by Mike Hixenbaugh
photography by Eric Lusher
From their early love for downtown Norfolk, two siblings have grown to become two of the city’s most passionate advocates and business owners.
One of Thom White’s favorite childhood memories is set along the banks of the Elizabeth River in downtown Norfolk. He was 10; his sister, Marissa, 7. Their mother had dropped them off for a watercolor painting class at Waterside – a sparkling new marketplace back then, full of restaurants and niche shops and lots of foot traffic. Even as young children, the siblings felt a special connection to the place.
Norfolk’s downtown renaissance was yet in its infancy. The number of vacant storefronts along Granby Street was nearly equal to the number of “Open for Business” signs. Living downtown wasn’t a popular option then, either, with many locals still clinging to dated images of drunken sailors relieving themselves on sidewalks outside sleazy bars. There was no MacArthur Center Mall, no Nauticus, no light rail.
Still, in the eyes of two children from suburban Virginia Beach, there was something appealing about the gritty urban setting, the sound of humming cars juxtaposed against the natural beauty of the river, the sight of pedestrians stopping to peer through store windows, the office towers that seemed to preside over all of it.
Thom stands along a bustling Granby Street and tries to recall the scene here in the mid-1980s. He acknowledges there wasn’t much going on downtown back then. “But even as a kid, I loved being down here. There was something special about it.”
As they splashed bright colors onto canvas that summer day, young Thom and Marissa did not know they would grow up to become two of downtown Norfolk’s biggest advocates. During their teenage years, when they found independence as regulars at the now-shuttered downtown coffee shop Cabaret Voltaire, neither dreamed they might someday own a business a few blocks away.
The siblings kissed the city goodbye when they left for college. Then came international internships and dreams of something bigger. They had their eyes on careers in New York or Chicago or San Francisco.
The plot twist was almost too predictable: The little city by the water turned out to be their one true love.
A decade later, neither has plans to leave.
Sunlight streams into Thom’s downtown architecture office. Passersby along Plume Street glance in as a team of young professionals works at modern-looking desks. The bright and open office is full of large windows, most of them covered with hand-drawn building plans sketched in dry-erase marker.
Since it landed a major building project at Norfolk State University last year, things have never been busier at Work Program Architects, the small firm that Thom and a business partner started three years ago, during the worst of the recession.
Just across the hall from his office inside the historic Monticello Arcade, his kid sister is arranging bright flowers for a wedding, the first of the busy spring season for Studio Posy. More than a year has passed since Marissa DiGirolamo – that’s her married name – opened the boutique flower shop with the help of their mother, Carol.
The studio looks like a picture from someone’s Pinterest feed. It’s adorned with soothing blue walls, perfectly arranged terrariums, locally themed artwork and crafty homemade decorations.
The distance between Thom’s office and Marissa’s shop is 16 steps.
“I’d say we’re living a dream, but I don’t think either of us even imagined this as a possibility,” says Marissa, whose quirky style and youthful expressions give the impression of someone much younger than 36. “I honestly can’t believe we have businesses across the hall from each other. How did we even get here?”
Thom – who’s coming up on 40 but looks closer to 25 – shrugs.
“We definitely didn’t plan it this way,” he says.
Thom and Marissa both moved back to Norfolk with plans for something better someplace else. A breakup thwarted Marissa’s initial hopes of moving overseas. Then the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, slowed the construction business and Thom’s nationwide job search. In the meantime, the siblings became active in the downtown arts scene. And they grew closer.
“Growing up, we fought like normal kids do,” Marissa says. She smiles, then glances at Thom. “My poor brother …”
“She dated all my friends,” Thom interjects.
“Yeah, yeah,” Marissa says, noting that he later married her best friend, Beth. “The point is, we fought and stuff growing up, but when he went away to college, I was heartbroken. I was devastated. And that eventually brought us closer together.”
They made the most of their unexpected time together in Norfolk. Thom went to work at an architecture firm and Marissa, with a degree in French and art history, worked odd jobs while dabbling in her new hobby of floral design. Both got plugged into the burgeoning local arts scene.
In 2002, they helped arrange a monthlong art show at the Jaffe Arts Center on Granby Street that drew so many visitors the fire marshal had to shut it down. It was the first of many similar events.
Soon Thom started meeting with a small group of young architects and designers. They drank wine and debated ways to make their city better. The small group later grew to a few dozen people and expanded to include downtown community activists. By 2009, the informal meetings spawned Re:Vision Norfolk, an advocacy group that aimed to help chart a vision for improving downtown.
The group lobbied the city to create a community garden at Flatiron Park, a vacant lot along the light-rail line at Granby and Charlotte streets. “When we started, it was all for the fun of it really, and then it turned into this serious project,” Thom says. “We ended up doing drawings for the garden and we got free cost estimates from the firm that did Millennium Park in Chicago, and I think we determined it was going to cost $2 million or something crazy.”
The garden didn’t get built, but their efforts did persuade city planners to improve the city’s long-term plans for the lot.
Thom’s downtown activism is part of what propelled him and a colleague, Mel Price, to start Work Program Architects in 2010. Although he was working at a Virginia Beach architecture firm, he was spending nearly as much time volunteering downtown. WPA moved into its permanent office in the Monticello Arcade in the spring of 2011. The day they signed the lease, Marissa – who by then had become serious about floral design – came down to celebrate.
Thom hugged his sister, then pointed at a vacant space across the arcade from his office. “That’s where your flower shop is going to go,” he said.
Marissa laughed and rolled her eyes.
About a year later, she was busy decorating her new shop and preparing for the grand opening.
The siblings’ roots in downtown Norfolk are deeper than they initially realized.
Six decades later, that old storefront would become the home of his son’s architecture firm.
“That was an emotional moment when he made that connection,” Thom says. “I mean, how cool is that?”
History, and a sense of place, is part of what makes downtown so wonderful, Marissa says. It would have been easier – and probably cheaper – to open her flower shop in a strip plaza. But she wanted Studio Posy to have more character. Her style of floral design is offbeat and understated. She refused, for example, to sell red roses on Valentine’s Day because the customers she hopes to attract despise cliché.
“The shop had to be downtown,” she says. “There’s so much more character here.”
Marissa and her mother, a partner in the business, host floral design classes in the common space outside the shop – a community engagement activity that would have been less appealing if held in the parking lot of a suburban shopping center.
On a spring Sunday, Marissa taught a half dozen people how to assemble custom terrariums. The group sipped wine and discussed home gardening strategies as they filled vases with decorative rocks and plants. A trio of sisters drove in from Suffolk for the $50 class and told Marissa they’d be back. “This is just so cute,” one said. “We love coming down here.”
That’s why Thom was so determined to open
his architecture firm downtown. The young business specializes in urban revitalization projects and school design. In fact, the business name, WPA for short, is an intentional nod to the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, which sought in part to rejuvenate American cities through public
building projects. (“If we want people to commit to Norfolk,” Thom says, “we believe we have to start by improving our schools.”)
While still working to get the business off the ground in 2011, Thom volunteered to lead the Downtown Norfolk Council’s efforts to open a community park on the vacant lot at Granby and Main – an embarrassing eyesore in the heart of downtown that until 2007 was occupied by three historic buildings torn down by the city for a hotel and convention center project that never materialized. Work Program Architects designed the community space, which came to be known as The Plot, at no cost to the city. They designed the park with recycled materials, including three old shipping containers. The city deemed the project a major success.
“This really proved what’s possible when you have a vision, motivated volunteers and the city all working in unison,” Thom says.
Thom believes having an office a block away from The Plot helped make the project possible. The decision also had an unexpected benefit: His family has never been closer.
Marissa, who splits her time between running the shop and being Mom to two young children, often brings her kids to work. Her 4-year-old, Annie, plays with grandma in the flower shop. Her 6-year-old, Henry, prefers going to Uncle Thom’s
office and playing “computer games” – clicking aimlessly on a computer-assisted design program.
“He’s our best intern,” Thom jokes. “I love seeing the kids. That’s been one of the great things about opening businesses here.”
It was Norfolk – in some places still a blank canvas for those with dreams – that made it all possible, Thom says.
“I’m convinced this scenario couldn’t have happened anywhere else.”
Downtown has come a long way since the 1980s, when a skeptical public doubted the city’s efforts to revitalize the urban core. Today, Thom and Marissa are among a growing group of young professionals and college students who hope to keep the momentum rolling in the right direction.
The group has been pushing the city to establish an arts district along a derelict section of Granby Street. The goal, essentially, is to extend downtown renewal north of Brambleton Avenue. With minimal public investment and smarter zoning laws to encourage mixed-use development, the group believes the rundown section between Olney Road and Addison Street can be rejuvenated.
To prove it, the city paid a contractor to host Better Block last spring – an event that aimed to demonstrate what might be possible there. For two days, the boarded-up buildings and empty lots were transformed into an urban hot spot.
Thom and Marissa were among some 150 volunteers who turned old wooden pallets into colorful benches and covered a vacant corner lot with faux grass. Workers painted bike lanes and crosswalks and added roadside plants. Thom built a wooden kiosk along the sidewalk and asked people to write down or draw their visions for the area. Marissa and other business owners set up pop-up shops, where they sold coffee, vintage clothing and flowers. A number of city officials and developers attended; one told Thom he had interest in investing in one of the old buildings.
“It was incredible,” Thom says. “Everyone was working together toward one shared vision. I can’t tell you how inspirational that was.”
Weeks later – after the section of Granby was returned to its neglected state – Thom and Marissa walked along the cracked sidewalk. Where others see crumbling facades and broken-out windows, the brother and sister saw community art studios and trendy apartments.
“There is literally limitless potential here,” he says.
“It’s going to happen,” she says.
As children, Thom and Marissa painted their vision of downtown Norfolk in watercolor.
Today, they prefer brick and mortar.