RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Natural Bridge, a 215-foot-high stone bridge once owned by Thomas Jefferson and a centuries-old tourist attraction, has been sold by its private owner at a fraction of its value to a conservation group and is destined to become part of Virginia's park system.
Under a complex deal sealed Thursday, Washington, D.C., real estate developer Angelo A. Puglisi accepted $8.6 million for the 1,500-plus-acre property in southwest Virginia and tossed in the 90-foot-long limestone bridge for free in return for tax credits. The bridge alone is valued at $21 million.
The Shenandoah Valley property, which includes 35 parcels, caverns, a 150-room hotel and cabins, has an estimated value of more than $40 million.
Once the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund repays the loan it used to pay Puglisi, the attraction will be transferred to Virginia as a state park. That could occur as early as 2015. The hotel and cottages will not be part of the park but will be used to raise revenue to pay off the loan.
The sale adds a new chapter in Natural Bridge's history — from a sacred site for Indians before Europeans arrived, to Jefferson's purchase from King George III for 20 shillings in 1774, to what was considered one of the natural wonders of the world in the centuries that followed. It even had a mention in Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick," which describes a whale's arched body rising from the water "like Virginia's Natural Bridge."
George Washington surveyed the property, and Jefferson called it "the most Sublime of Nature's Work." A stone found nearly a century ago in Cedar Creek, which lies beneath the stone arch, bore the initials "G.W."
It was that history that attracted Puglisi to buy the southwest Virginia land in 1988. The son of Italian immigrants, his father worked as a laborer in the building of Washington's Union Station in the early 1900s and later was a grocer.
Grateful to the country where his father established a new life, the young Puglisi studied the Constitution, deciding that a property once owned by Jefferson was a fitting gesture to his good fortune and a testament to the nation's founders on a par with Monticello.
In an interview, Puglisi said he was hopeful future visitors would be mindful of Natural Bridge's history.
"I think they would need to reflect on this history, the founding fathers, what a great, great man Thomas Jefferson was and the courage they had," he said. "It took those men to make this country, a place where my father could come and do much more than what his circumstances were."
The deal was brokered by real estate broker Jim Woltz, who worked for nearly a year to find the proper new owner of Natural Bridge.
"He was very worried when he contacted us about selling this," Woltz said of Puglisi. "He's 88 years old. He didn't want to burden his estate with this property."
Puglisi said, "My concern was the wrong people will end up with it."
Woltz approached conservation groups, the National Park Service and others, none of whom had the resources to take on Natural Bridge.
"It's the most challenging, complicated deal I've ever put together," Woltz said.
Puglisi put the property on the market in 2007 for $39 million but found no takers.
The buyer, Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, is affiliated with Kissito Healthcare Inc., a nonprofit charity based in Roanoke. The purchase was supported by state loans through the Department of Environmental Quality.
In a statement, Joe Elton, the interim director of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, said Americans should be grateful to Puglisi and others who worked to seal the complicated sale.
"One of our nation's most iconic natural landscapes is now protected in perpetuity," Elton said.
Natural Bridge is designated a National Historic Landmark.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
Natural Bridge: http://www.naturalbridgeva.com/