Westminster Canterbury's plush lobby is trimmed like the wayward set of some Andy Williams Christmas special. The traditionally appointed seating area is bedecked in holiday garlands. A central fireplace with its yule log of the eternal, gas-burning variety casts a warm glow on the spectacular 15-foot twinkling Christmas tree at stage right.
Even absent Williams' crooning carols, the steady stream of what could easily pass as cozy, sweater-clad cast members shuffles by to maintain the illusion. As picturesque a scene as it may be, the evening's real entertainment is just down the richly carpeted hallway in the Sara Belle November Theater — and outside, eight stories above, on the building's terraced roof.
The star of this show is an actual star — of the five-pointed variety. It's perhaps the best known star in Richmond, 24 feet high, fashioned from galvanized steel and softly illuminated by 60 standard, 20-watt, household variety incandescent light bulbs. This star has served as a guide for both locals and interstate travelers for more than three decades.
This past Sunday evening, for the 33rd year, residents and guests at Westminster Canterbury gathered to watch resident Jo Garber, resplendent in her Christmas sweater, flip the switch during the star's official lighting ceremony, traditionally held a week or two after Thanksgiving.
Glenn Cox, lead mechanic in the retirement village's engineering department, has overseen the star's maintenance and lighting for nine years, perching on the desolate, cold, asphalted roof terrace while nearly 300 sweater-bedecked seniors gather inside to sing carols, eat gingerbread and listen to the Richmond Children's Choir as the star is lighted.
Cox wouldn't have it any other way: “It's more of a privilege than a task coming in on a Sunday night,” he says, warning his reporter guest of the thin layer of ice forming in shadow-obscured puddles on the roof.
Two weeks ago, Cox and about a half-dozen other men from the engineering department hoisted the star into place. It's stored on the roof, lying flat, for the remainder of the year when it's not in use.
“It's precarious,” Cox says of the chore, completed in the confines of a relatively narrow stretch of the nine-story building's roof. The star, when laid flat, stretches nearly from ledge to ledge and leaves very little room for the men to lift it into position. “A lot of things can go wrong,” he says. “We always pray for no bad weather.”
Luckily, in 33 years nothing's gone too terribly wrong beyond “a few bumps and bruises.”
The payoff is brilliant. Visible to drivers along Interstate 95, Westminster Canterbury's star has become a travel tradition.
“It's a big thing here,” Cox says, satisfied with another year's work well done. “It's a great tradition — I think for the whole Richmond area.”