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Holding up the fort in Lewisburg

LEWISBURG, W.Va. -- Florian Schleiff likes to give credit, or the blame, to his wife for the restoration of the historic Silas Mason mansion, in Lewisburg, that took nearly seven years. His latest endeavor, though, is all his own doing.

The Lewisburg contractor and two local lawyers are renovating the former Fort Savannah Inn with plans to create a surrounding park and local farmers market on the site of the now-closed motel.

Joe Lovett laughed in telling how Schleiff pushed all the right buttons to get him into the nonprofit venture. When Schleiff suggested the Fort Savannah site for an expanded farmers market, "I said, 'No thank you. It's a mess. Why would I want to get pulled into that,'" Lovett recalled.

Schleiff pointed out that Lovett was an environmental lawyer. As head of an environmental organization, why wouldn't Lovett be proud and honored to clean up a dump and create a beautiful public space?

"It worked. He knew how to sucker me in," Lovett said.

"And it will be amazing," Schleiff added about their project to redo the eyesore on U.S. 219, a main route into the historic town.

The two men had just had a business lunch looking for ways to pay for the project. And they were meeting later that mid-August day with a Boston landscape architect who will prepare drawings of the proposed market and park. Architectural drawings will help potential donors visualize the project, the men said.

One donor, though, didn't have to see drawings. Paul Lindquist's 19th-century brick mansion, Montwell, with its imposing white columns, looks down on the deserted two-story motel and empty parking lot. When the project founders visited Lindquist to outline their plans, he said, in essence, "I want in." Lindquist is giving 4 acres of surrounding land to what is now called Montwell Park, for a total of 6.5 acres.

Workmen, including several of Schleiff's sons are framing walls, replacing roofs and cutting out windows among other major improvements to the log inn.

The goal is to open a new restaurant there by October. If it's not ready, Lovett isn't sure what he'll do with all the produce he's committed to buying from Greenbrier Valley farmers.

Schleiff hopes that the circa-1960s motel can be demolished by the end of winter so that construction can begin on the shelters for the farmers market.

"It's going to take $150,000 to $200,000 to make it disappear," Schleiff said the motel.

The log inn is actually made up of three separate early-19th-century log cabins that were moved to the site at different times and placed on old stone foundations. The main floor has more than 4,000 square feet and will contain the restaurant.

Seven skylights will be installed in the roof to add natural light; French doors will lead from the dining room onto a deck overlooking the future market. A chef has already been tapped to oversee a menu highlighting locally grown produce and meat.

On one end of the long room is a newly re-chinked stone fireplace, on the other end will be a small stage, where bands can play. Lovett envisions the room being used to show films and to hold lectures and workshops on environmental issues as well as classes in, perhaps, gardening and canning. "It will be a fun place to be," he said.

The bottom floor is accessible from the rear of the building. It will be used as a youth center and for after-school programs. There is cooling storage space for produce. Both floors will have handicap-accessible bathrooms.

The market will sell art as well as produce and food items. Lovett said the park will have a pond or similar wetland feature. The Lewisburg Rotary Club has signed on to build an amphitheater.

For the most part, the community project is on the shoulders of the Schleiff, Lovett, Lindquist and Brandon Johnson, another local lawyer. "We would like to broaden the support," Schleiff said.

"Everyone in town sees this building at least once a day. It's a portal to the town."

Reach Rosalie Earle at earle@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5115.


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