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Martinsburg’s architecture: a second look

By Staff | Oct 29, 2010

I am coming to appreciate Martinsburg as an architecture town. A recent stroll down King and Queen streets reintroduced me to the city as an encyclopedia of building styles, from the most ornate beaux arts to the cleanest horizontality of mid-century modern.

For better or worse, prosperity, in the form of renovation, has avoided downtown Martinsburg for decades. Old Victorian buildings, with their gingerbread facades intact, have been left alone. The old federal building, conceived by architect James Edbrooke Willoughby and constructed in 1892, retains not only its original exterior, but such interior features as a tiny, cage elevator.

Cornerstones on buildings reveal their construction during the early years of the 20th century. An old bank has become a bookstore; a Mexican restaurant occupies the first floor of a Gothic revival building that was once Martinsburg’s central marketplace and home to the Mason and Odd Fellows halls. One of those old gingerbread Victorians is now a puppet theater, and another, with astonishing interior features including dual Doric columns between rooms, is a health-food store.

The “new” federal courthouse, constructed during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, is an example of mid-century lines, clean and unadorned. An even better example is the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Library, with its narrow windows and wide front plaza.

An original tin ceiling, with deep cove molding, is evident inside Casa Visone on Queen Street, where I met my friend, Hannah, for lunch. Original architecture in the rear of the small space disappears beneath a drop ceiling, but the high ceiling at the front is intact.

What looked to be family photos crowded one wall of the space, across from which is a large framed Visone family crest.

The family feeling is authentic; the restaurant is run by Eva and Francesco Visone; she’s at the front of the house, and he’s in the kitchen. Fresh, warm bread arrives as soon as you sit down, and a vial of herbed olive oil is already on the table. The menu hits all marks – soups, light dishes, salads and pastas.

There at lunchtime, I chose an appetizer to be my entree. Melanzane alla Barese is a construction of grilled eggplant, topped with slices of tomato and mozzarella, then baked and served in a puddle of herbed oil.

Eggplant can be tricky; undercook it, and it is woody and bitter. Overcooked, it falls apart. But the wonder of eggplant is its natural sponginess that absorbs moisture and flavors. Cooked perfectly, it becomes unctuous and flavorful. The dish at Casa Visone could have used longer cooking for the eggplant, before being assembled for the oven.

Hannah chose a favorite of hers, Penne Arrabbiata, a dish of short pasta with mushrooms, capers, black olives and red peppers in tomato sauce. House-made tomato sauce also appears over spaghettini, rigatoni and tortellini, and is for sale in quart jars at the back of the restaurant.

A cream sauce bathes fettuccine with grilled chicken, sun-dried tomatoes and asparagus, as well as a dish of farfalle with mushrooms and proscuitto.

Salads include the traditional caprese, which is layered tomatoes, basil and mozzarella, and Caesar, with or without grilled chicken. Minestrone and pasta fagioli are also menu staples.

“Dessert? We have chocolate mousse,” Eva Visone suggested when we concluded our meal.

But instead, we selected to linger over cappucino, which was perfectly frothy and deep with the flavor of espresso. In the end, Hannah and I spent a lovely two hours talking and eating and were never hurried along.

Walking out afterwards, Hannah pointed out several other buildings of note along the streetscape. A Martinsburg resident for many decades, she sees the beauty and elegance in architecture meant to convey stature and importance. Nearly a century after their construction and after decades of benign indifference, these buildings are worthy of a second look.