The transformation of Craghead Street’s 500 block began as a defensive move by Rick Barker to protect his original investment — the former Piedmont Hardware building. At the same time, he was told that buying that block of buildings was “crazy.”
The buildings were in incredible disrepair and had been vacant for decades, said Barker.
The structures were bad enough to be considered teardowns, made only worse by flooding from Hurricane Michael in 2018, he said.
Today the fully restored row of buildings boasts Muchos Taqueria, the future home of The Garage, a barbecue restaurant, second floor apartments, and office space for Paramont Residential Mortgage Group and Nancy Parrish Interiors.
Most recently, Barker opened what could be seen as the centerpiece of the block, Vantage Art Flats — referring to a vantage point or perspective, and flats providing a European sensibility to the interiors.
The meticulously crafted Airbnb, with its nine uniquely decorated units, is located in the former Swift and Company butcher shop and the former home of Nabisco’s distribution warehouse. Between the two buildings — now a shared courtyard joined by an enclosed breezeway — was a former pharmacy, but is now the home of Eldridge — a limited edition elephant created by the renowned Cracking Art Group of Italy and named after the drugstore. The Day-Glo colored animals are made out of regenerated plastic.
Elephants also appear throughout Vantage — as motifs for the door numbers, as original art and more.
The elephant is symbolic of Danville — smart, strong and resilient, said Barker.
Barker grew up in Chatham and began his career as a sale representative for International Paper. From there he created his own company, Supply Resources, which makes custom designed packaging. To facilitate distribution, Barker added Thrive Logistics, a network of warehouses where the packaging can be shipped quickly and efficiently.
It was those elements that put Barker in a position to move into real estate — and get his general contractor’s license. With the latter, he created Thrive Contracting with its own team of building professionals.
While his career has been in packaging and logistics, Barker had developed an early interest in art and architecture in his 20s. And Danville’s River District, with its five million square feet of antique architecture, is an ideal place to explore that passion.
What has evolved into one of Danville’s trendiest blocks started with Barker’s need for an office for Supply Resources. To that end, Barker made a list of items that he wanted in an office building, created a scoring system and then walked the streets of the River District. The former Piedmont Hardware building — with its distinctive brick exterior and significant interior architecture — earned the most points, said Barker.
Once that building was renovated — again with an eye for maintaining the integrity of the original architecture and aesthetic — Barker turned his attention to the rest of the block.
Barker said he looked at the buildings that lined the street at the time and saw they were in very poor condition.
At the time, real estate in Danville was dirt cheap, so he bought the whole block. As owner of the entire block of structures, Barker would have control over how the entire project turned out.
Much traveled, Barker had seen other locales do much more with far less than Danville, in terms of space and architecture. He wanted Danville to use its many assets and capitalize on them. However, to take on such a renovation project required the use of federal and state historic tax credits, he said.
Included among the nine buildings in the 500 block was the former butcher shop and Nabisco building.
Between those two buildings was once the Eldridge drugstore. With the lower part of the building having collapsed and cleared out, the angle of the former butcher shop is evident, as it once sat alongside a train spur line. Remnants of that spur line remain, with the rest of it having been washed away during Hurricane Michael. It was from that spur that cows were transferred into the Swift and Company for processing. That door is now a window where the frame design mimics that of the former door.
Visual elements abound within Vantage Art Flats, as Barker wants people to see something each time they visit.
“It’s all about the details,” said Barker, adding that those myriad details required thousands of decisions.
Barker was mindful to erase any element that was installed after the buildings were built and keep the original, authentic fixtures and finishes— such as the shell, ceilings, floors and walls.
“No gimmicks here,” he said.
Meanwhile, the individual units are furnished with high quality materials and an eye for mid-century modern.
The kitchen cabinets are custom made from sapele - a vertically grained hardwood imported from Africa. The doors of the former butcher shop meat freezer has been restored. The beds in the units are framed with wood and each contain a different, and much enlarged, postcard of Danville in earlier eras — including one that shows that the city once had a streetcar.
Original artwork, to include the nine Cracking Art animals, comes in the form sculpture, paintings, such as a large work by Heath Kane of the United Kingdom titled, “Legende’” and a chandelier created by Richmond artist Wendy Umunoff.
Each unit opens onto its own covered outdoor space, with artfully designed louvered doors that provide adjustable levels of sun and weather protection.
Each unit has a full kitchen and a washer and dryer, and one is handicap accessible.
In all there are six one-bedroom units for about $225 a night and three two-bedroom units that average about $350 a night. A portion of the building will be devoted to commercial space to provide the mix of businesses and options that makes an area vibrant, said Barker.
Barker plans to put a sculpture garden behind Vantage Art Flats, as well as restore the creek back to its original 1880s shape and form.
With his attention to detail, Barker found documentation providing historical information about the creek.
The plan is to have it look like it did before the area was industrialized. The creek runs where the former Danville railyard was located.
Barker said the size of Vantage, with its nine units, has proved to be attractive to small groups, such as wedding parties and family reunions.
Barker’s next project is the former Gibson Dry Prizery, located at 518 Craghead St. Built in 1871, it is the oldest, intact tobacco-related building in Danville.
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