This old Virginia seaport city thrives on its rejuvenation, inviting people from all over the world to call it home.

By Paige Porter
March 26, 2004

The stars appear to have fallen into the trees that line HighStreet in downtown Portsmouth, commonly referred to as Olde Towne.Thousands of tiny white lights hug the bare branches, while a fewhundred larger lights frame the marquee of the Commodore Theatre,the 1940s-style dinner theater where the show never stops andthere's always a queue.

"People thought I was crazy when I said I was going to buy thisold theater and restore it to the way it looked when it opened in1945," says Fred Schoenfeld, who lives in Olde Towne and sometimeswalks to work. "But I believed in the downtown area and I believedin the project, and now that it's open I can't keep peopleaway."

The restoration of the Art Deco theater is but one facet of thiscity's ongoing renaissance. Founded in 1752 and modeled afterBritish Portsmouth, this 29-square-mile town just off theChesapeake Bay reflects its roots with streets named London,Glasgow, and Queen. The town's first intersection, at Court andHigh streets―chosen because of its proximity to a church, amarket, a jail, and a courthouse―still remains the town'scenter. Though its history spans three centuries, Portsmouth hasentered the 21st century with a plan to improve its infrastructure,revitalize its waterfront, and revive Olde Towne.

"We knew that we had nothing unless we had a strong downtowncenter and an attractive waterfront," says Mallory Kahler,marketing manager of the Portsmouth Department of EconomicDevelopment. "So we took an active role in renewing Olde Towne andestablishing residential developments. We had a plan to strengthenthe center and the edges, and work from there."

Portsmouth's "center" holds the largest collection of antiquehomes between Alexandria, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina,plus a bundle of early 20th-century buildings that either have beenrestored or are in the process of being renovated.

Portsmouth's "edges" include some 80 square miles of waterfrontproperty along its many channels. Neighborhoods occupy much of thewaterfront property, while retail developments such as theRenaissance Portsmouth Hotel and Conference Center and a new $13million, 6,500-seat performing arts center enjoy prime riversidespots.

"The Elizabeth River both divides and connects Norfolk andPortsmouth," says Arden Pfeiffer, who moved to Portsmouth 25 yearsago from New York. "We really are sister cities, only ours has thesmall-town feel and a closer-knit community."

Arden, who owns Pfeiffer's Books, Cards and Fine Wines on HighStreet, says Portsmouth gives its citizens a sense of belonging."Of course, you have to get used to a slower pace of life here, butonce you do, you'll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly you'llfall in love with the place. The [Navy] brought me down here, and aSouthern belle roped me in, but the town itself has become amagnet, and I don't plan on leaving."

Portsmouth enjoys a central location in Virginia's Hampton Roadsarea, which encompasses everything between Williamsburg and theNorth Carolina state line. It's on the Intracoastal Waterway, whichstretches from Maine to Miami, so the city sees its fair share ofboats.

"The waterfront is the heartbeat of this city," says RichardPowell, a resident for 58 years. "The Naval hospital, the Navalshipyard, and the 5th Coast Guard District are all here, and we'reclose to the Norfolk Naval Base, so we get folks from all over theworld. It's a melting pot."

Skip Novak, who joined the Navy and moved to Portsmouth fromGreen Bay, Wisconsin, 10 years ago, says he formed roots fast here."I've always wanted to live in a place where history was importantand diversity was considered a good thing."

Portsmouth also draws company from outside the community to theChildren's Museum of Virginia, the Portsmouth Naval ShipyardMuseum, the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, the Courthouse Galleries,and the Portsmouth Lightship Museum.

The town "has a little bit of everything," says RebeccaCutchins, of the Portsmouth Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Andyou don't have to be obsessed with architecture or history to enjoyit. You might just want to have a quiet place to raise your family,or a house on the water, or a community with which you can becomeinvolved."

Or a velvet chair, a slice of cheesecake, and a good movie atthe Commodore Theatre.

(published 2001)