The Aurora Project
A community builds a place to create.
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If you don’t know its history, you might think of Aurora simply as a picturesque Preston County town along Route 50, not far from the West Virginia-Maryland border. Some travelers stop here to take a walk in Cathedral State Park, one of few vestiges of virgin hemlock forest left in the state. Most people haven’t a clue that Aurora, including the land that is now the state forest, was a large and popular summer resort community in the 19th century. Even fewer know the remnants of that resort are undergoing major restorations to become the setting for West Virginia’s first full-time artists’ residency program.
In this peaceful and historic place, artists and scholars from all over the world will have undisturbed time and space to work. Most artists also have obligations as parents, employees, and neighbors, among other things, but in Aurora—for a few days, a month, or longer—they will be responsible only to themselves and their work.
West Virginia Poet Laureate Irene McKinney understands what such a gift of time and space can mean. “I remember going to MacDowell Colony after four hard years of graduate school and teaching in a prison in Salt Lake City, and weeping in gratitude when they brought my lunchbox to my studio door,” she says. “I sat there in that quiet place looking out at the pines and feeling: someone thinks what I do is valuable enough to take care of me for a while.”
Aurora as Resort Community
Beginning in about 1872, the agricultural community of Aurora began to gain a reputation as a summer vacation spot for East Coast tourists. Then, as now, the area was an attractive getaway, dotted with well-kept farms and blessed with clean air, pure water, and cool summer temperatures. Brookside, by far the most ambitious resort project in the area, was built in 1884. Lee McBride, a Cleveland entrepreneur, acquired the resort in 1902 and operated it until the Depression era.
Under McBride’s ownership, Brookside Hotel and Cottages accommodated hundreds of visitors at a time. Most arrived by train at the B&O depot in Oakland, Maryland. There, horse-drawn carriages met them for the short trip from Oakland to Aurora. The 600-acre resort had its own power plant and farm, a casino with a billiard room, a bowling alley, a concert hall, dance pavilions, stables, a swimming pool, and a nursery. Across the road from the hotel were guest cottages that boasted oriental rugs, flowered wallpaper, fine furniture, and wide, covered porches with pristine mountain views.
Alongside these cottages was McBride’s own, called Gaymont, which he had built for his wife by master carpenters from Maine. An eclectic mix of Craftsman, Rustic, and Queen Anne styles, Gaymont was outfitted with massive chestnut ceiling beams, handcrafted wainscoting, and an impressive oak staircase. The lodge, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, now operates as a country inn.
Aurora as Artists’ Community
The early vision for the artists’ residency program began on the very wraparound porch where resort owner Lee McBride must have enjoyed Aurora’s mountain breezes many years ago. On a rainy day in 2001, a century after the resort’s heyday, Michele Moure-Reeves and two friends, Alice Penzo and Walt Ranalli, sat looking over the remnants of guest cottages. “Alice and her sister, Laura, had founded the Aurora Area Historical Society. We had been doing some exhibitions and readings, but some of what we wanted to do did not really fit into the historical society’s mission,” Moure-Reeves remembers. “On that day, we started talking about what we would really love to do.
“Alice was most interested in educational programming, such as readings, that would involve the community and particularly the elders. And I have always been interested in artists’ residency programs. So we pulled those two ideas together.”
Within a few months, they had formed a nonprofit corporation and assembled a board of directors. Then came a stroke of fate: the owner of the crumbling guest cottages wanted to sell the land and buildings. “Alice volunteered to put down the deposit,” Moure-Reeves says, “and, miraculously, we raised the money to buy them.”