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Downright neighborly

Chris Dorst
Arlington Court residents gather on a wintry midweek evening in February. Carter Zerbe (from left) chats with Gary Rider, while Claudette Hudson-Rider, Colleen Anderson and Laura Lou Harbert talk in the townhouse of hosts Shawn Means and Amy McLaughlin.
Chris Dorst Shawn Means and Amy McLaughlin welcome guests to their townhouse. McLaughlin purchased and lived in the townhouse before she met Means. He quickly joined McLaughlin in her appreciation of Arlington Court and its residents.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When builders broke ground on the Arlington Court apartment building 100 years ago, another construction project garnered more newsprint. Luna Park, an amusement park on Charleston's West Side, opened in 1913 with much fanfare.

The park is long gone, but Arlington Court, which stretches between Lee and Quarrier streets on the East End, not only remains standing, but also houses a vibrant community of residents.

The residents share more than an address. Most are friends, or at least acquaintances -- they don't have much choice in the 22 attached units, which all feature front porches that sit in close proximity to each other and to the walkway that divides the diminutive, individually tended plots.

In warm weather, the courtyard is dotted with neighbors chatting informally or gathered for several scheduled celebrations such as a summer cookout or an Oktoberfest.

Forced outdoors during the winter months to walk their dogs, some hardy souls still visit, but Shawn Means and Amy McLaughlin make sure everyone has a chance to visit weekly in February. They host Hibernal Humpday Happy Hour on Wednesdays, brightening one of the year's most dreary months.

Friends and neighbors brave the cold, bearing snacks and perhaps a bottle of wine. They share a libation and a bite as they catch up on news.

The Wednesday events became so popular that the residents recently decided to hold them year-round, rotating hosting duties. "We have every spot covered through the end of the year," McLaughlin said.

It's hard to say if the original residents were a sociable crowd. They were largely professionals, according to Means, who has researched the court's history and created an Arlington Court Community page on Facebook.

The oldest resident record Means found was the 1914 Polk City Directory in which residents' occupations are listed as clothiers, a tailor, lawyers, statehouse employees, a dentist and live-in domestics.

The units are nearly identical in size, except for the four on the ends, which are larger. Some townhouses were occupied by just a few people, while the directory listed others as two families sharing the 2,000-square-foot, three-bedroom places.

"They were built during a time of great expansion in Charleston. They needed housing," Means said. Maple Court, a similar row of townhouses in the next block, was constructed at about the same time.

"From the references we find in the society pages, we know they were part of that culture," said Means of the residents' social status. He found newspaper accounts, mostly on the society pages, of residents' weddings, parties, honors and even hospital stays.

A June 30, 1929, story reads, "Miss Peggy George entertained Wednesday night with a delightful party held at the YWCA preceded by dancing and a slumber party at her home No 15 Arlington Court. A breakfast was served to the small guests. A pink and white color scheme was used with roses and sweet peas in the center of the table."

The scene probably changed during the Depression, a time from which Means said he found many notices seeking boarders from residents whose fortunes had changed. A more prosperous time reigned after World War II.

The standards slipped in the late 1960s and 1970s, when absentee landlords didn't keep up with repairs and maintenance. "The place was old and attracted sort of sketchy people. There was reputed drug activity," Means said.

Enter developer Brooks McCabe, who purchased the units in 1981 and formed Arlington Court Neighborhood Inc. for the purpose of reviving and transforming the building into condominiums. McCabe's grandfather Robert McCabe was one of the original owners and incorporators of Arlington Court.

"We can't say enough good about Brooks McCabe. He looked at the neighborhood and wanted to keep it. He decided not to do big developments that would appeal to high-end buyers," said resident Colleen Anderson.

Means said McCabe envisioned an artists colony in the space. The court has been home to artists such as Paula Clendenin, Molly Erlandson, Ron Sowell, David Riffle, Charly Jupiter Hamilton and Reidun Ovrebo.

Today, artists and authors join business owners, doctors, nonprofit and association executives and professionals, teachers and a career Marine as residents. Most of them support the arts and say they like to walk to the many concerts and exhibits at venues nearby.

Colleen Anderson, a writer and musician, moved to Arlington Court in 1976, moved away briefly, returned in 1981 and hasn't budged since.

"I love it. The layout encourages community. It's a good way to find out that the people are wonderful. They might be someone you wouldn't necessarily choose as a friend otherwise," Anderson said. "I've lived here for more than half my life."

Neighbors there watch out for each other, and always have. Anderson remembered when a severe snowstorm hit Charleston in the late 1970s and Gov. Jay Rockefeller encouraged residents to check on elderly neighbors. She and her roommate invited Marcus Kornstein, a retired tailor, for dinner.

"He didn't leave for three days," she said.

Her life at Arlington Court inspired Anderson to write both a song, "Neighborhood," and a children's book, "Missing: Mrs. Cornblossom," which she reads aloud to local schoolchildren.

Steve and Katy White moved to Arlington Court last year, taking up residence in their daughter's condominium while she moved into the family home in Knollwood. "We just swapped. We didn't need 4,500 square feet and 15 acres," Katy White said. "Now I have more time with my grandkids. I walk our dog three to five miles a day."

Arlington Court reminds Laura Lou Harbert of her hometown of Hinton, where everyone knew each other. "I wanted the neighborhood feel of Hinton. We walked everywhere," said Harbert, who previously lived in St. Albans. "I didn't go to the symphony or plays before I lived here, but now I can take part in Charleston's cultural activities. And there are many."

Kay Michael and her husband, Jim Reader, have lived in Arlington Court for six years. They moved from a large house on Quarrier Street. She helped her husband see the potential of the unit, which needed extensive renovations.

They live in the house with three cats and a golden retriever named Lily, who is friends with another golden retriever down the row. They're two of nine Arlington dogs.

While discussing what brought them to Arlington Court, several men noted that they'd married into it. Both Means and Chris Ross married women who are residents. They immediately embraced the location from which they can walk nearly everywhere -- restaurants, the ballpark, work, concerts at Haddad Riverfront Park and the Clay Center, all without designating a driver.

"I grew up in Charleston, but I never really saw the city. I have a whole new appreciation of Charleston, just from walking all around here," said Ross, whose wife is Angela Vance.

"I can't think of the last time I had a community where I lived," he said. "I love it here. We know the neighbors and share food and experiences. We wouldn't give it up for anything."

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.


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