A dilapidated building stands on the corner of Fayette and Beaver streets.
To the outside observer, someone simply making their way through Martinsville, the building is one of any number of unassuming structures found in similar towns that might have once housed a local neighborhood deli or laundromat. However, the history of this building spanned decades and now ends with a ceremonial send-off before its demolition on Friday.
“This is a good day and a bad day,” Martinsville City Council member Lawrence Mitchell said Wednesday.
The building was constructed in 1946 and condemned in 2008. Although the building had fallen into disrepair, city officials were hesitant to move forward with demolition, due to the building’s cultural significance, and instead spent years trying to get the property historically recognized.
The Paradise Inn was one of Martinsville’s oldest, and perhaps most versatile, businesses. Despite its name, the Paradise Inn was more than just an inn. Throughout the decades of its operation, the facility served as housing, a dancehall, a community center and an eatery that served up burgers legendary to those old enough to remember them.
“The Dillards used to run it, Mrs. Dillard and her husband,” said Artis Law, a Martinsville resident and member of the Fayette Area Historical Initiative, in reference to husband-and-wife owners Elizabeth and Fred Dillard, who ran the inn throughout much of its history.
According to Law and several others who attended Wednesday’s send-off ceremony, the inn’s cooking was one of Martinsville’s best-kept secrets, particularly the burgers.
“They were homemade from scratch; she didn’t buy that frozen stuff,” said Coretha Gravely, a Martinsville police officer who moved into the inn as a tenant in the mid-’70s, when the building was a mixed-use commercial and residential space. “It was thick and good, and they had the best hotdogs. They had the best food you ever had in your life. They made everything from scratch.”
Law and Gravely are a few of those remaining for whom the inn’s heyday is still a living memory. Law recalled that the inn was a place that catered to people of all ages.
“It was nice and had nice music,” Law said. “There was no limit to who or what age you could get in there. It was fine, and I hate to see it go.”
She described it as the beating heart of Black Martinsville, a place where young and old came together to unwind, eat and fellowship.
“We had some good old days here,” Martinsville resident Lois Fountain said. “We would walk from school and stop here. It was a very active place. Some of us were underage, but we snuck in. We would keep our mouths shut and sit at the booths … with my classmates, and they had jukeboxes on the tables. It was beautiful; we enjoyed it.”
The inn is among the last of a series of Black-owned Fayette Street businesses that were community fixtures in their own right. Mitchell referred to it as the business district for the town’s west end. Business like garages and doctor’s offices left their respective marks, but the inn, according to those gathered at Wednesday’s celebration, was something special.
“We should remember this area; we should remember Paradise,” Mitchell said.
This, more than anything, drove the town’s efforts to save the property by having it recognized by the state’s Department of Historic Resources, the agency that manages the Virginia Landmarks Register and Virginia’s contribution to the National Register. That recognition would have allowed Martinsville officials to pursue grants to restore the building.
Although city officials worked with local groups like FAHI to gather information to prove the inn’s historical significance, their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. This is largely due to a dearth of physical documents backing historical testimonials.
“I don’t know … if it would be practical to restore it or not,” said resident and FAHI member Henry Foster.
Mitchell agreed, saying that despite the love the community has for the inn, you have to let some things go.
“Everyone enjoyed it, but it’s time for us to let it go,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes you can hold onto things too tight sometimes and you can’t let it go. But when you do, you’ll feel a lot better.”
FAHI members are not prepared to let the inn’s memory go. Director DeShanta Hairston urges community members to find and donate documents relating to the inn.
“My mission is to preserve the history of Paradise, so I would like to do a call-to-action,” she said.
This includes old pictures of the inn, newspaper clippings and anything else pertaining to the business. Hairston said it’s important for the inn’s memory to persist, even in the absence of the structure itself.
“I was raised by my grandparents, so I know what Paradise has meant to Martinsville’s Black community,” Hairston said. “You can talk to anybody in the Black community who was raised in Martinsville and they are going to have a story about Paradise.”
Preserving the Paradise Inn’s legacy
Anyone who has old photos or other documents related to the Paradise Inn can bring them to the FAHI Museum at 211 Fayette St. in Martinsville.
The museum is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. the first and third Saturday of each month.
As the event’s more elderly participants reminisced about the inn, many expressed appreciation both for Wednesday’s ceremony and for FAHI’s continued effort to preserve what it could.
“If you have some old pictures or just memories of the Paradise Inn, stop by the FAHI Museum and see me,” Hairston said. “We can make copies … to try to preserve the memories of things that took place here. The longer we wait to get these things, the harder it’s going to be.”
Currently, FAHI has some related newspaper clippings but hopes residents will make the collection more robust so the museum could, at some point, put them on display.
Gravely said there is certainly enough history to fill an exhibition on the Paradise Inn.
“This is a legacy,” Gravely said. “Paradise, you couldn’t beat it.”