In the 1940’s and ’50’s downtown Roanoke had a thriving nightlife. Businesses were open, there were four motion picture theaters. It all changed after World War II, gradually at first, then at an accelerated pace until it evolved into a deserted downtown during the decades of the 60’s and ’70’s.
In the late 1970’s downtown Roanoke and the area’s arts community was in a state of decay. This declining, crime-ridden, blighted urban area was producing less than desirable tax revenues and area school systems were struggling to offer adequate science, art and cultural programs. Cultural organizations, located in the suburbs were inaccessible by public transportation and unpatronized by a broad cross-section of Valley residents. None of these organizations had permanent homes with adequate facilities to accomplish their dreams.
The formation of a business league in 1976 led to a comprehensive revitalization project called Design ’79. In a storefront office in a very visible window on Roanoke’s busiest street, Design ’79 positioned an architect who was drawing plans for possible downtown improvements. Citizens were encouraged to observe and offer suggestions. Four months of call-in television broadcasts coupled with a panel composed of more than 100 citizens created a public wish list. Center in the Square was the resulting centerpiece of Design ’79.
The McGuire Building – Now Center in the Square
Pledges were obtained and money raised to purchase and remodel the old five-story McGuire building. Partnerships were forged with individuals, regional businesses, local, state and federal governments. Ultimately, over $4 million in pledges were obtained from the private sector to purchase and remodel the old warehouse. In addition to these funds, the organization received a Commonwealth of Virginia grant of $2.6 million. The Western Virginia Foundation for the Arts and Sciences – the 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that owns and operates Center in the Square – entered into a Trust Indenture with a consortium of six local banks and a life insurance company which issued $2.5 million in bonds to complete construction on the project. The final cost for Center in the Square was $7.5 million. Built in 1914 on the corner of Roanoke’s Farmers’ Market, the McGuire building housed W. E. McGuire’s Farmers’ Supply Co. that sold buggies, wagons, fertilizer, seed, and other farm-related equipment and supplies.
Center in the Square Opens with Five Permanent Residents
In 1982 five arts and science organizations moved into Center in the Square: the Roanoke Museum of Fine Arts (in 1992 renamed the Art Museum of Western Virginia), the Science Museum, Mill Mountain Theatre, the Roanoke Valley History Museum, and the Arts Council of the Blue Ridge. Center in the Square opened its doors on December 9, 1983, welcoming 40,000 visitors the first weekend, fulfilling a community dream to revitalize a decaying downtown and bolstering the arts through a downtown cultural center.
This first building block was followed by street improvements, public building improvements, private stores, restaurants, office buildings, and tourist activities. As a public/private community project it has proven to be an award winner.