The Man and the Mansion: Bluefield Entrepreneur Chris Disibbio sells historic Fort Chiswell Mansion

5 26 mansion Chris D on NE side of Mansion

Chris Disibbio stands on Northeast side of Fort Chiswell Mansion. (William Paine/The Patriot)


5 26 mansion Fort Chiswell Mansion southeast viewWhite columns denoting the Greek Revival style of architecture can be seen from Interstate 81/77. Disibbio added a commercial kitchen and ice cream shop to the outbuilding on the left of the photo. (William Paine/The Patriot)



The Patriot


On a hill above the crossroads of one of the most traveled roadways in the east, a massive colonnaded brick house overlooks the merger of Interstates I-81 and I-77, as these highways pass by the town of Fort Chiswell, Virginia. This imposing antebellum structure, which is on Virginia’s historical register, is known as the Fort Chiswell Mansion.


The town’s name is derived from the fort built by Colonel James Chiswell back in 1758.  Soon after the fort was completed, James McGavock who had recently immigrated from Ireland, joined the militia and found himself stationed at Fort Chiswell. McGavock eventually settled in the area and prospered in his newly adopted home. McGavock is known to be a signer of the Fincastle Resolutions of 1775, which are widely regarded as the precursor to the Declaration of Independence.


James McGavock’s grandsons, Stephan and Joseph McGavock, inherited the property and built the Fort Chiswell Mansion in the Greek Revival style. Today, the white columns adorning the front of the mansion can still be seen from the interstate. When the Fort Chiswell Mansion was completed in the year 1840, travelers passed through this same valley on their way westward on the Great Wilderness Road.


The Fort Chiswell Mansion remained in the McGavock family until 1918, when it was eventually sold. Since then, there have been only a handful of owners and until recently, Chris Disibbio, a native of Bluefield, West Virginia, could include himself on this list.


In 1998, Chris Disibbio owned two gas stations, as well as a fair amount of heavy equipment, and several very large trucks. In addition to this, Disibbio was the owner/operator/chef of the trendy Key Ingredients Restaurant in Bluefield, West Virginia.


Business in Bluefield was good and Disibbio was thinking of expanding his Key Ingredients restaurant to a second location.  It was during this time that he found that the Fort Chiswell Mansion was up for auction.


“I figured that the visibility with this place, particularly where it was situated at the crossroads of two interstates, would be a good place to establish my food concepts,” said Disibbio. “Here I could do it in a setting that lended itself to my high quality, nutrient-dense, freshly prepared food.”


On top of that, I always passed the place as a kid when traveling from Bluefield to Claytor Lake,” Disibbio continued. “I saw it up here on the hill … It’s a landmark that has always fascinated me. When I realized that I may have the opportunity to own it, I wanted to see if I could make it happen.”


Chris Disibbio did indeed ‘make it happen’ by bidding $250,000 for the mansion and the five-acres of land that make up the grounds. After his successful bid, Disibbio found himself to be the new owner of one of Southwestern Virginia’s most significant historic structures.


“There was a lot more work that went into it than what I had initially realized,” admitted Disibbio. “I just knew that I was willing to do whatever it took to create my vision.”


Aside from the McGavock brothers themselves, it’s doubtful that any previous owner of the Fort Chiswell Mansion took as much time and effort to restore and even improve on this stately structure and its grounds. The owner prior to Disibbio was a woman named Arvella Brown. Coincidentally, Brown was also restauranteur, who came to Virginia from Washington D.C. to retire. When she died, she left the mansion to the church she attended in Wytheville.


“Arvella left the place to the Petunia Christian Church, which was charged with her final wishes of creating somewhat of a museum or a place that the public could come and see,” stated Disibbio. “She always wanted to open it to the public.”


Upon completing a feasibility study, the church determined that there was no way of coming up with the resources to make Arvella’s dream into a reality or of even maintaining the historic mansion. It was determined that church had to sell the property and Disibbio was at the right place at the right time to make the purchase.


“So, I continued on my quest to accomplish my goals, which were coincidentally what Arvella Brown had wished to see happen at the place,” said Disibbio. “That made me feel good about what I was doing, as well.”


What he was doing was a complete renovation and restoration of the structure, so that it could be made ready for the public.


“We updated the entrances and roads,” Disibbio recounted. “We repaired the stone walls and did the landscaping and planted trees. We rebuilt all of the columns on the house. We put in gas fireplaces and did all the plaster work. We redid the roof. We redid sashes and woodwork and all the porches.”


In addition, Disibbio added a third-floor bathroom to the mansion as well as a commercial kitchen, an ice cream shop and retail store in the outlying buildings.


These renovations occurred over several years but in the meantime Disibbio utilized the mansion and its grounds for special events. Disibbio hosted two Seed To Soul Festivals, which promoted the growing of wholesome foods, while providing food and entertainment to festival goers. Disibbio also used the mansion to host to weddings, car shows, barbeques, future Farmers of America meetings and even Healthy Foods Foundation conferences, which featured lectures delivered by Virginia Tech professors.


To bolster the idea that nutrient dense foods are a key ingredient to a healthy lifestyle, Disibbio built a huge, and period appropriate, timber frame structure adjacent to the mansion.


“We originally built the timber frame for the Key Ingredients for Life nonprofit organization to establish the Farmer’s Market, so that local farmers and food growers would have a place to come and sell their goods on my site,’ Disibbio explained. “One of the biggest challenges that I was incurring, was sourcing food for my restaurants.”


Though Disibbio staged several events at the Fort Chiswell Mansion through the years, the economic anchor for his business there was that of serving food, something that Disibbio has been dedicated to for most of his adult life.


“Except for one day that I went to a funeral, I prepared every single plate of food that was served here for 10 years,” said he.


In addition to the food, those venturing to the Fort Chiswell Mansion, often from the interstate, were eager to tour the historic venue. Disibbio hired amateur historians, Rupert Hill and Davy Davis, to conduct these house tours. Davis can trace his ancestry all the way back to the McGavock brothers.


“Davy Davis and Rupert Hill were here one day when I was cooking in the kitchen and I had told them a story about my grandmother, whose maiden name was Massey,” Disibbio recounted. “She was related to Judge Massey, who was shot in the Carroll County Courthouse in 1912. Davy, being the historian that he is, went and sat with Rupert for about 15 minutes. Then he came back into the kitchen and said ‘Chris, you are a McGavock. As a matter of fact, you are more of a McGavock than I am!’ He drew out the entire family tree, from the Masseys down to me.”


“Wow … that was a chilling moment,” Disibbio continued “So, a lot of the time along the way, through some of the struggles, I questioned ‘Why am I here? Why am I doing this? Why am I taking all these years and money to accomplish this?’ I knew it was something that was in me. I don’t know how to really describe the relationship in my mind that I have with my predecessors, who lived and resided and built this place. I suppose no one will really understand. I just felt compelled to do it.”


And yet, after nearly a quarter century of ownership and, by his own estimate, more than a million dollars invested in renovations, Chris Disibbio decided to sell the Mansion.




“COVID,” he answered. “COVID crushed my dream. I stayed open for seven months during the COVID crisis and finally realized that it just didn’t make any sense to try … to try to remain open. All of our business came from groups and gatherings and weddings and tour buses and the restaurant. These were the revenue arteries for my business. Everything was heavily impacted by COVID.”


After a pause, Disibbio continued to recount events of his recent past.


“I had several things that for years I’ve been saying I needed to do but never had time to do them,” he said. “So, I finally decided that if I’m not able to be productive here, then maybe I should go ahead and focus on doing some of these other unfinished projects in Bluefield.”


After having applied for several COVID related grants, Disibbio managed to secure only one Economic Injury Disaster Loan. This helped some, but not enough to keep the property economically viable.


“At that time, I had just about paid everything off,” Disibbio stated. “All the renovations, the restorations, the upfitting …I was paying for it as I as I went. I only owed a total of about $120,000 on the entire property and I found myself in a situation where I wasn’t cash flowing. Then I came to terms with the idea that … maybe I will have to sell this place.”


With that, Chris Disibbio put the Fort Chiswell Mansion up for sale and he soon received an offer for the full asking price.


“I had an opportunity to sell the place to an individual that is in the adult entertainment business … strip clubs,” Disibbio recounted. “I declined to negotiate or sell simply because of the purpose that he wanted the place for.”


Three months later, another interested buyer came calling in the form of Will Adkins. He, along with his twin brother Mark, formed the Waterfront Group, which owns properties in several states.


“Will … Mr. Adkins, arrived by his helicopter and landed here at the mansion and we spent three or four hours together that day,” Disibbio recounted. “Shortly after then, we made a deal.”


Towards the end of the meeting, Chris Disibbio accepted Will Adkins offer of $2.5 million for the iconic 19th Century structure. But Adkins wasn’t quite finished with Disibbio.


“I figured that I would gather up my personal belongings and go on my way and see what the next stage in my life was supposed to be,” Disibbio recounted. “Then Mr. Adkins told me that he wanted me to work for him. I told him I didn’t know that I wanted to work for anybody and offered to work for free for six months just to help him through the transition period. I’d never worked as someone’s employee before but Mr. Adkins is very, very, very persistent when he wants something and ultimately wound up hiring me. I agreed to work for six months, so it’s now 13 months later and we plan to open the mansion up again sometime this year.”


Before the Fort Chiswell Mansion again opens to the public, this time under new ownership, Disibbio was tasked with completing several additional improvements to the property, such as enlarging the timber frame that stands adjacent to the Mansion. Adkins also wants to resurface the road entering the property and to connect to the county’s water line before he makes the Mansion available for public events but no reopening date has been set.


But that’s not all. Adkins has also tasked Disibbio with managing and renovating properties within the Waterfront Group, which owns vineyards, golf courses and several high-end residential developments.


“So, in my position … although I never got a job description, I could be doing anything from maintenance work on one of our properties to designing buildings or buying land or selling land or negotiating deals,” Disibbio explained.


One might say that Chris Disibbio came out ahead with his venture into this historically significant structure. But though he’ll be working to open the Fort Chiswell Mansion to the public again, he’ll be doing so as an employee and not an owner.


For the last decade or so, this Wythe County property has been at the forefront of Chris Disibbio’s thoughts and actions. No doubt the sale of the Fort Chiswell Mansion was a bittersweet experience for this Bluefield born entrepreneur but perhaps, too, the sale imparted some sense of relief to the former owner.


“Any restaurant done right is more than a 40-hour full time job, especially in a setting like this and especially when you set a high standard for food,” Disibbio opined. “The age of the structure means that there’s always something that needs routine maintenance or repairs. It was a full-time responsibility. If I wasn’t doing the landscaping or mowing the grass or trimming the trees or pruning the apple trees or planting a garden or repairing shutters or preparing to paint the place or working on the timber frame or booking events or talking to customers or acquiring the food, prepping the food, cooking the food … then I was repairing plumbing and electrical and just constant … you know, maintenance work.”


Still, it sounds as though Disibbio will be plenty busy under the direction of his new his new employer. When he isn’t working, Chris lives with his wife Rhonda in Mooresville, North Carolina.


All those years ago, when Chris Disibbio decided to place a bid on the Fort Chiswell Mansion, he had a vision of providing people with a deliciously unique experience in a fabulous setting. He made that happen and by most any standard, Disibbio left this historical jewel in better shape than he found it. He is now permanently part of the legacy of the Fort Chiswell Mansion.


“Anything I’ve owned in the past … I’ve never thought twice about selling,” Disibbio confided. “I’m not saying that I’m thinking twice about this but … it’s rewarding to think that the mansion will continue to evolve in a manner that would be befitting of the place.”