When I was a teenager, I had the good fortune to have a few friends who were in their 20s who happily tolerated a precocious kid who, after algebra class, would organize comic book conventions at the Pavilion in Virginia Beach. Local guitarist, Robin Welch, or local comic book artist, Allen Rowe, would often pick me in in their car and we’d head out across the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and take the first exit into Phoebus.
I thought Phoebus was one of the coolest places in Hampton Roads, and I still do.
Back then, we’d make a stop at Bender’s Books and Cards (22 South Mallory St., 757-723-3741, www.facebook.com/Benders) and spend the afternoon searching their comics back issues. When we were done, we’d walk to the Old Point Steak and Spaghetti House on Mellen Street and have dinner. Their sauce was a masterpiece, and I still have cravings for it.
Benders and the Old Point were my first Phoebus experiences, and when I moved back to the area after grad school, I found that Phoebus had changed a lot, while still maintaining it’s charm as a vibrant village set amongst the hustle and bustle of our metropolis.
An area of 3.1 square miles, Phoebus was first known as Mill Creek in the Colonial era. During the Civil War, Union troops reinforcing Fort Monroe couldn’t all fit inside the confines of the fort, and an encampment was created nearby. After the war, Camp Hamilton was taken down and the land was sold for development and called Chesapeake City.
Enter Harrison Phoebus, a Union army veteran, who worked as a shipping agent at Fort Monroe. He quickly became involved in his community, serving as a postmaster and also as the proprietor of a saloon and billiard hall. He took on his biggest challenge when he took over the failing Hygeia Hotel at Fort Monroe and soon turned it into one of the largest and most successful resorts on the East coast.
In 1900, Chesapeake City became Phoebus, named in honor of its preeminent citizen. Then in 1952, Elizabeth City County and the town of Phoebus voted to merge with the independent city of Hampton to create what we know as Hampton today. But 1957 brought the opening of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, with basically isolated the thriving area. Ferry and rail service shut down, and travelers across the new bridge drove past the neighborhood without a second glance.
Many people discover Phoebus when they attend a show at The American Theatre (125 E. Mellen St., 757-722-2787, www.hamptonarts.net/the-american-theatre), a beautifully restored old movie theater that hosts music and theater performances from local and national acts. Or they find the neighborhood when visiting Historic Fort Monroe (757-722-3678, www.nps.gov/fomr/index.htm). Built in 1830, it was the oldest active-duty fort when it closed in 2011 and became a national monument. Besides the fort itself, the park is also home to the Casemate Museum and The Chamberlin Hotel (2 Fenwick Rd., 757-637-7200, www.historicchamberlin.com), now senior living community that makes its gorgeous dining room open to the public. When I was a teenager, I attended a science fiction convention there, and made friends with the elevator operator, who let me work the levers and controls. Sadly, they now have modern elevators.
Today, Phoebus is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and seems to be constantly reinventing itself. Dave Weaver, the owner of Bender’s Books and Cards is optimistic about the future of the area. “It’s a more diverse neighborhood now. Younger people are moving in—everyone is nice,” says Weaver, who has lived in the area since 1975 and bought his shop from Emmett Bender in 1979.
His store has also evolved over the years. “I used to sell a lot of magazines, greeting cards, and new books, and that has changed with Amazon. Now it’s mostly new and collectible comics, action figures, toys, and memorabilia.” But his customer base has been loyal. “We have customers who came here as kids with their fathers, who now come in with their children and grandchildren,” Weaver says. “We also have a lot of out-of-town customers who have been coming here for years.”
New businesses are finding a home to thrive in the historic neighborhood. One of the first new businesses to arrive was Six: A Little Bar Bistro at 6 Mellen Street. Like it’s cousin, Crackers, in Ghent and then Riverview in Norfolk, Six was the hidden gem of the chain of tapas bars for more than a decade. It closed recently, but in its place, El Diablo Loco Cantina & Tequila Bar (6 E. Mellen St., 757-864-0989, www.facebook.com/eldiablolocova) hasn’t stopped pleasing the locals, serving great Latin food with a modern vibe.
The Old Point Steak and Spaghetti House closed years ago, but in its wake two restaurants have opened. On its left side is the Olde Towne Tavern (31 E Mellen St., 757-251-2636, oldetownetavernphoebus.com), a local’s pub specializing in seafood and sandwiches accompanied by live music at night. Next door is Mango Mangeaux (33 E Mellen St., 757-224-9189, www.mangomangeaux.com), a delicious bistro that began as a business selling preserves at farmers markets, until they appeared on “Shark Tank” on CNBC. They used the exposure to sell their preserves throughout the world, which gave them the capital to open their “simply panache bistro.”
Another great new restaurant just across the street is The Point at Phoebus (30 E. Mellen St., 757-224-9299, www.thepointatphoebus.com), where everything served from the upscale Southern-inspired menu comes from local farms and producers. And if you’re looking for something sweet after lunch or to take home, the Scratch Bakery (26 Mellen St., 757-224-8430, www.itsmadefromscratch.com) has a second location in the historic district.
But Phoebus is more than history and places to eat. The town is home to some of the best antique and specialty stores on the Peninsula. One of my favorites is the Phoebus Auction Gallery (16 E. Mellen St., 757-722-9210, www.phoebusauction.com), a fun place that hold auctions at their Phoebus location and elsewhere. You never know what will be available there—one time they auctioned off the locks from the Watergate Hotel—the ones that were broken in the Watergate scandal.
Nearby is Robert’s Antiques (26 E Mellen St., 757-722-0222, www.robertsantiquesphoebus.com) and the Little Blue Shop (202 Mellen St., 757-927-9348, www.facebook.com/pages/The-Little-Blue-Shop/167023776655172), a store specializing in everything from antique toys and trains to nautical and Buckroe Beach artifacts. And, if you are a book lover like me, definitely stop into The Way We Were Bookstore (32 E Mellen St., 757-726-2300), a store reminiscent of the old Bibliophile Books in Norfolk’s Freemason neighborhood, only with many more piles of books stacked everywhere. You can get lost in there for hours, and still have half of the store remaining to browse.
With an enticing mix of old school places and modern eateries, Phoebus is both a neighborhood where everybody knows everyone and an emerging dining and shopping destination, deeply rooted (like much of our region) in the history of who we have been as a nation.
Dave Weaver is particularly happy that Phoebus was declared a National Historic District. “The old buildings are being protected. They’ve been restoring them, and there’s funding available for renovating the buildings back to their original designs.”
I hope the rest of Hampton Roads will learn from Phoebus’ example of preserving the architecture of the past while embracing the new ideas and the excitement that the future holds.
About the Sponsor of this Post:
Rose & Womble Realty Co. was born and bred in Hampton Roads – our owners live and work here in the Seven Cities. We are a family-owned and operated business – with multiple generations working at all levels, from agents to managers. Our leadership and support services are all located in Hampton Roads. We enjoy ‘Connecting Heart and Home’ for you everyday.