There are so many places I traveled as a child that have vanished from the landscape altogether – it was such a joy, then, to drive around the curve in the road and see the Buena Vista Hotel from the driver’s side, just as I remembered seeing the building, face pressed up against the back window, and neck twisted to see the wonderful and optimistic structure recede in the background. The broad streets of the town of Buena Vista prove just the right respite for stretching my legs, enjoying the mix of late-19th and early 20th century architecture – and every time I turned around, there was the hotel on the hill. The interstate delivers us to our destinations much more efficiently than the network of smaller roads, but without the layers of history and experience – and I for one am better for taking the long way to get to my destination.