Like trends in fashion, music, architecture and art, business trends come and go, and are great tools to connect the past to the present. One of my favorite things to do in a new city is to walk through its historical district, to see how old spaces have been converted into something new. The current uses of the sites illuminate popular trends today, while the spaces they occupy can reveal the ebb and flow of past trends and the businesses that supported them.
In a town like Leesburg, Virginia, which is as old as colonial America itself, urban planners and private entrepreneurs have opened up shop in the historical center with an eye toward the past – renovating old buildings (some over two centuries old) in creative ways that reference their histories and former purposes.
Here are three cool converted spaces in Leesburg.
Located on the former site of the People’s National Bank, eating at Lightfoot Restaurant felt as if I was eating in a turn-of-the-century bank. Originally designed by the same architects who built the iconic Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, the interior maintains the elements that characterize the Romanesque Revival building – a cavernous dome and wide arches, an ornate ceiling, granite columns, cast-iron railings, and bronze-plated pillars.
When the bank was first built in 1885, it was closed to women, who had to wait in the lobby area next door while their husbands did business inside. Over a century later, the space has been converted into one of the most successful restaurants in Leesburg – its manager and top chef both women.
This 19th-century storefront spent much of its history as a family-run shoe repair store, begun in the 1920s by a Sicilian immigrant and his family, and continued by an Armenian immigrant and his family in the 1970s. It functioned as a shoe repair shop until 2006, when it was converted into a fair trade coffee and local wine shop.
The interior was renovated with historical precision, integrating references to the space’s past. The purposefully warping tables and slightly rusting decor meld with the laptop coffee shop atmosphere the cafe promotes. To me, the owner’s decision to convert an entire wall into a community chalk board speaks to his understanding of the role the coffee shop plays as part of the space’s living history – and is an interesting way to nudge customers to take an active part in it.
Located in a grain mill originally built in 1899, the interior of Tuscarora Mill Restaurant is still, in large part, a grain mill. Huge pieces of thick, warping timber support many of the original pulleys, belts and tools central to the mill’s original function.
The restaurant owners have built the menu with an eye toward the larger agricultural context in which the mill used to function – ingredient and products are sourced from the myriad of local farms in Loudoun county.
What’s the coolest converted space you’ve ever seen?