Where to Retire, September/October 2017
This Southern city proves that ‘historic’ and ‘hip’ are not opposites. The Virginia capital played pivotal roles in America’s past, but also has an overflow of trendy restaurants and shops.
CIVIL WAR BATTLEFIELDS AND MUSEUMS draw many history buffs to Richmond, 105 miles south of Washington, DC. But like any Southern belle worth her petticoats, the Virginia capital swirls with layers of charms. Locals kayak on the James River that runs through town and pedal the surrounding bike paths. A major new contemporary art institute testifies to the thriving arts community. Scores of hip restaurants and craft breweries attract residents to the city’s revitalized neighborhoods. With its flourishing downtown and burgeoning foodie scene,today’s trendy Richmond exudes a mega dose of cosmopolitan cool. When Judy and Rich Rurak moved here from Rochester, MI, in 2016, they chose a 1910 house in the historic Fan District. “I was looking for an older home with character,” Judy says. “We wanted to live in a walkable community. From our house, we can walk to restaurants, the ballpark, the theater and Carytown for shopping.”
The Fan District, which is on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places, won the 2014 American Planning Association’s “great neighborhoods” designation for its community events, preserved late Victorian and early 20th-century architectural styles and pedestrian-friendly, shady streets.
“We were without a kitchen for three months because we were renovating, so we ate at many restaurants,” says Judy, 62, a retired language tutor. She and Rich, 67, a former automotive executive, often frequent the Spoonbread Bistro and Secco Wine Bar, both in the Fan District.
The area’s friendliness and age diversity appeal to the Ruraks. “In the neighborhood, people sit out on their front porches and greet you,” Judy says. “We also like the fact that the housing is mixed. There are apartments and condos as well as townhomes and homes. There are retirees and young people.”
Denise and Dana Bondy moved here from Atlanta in 2015 after discovering the city’s charms when their youngest daughter attended the University of Richmond.
“The cultural experiences are outstanding here,’ says Denise, 66, a former therapist and teacher. “We have season tickets to the opera. We’re getting season tickets to the symphony. The cultural events and opportunities are more affordable than they were in Atlanta.’
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is known for its sculpture garden, a collection of jewel encrusted Faberge eggs and works by Van Gogh and Picasso. When Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Contemporary Art opens in October, it will host exhibitions, performances and films.
The Bondys also enjoy speeches sponsored by The Richmond Forum, a nonprofit educational organization. “We attended a presentation by Alan Alda on the meaning of his life and one by Russell Wilson with Henry Louis Gates talking about the roots of a champion,’ says Dana, 65, a retired senior data manager.
Throughout the city, the quest for inspired food is evident. The Jackson Ward neighborhood, crowned the Harlem of the South in its 1940s heyday, pops with lively eateries. Soul food is at Mama J’s and Latin American fare can be found at gastropub Saison. In the surrounding area, The Rogue Gentlemen is a restaurant known for craft cocktails and farm-to-table cuisine. The Quirk Hotel has a popular rooftop bar. The Savory Grain serves new American food, and Kuba Kuba plates authentic Cuban dishes.
Richmond’s tourist organization, Richmond Region Tourism, promotes the message that the city is friendly to all, including the LGBT community, which has been lured with targeted advertisements. Boutiques and restaurants line Carytown, a mile-long stretch of Cary Street that is home to Byrd Theatre, on the Virginia Landmarks Register and National Register of Historic Places. Gold leaf arches, marbled walls and a 2.5-ton crystal chandelier adorn the restored 1928 classic movie palace.
The Bondys downsized to a condo in Monument Square, a planned development open to all ages. “We like the fact that there are people of different ages here,’ Denise says. “It’s a friendly place. Every third Wednesday of the month, there’s a BYOB community get-together.”
Lynn Moore, 68, who worked as a human resources vice president, and husband Robert, 71, a retired healthcare services co-founder and manager, discovered Richmond in 2014 when attending the wedding of a friend’s son. They relocated from Atlanta in 2015 after purchasing a Monument Square condo.
The city’s location appealed to the Moores in other ways as well.” Richmond is close to historic attractions,” Lynn says. “We are near Monticello, the plantations and the battlefields.”
Thomas Jefferson’s beloved Monticello, outside Charlottesville, is an easy daytrip 70 miles northwest. More plantations front the James River along state Route 5 near Charles City, 30 miles southeast. Berkeley Plantation claims to be the site of the first American Thanksgiving in December 1619 when settlers from the Berkeley Co. came ashore and gave thanks for landing safely. Benjamin Harrison IV built the stately house in 1726. (His son, Benjamin Harrison V, signed the Declaration of Independence.) Shirley Plantation, Virginia’s first, was founded in 1613, and still is operated and inhabited by descendants of the original owner.
The Virginia state Capitol downtown, designed by Thomas Jefferson and finished in 1788, is open for tours, as is the Executive Mansion, which was completed in 1813. The Virginia governor and his family still live there, and it is the oldest continuously occupied governor’s residence in the country.
Significant Civil War battles bloodied the lands surrounding the city. Richmond National Battlefield Park includes 13 sites along an 80-mile route. Petersburg, 25 miles south, endured a 292-day Union siege – the longest military event oft he Civil War. Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, also in Petersburg, focus on the “authentic experience” of soldiers, slaves and civilians in the war.
Richmond served as the capital of the Confederacy from 1861 to 1865. The American Civil War Museum does not glorify the Confederacy, but instead presents artifacts and historical interpretations. Next door is the White House of the Confederacy, which was home to Jefferson Davis and his family during the conflict.
The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, on the site of a former ironworks factory, interprets the Civil War from three perspectives: Union, Confederate and African-American.
The nation’s history continues up the road in Washington, DC, 105 miles north. “We hop on the train in Richmond and two hours later, we’re in DC.” Robert says.
Colonial Williamsburg as well as the mountains and the beach are close, too. The Blue Ridge Parkway is less than 100 miles west and Virginia Beach is 110 miles southeast.
And all of these are enjoyable practically year-round.” Richmond’s weather is moderate,” says Sue Vaught, a real estate agent with Joyner Fine Properties.” Richmond is a good choice, especially for people who do not want to be snowbirds.”
Like a growing number of pre-retirees and retirees, Judy and Tim McCue and Jill and Bruce Mercier wanted to remain relatively close to their former homes, but sought the convenience and camaraderie of an active-adult community. Both couples purchased houses at the 55-plus K. Hovnanian’s Four Seasons at New Kent Vineyards, 25 miles east of Richmond.
The McCues moved in early 2017 from Prince George and live about midway between their twin daughters, who reside in Williamsburg and Midlothian, 15 miles west of Richmond. “At New Kent, my commute to work is cut in half,” says Judy, 58, a registered nurse in Mechanicsville, 5 miles northeast of Richmond in Hanover County. Like many communities on the city’s outskirts, it is experiencing a housing boom.
Tim, 63, a retired fire chief for Fort Lee, looks forward to joining the men’s monthly breakfast at New Kent. “It’s peaceful here, more rural than where we were,” he says. “It’s a nice environment and the people are friendly.”
Jill and Bruce moved from Mechanicsville to New Kent in 2016. “This is our pre-retirement move,” says Jill, 60, a nurse and human resources manager at a Richmond health-care system. “We wanted to make the change before we retired.”
They enjoy the social aspects of the community. “Every Friday around the firepit, people bring their beverage of choice and hang out,” says Bruce, 64, a health systems administrator in Richmond.
Jill adores the setting. “I like that it is a bit country,” she says. “You drive 3 to 4 miles and you see a farm with cows. We are also 1 mile from a winery that has cooking classes and tastings.”
Bruce says New Kent is all they wanted. “I would have loved to have done this five years ago because it’s so great once you do it,” he says. “I have no regrets.”
Richmond is large enough to have superb medical care.” We’ve found our respective doctors,” Judy Rurak says.”Virginia Commonwealth University is here and they have a big medical center.”
As veterans, both Lynn and Robert use Richmond’s Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center. “The veterans hospital is accessible and offers good care.” Lynn says.
The Bondys profess that the area’s recreational options are outstanding, too. “We kayak on the James River and have sailed on the Rappahannock River,” Denise says . “It’s also an easy city to bike and walk as it’s not very hilly.”
Jack Berry, president and CEO of Richmond Region Tourism, likes cycling the 52-mile Virginia Capital Trail. The paved bike and pedestrian pathway connects the city with Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America.
Richmond’s several universities and community colleges provide sports, recreation and education. “We attend football games at the University of Richmond and at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville,” Lynn says. “We also go to basketball games at VCU.”
The Ruraks get a kick out of cheering on the city’s baseball team, the Flying Squirrels. “The ballpark is 1 mile from our house,” Judy says. “We’re also avid golfers and tennis players, so we joined the Willow Oaks Country Club.” Greater Richmond features around 20 golf courses.
Locals also enjoy the 8,000-acre Pocahontas State Park, 20 miles southwest. Visitors canoe, kayak and fish on the lake, and hike on more than 64 miles of trails.
Richmond residents 50 and older can enroll in courses at the University of Richmond’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. “In fall and spring, we offer 100 classes and in the summer we offer 50 classes,” says director Peggy Watson. The institute also hosts trips.
Newcomers list few negatives about Richmond. The airport is smaller than big-city airports and has fewer direct flights, some have noted. “It has fewer museums and fewer theater choices, but there are still enough things to do,” Lynn says. Also, the capital city often has heavy traffic downtown when the Legislature is in session.
Retirees easily find opportunities to meet people. Watson notes that OLLI members sometimes start their own groups. “One woman liked musicals and plays but felt she had noone to go with, so she asked if she could start her own group,” she says. “About 150 people later, she has plenty of friends to go with her to the theater.”