The Community Design Help Center helps create opportunities in rural areas


The seedy facade of the Thomas Deen building in St. Paul, Virginia, denies the better days of the once-impressive department store.

The seedy facade of the Thomas Deen building in St. Paul, Virginia, denies the better days of the once-impressive department store.

The four-story brick building opened its doors to customers in the early 1920s, but over time, the structure was forgotten like the old tires it stored away some 100 years later. When Elizabeth Gilboy, director of the Community Design Assistance Center, an outreach center at Virginia Tech College of Architecture, Art, and Design, and the center’s team explored the site in the fall of 2020, they recognized their unique place at the crossroads of the building. history and future.

Since 1988, the center has worked with more than 230 communities on hundreds of projects to help communities, civic groups, and nonprofits throughout Virginia improve their natural and built environments through community engagement and interdisciplinary design. In addition, the center provides a paid learning experience for students of architecture, landscape architecture, and interior design as they become immersed in participatory design and planning processes.

“Where there is vision, there is opportunity,” said Gilboy, who has served as the center’s director since 2000. “If our team can help stakeholders think about their ideas and render the vision in graphical or rendering format, the concept can used to apply for financing. Sometimes, individual projects build one another toward a larger goal, or they may be cornerstone projects, such as the St. Paul, where the city received a grant of $990,000 moving forward.”

Western Front Region of St. Paul’s had an unsavory reputation in the late 1800s as it grew from the influx of early railroad transients into the center of Southwest Virginia’s coal mining industry. The town had a population of 4,000 in the coal camps, but as industry declined, the population dwindled in the mid-1900s and the town’s future looked bleak.

Without industrial opportunities, the natural beauty and historical resources of the area emerge as central elements of the economic revitalization of the community. The Clinch River, the most biodiverse waterway in the Northern Hemisphere, flows through St. Paul and attracts visitors for its many outdoor recreational activities. Clinch River State Park, Virginia’s newest state park, and Oxbow Lake offer hiking, biking, birding and wildlife. The extensive Spearhead Trails off-road vehicle trail system spans less than 20 miles.

In 2020, stakeholders from Saint Paul approached the center for a design to replace the historic multi-storey 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, has been badly damaged, underwent significant structural changes, and became a storage space for local businesses. The vision was to redevelop the building as a distillery with tasting areas, outdoor seating, and demonstration areas as well as retail space for locally produced food, merchandise, and artisan products.

Developing a conceptual design from the vision, the center team created ideas and sketches that led to the final floor plan and rendering using computer-aided design software. Participants navigate planning, presentation and feedback sessions through the global COVID-19 pandemic. The project design process was completed in July 2021 and a visual concept document was included as a “proof of readiness” as part of the grant application submitted by the city of St. Paul and St. Paul Tomorrow Inc. A $990,000 Industrial Rebuilding 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 rebuild process are now underway.

Thomas Deen Distillery is a major project in the revitalization and streetscape of St. Paul which covers the Riverside Drive area just a few blocks from downtown. Area attractions include the recently renovated Western Front Hotel, farmers market, restaurants, Sugar Hill Brewing Co., outdoor outfitter, historic Lyric Theatre, and access to the Bluebell Island Nature Trail and AR Matthews Memorial Park.


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