How I Became an Historic Preservation Activist

It began with a newspaper article.

Although I have a master’s degree in Public History, I only worked professionally as an historic preservationist for a brief time, as the Main Street Program Manager for the City of Lancaster, Texas. When that program was defunded, I moved into another job in local government. Over the years, one job led to another, but never back to historic preservation. By 2009, my family and I lived in Berryville, the county seat of Clarke County. We had been in Berryville for five years, the longest time I had lived any one place (at that time) since I was 10 years old. For the first time in my life, I felt that I had a vested interest in my community.

In early 2009, I read an article in the local newspaper about Georgetown University’s plans to build a retreat center on top of the Blue Ridge. Georgetown University had purchased a parcel on the Clarke County side of the mountain’s ridge line with sweeping views of the Shenandoah Valley. The property included a 1894 Gothic Revival farmhouse known as Hohenheim (“High Home” in German).

Hohenheim, in March 2009, before restoration

The area around Hohenheim, including Hohenheim, had been recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Bear’s Den Rural Historic District. The district is characterized by large, secluded homes built by wealthy Washingtonians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as summer retreats from the heat of the city.

Georgetown University submitted a special use permit application to build a “contemplative center” on the Hohenheim site for their overnight student retreat program. Georgetown’s plans, according to the newspaper article, included demolishing Hohenheim. The application had gone to a public hearing before the Planning Commission and several people spoke out in opposition to the demolition, including the chair of the Clarke County Historic Preservation Commission (CCHPC), but no action had been taken. I wasn’t worried. Surely, I thought, the Planning Commission will make saving the house a condition of approval for the special use. I was wrong.

A few weeks later, there was a second newspaper article. The Planning Commission had recommended approval of the application and staff had not opposed the demolition of the house. Reading the article, I was stunned. How could Clarke County allow a contributing structure in a brand new historic district to be demolished? Someone should do something, I thought! Then I realized that I was someone and I should do something. And so I did.

I reached out to other local historic preservationists, starting with the newly-formed local branch of Preservation Virginia, the statewide historic preservation advocacy non-profit and met its then-president, Bob Stieg. By the time the Clarke County Board of Supervisors held their public hearing on the Georgetown application, we were prepared and organized. And we saved the house.

Of course, it wasn’t as simple as speaking at that one meeting, but it started there. The Board of Supervisors took no action that night, giving us the opportunity to meet with representatives of Georgetown University to discuss alternatives to demolishing the house. Final approval of Georgetown’s application took another year and the university agreed to save the house.

After that first meeting, the chair of the CCHPC approached me and asked if I would be interested in serving on the commission. There was a vacancy.

A few months later, I was appointed to the commission and have served on it ever since. I am currently the chair. I also volunteered to be the secretary for the fledgling Northern Shenandoah Valley Branch of Preservation Virginia. When the branch was spun off from Preservation Virginia as an independent organization about 18 months later, I served as its vice president and then president.

In October 2013, Bob Stieg and I attended the dedication of Georgetown University’s Calcagnini Contemplative Center. The university moved the house in order to improve the view of the valley from the new dining hall, but it was beautifully restored.

Me, at Georgetown University’s Calganini Contemplative Center dedication in October 2013, with Hohenheim in the background, restored.

And it all began with a newspaper article.

A Visit to Staunton

Because Clarke County is a Certified Local Government (CLG), members of the Historic Preservation Commission are required to receive training once a year. Each year, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, in partnership with Preservation Virginia, holds a series of one-day workshops around the state. This year, the closest one to me was in Staunton.

Beverly Street, downtown Staunton

Staunton is a city of about 24,000 in the upper Shenandoah Valley. Founded in 1747, Staunton is best known as the birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson, the location of Mary Baldwin University, and the home of the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse, the world’s only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater. It is also a Virginia Main Street community with a well-preserved downtown. Although founded in 1747, most of the downtown buildings date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Our training session was held at the R.R. Smith Center for History and Art. The center occupies the former Eakleton Hotel, a lovely 1894 Second Empire style building on New Street, and houses the offices of the Historic Staunton Foundation, the Augusta County Historical Society and the Staunton Augusta Arts Center. Many of the building’s interior features have been preserved, including tile floors and the main staircase to the upper levels.

Farmhouse Kitchen & Wares

Wisely, the training organizers did not provide lunch for the group, instead giving us a list of restaurants within walking distance of the Smith Center. How smart is that? How many times have you been to a conference or meeting in another city and didn’t see anything other than the conference center? A group of us ended up at the Farmhouse Kitchen & Wares on Beverly Street. We happened to be there on their 1st anniversary, so they gave every one a small glass of Champagne to celebrate.

Marquis Building (1895, Romanesque Revival)

After the training ended, I took the opportunity to do a little “market research” (I went shopping!). I strolled down Beverly Street, from New Street to Lewis Street. My finds included Black Swan Books and Music, where I found a 1945 edition of The Art of German Cooking and Baking, by Mrs. Lina Meier. Most used book stores are crowded and haphazardly arranged, but Black Swan is open, airy and well organized. My final stop was Latitudes, a fair trade store, where I picked up a number of birthday gifts as well as some jewelry for myself.

After being actively involved and observing downtown revitalization efforts for a couple of decades now, I have a few thoughts on Staunton’s success. First, the downtown has anchors to attract visitors, notably the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center and the Blackfriars Playhouse. Secondly, the city invested in attractive parking solutions. The parking garage that faces New Street has a street-level storefront spaces that houses the visitors center and the upper facade of the garage looks like other buildings on the street. I definitely want to go back, especially to see a play or two at the Blackfriars.

White Post Gas Station

Before demolition
White Post Gas Station, before demolition

The village of White Post, Virginia, grew up around an actual white post that Thomas, Lord Fairfax, erected circa 1760 at the intersection of two roads to point the way to his estate, Greenway Court.* After the Revolution, a number of Tidewater families settled in the area and established plantations. Soon after, commercial establishments, including a store and a tavern, were established at the crossroads to provide services to travelers. By the 1920s, White Post had two schools, two churches, a post office, two general stores and a gas station. When Lord Fairfax Highway was constructed, it bypassed the village and many of the village businesses closed. Today, other than the two churches, only four non-residential buildings remain in the village, all dating from the early 20th century and all abandoned.

Two of these buildings, the former Sinclair gas station and an adjacent building that was probably used as a garage or repair shop, recently received a new lease on life. In March 2017, the owner of these two buildings, both built in the 1920s and closed since the 1950s, gave them to the White Post Village Association (WPVA).

Located right in the center of the village, the gas station is a frame building with a stucco exterior and a tall porte-cochere supported by square pillars. It is a spare building, nothing fancy, but representative of early 20th century service stations.

After demolition
White Post Gas Station and garage, after demolition of non-historic additions

Since taking ownership of the two buildings, the WPVA applied to the Clarke County Historic Preservation Commission to remove the non-historic additions to the two buildings as a first step in the stabilization and restoration process.

Demolition took place this summer and the WPVA is raising funds for the complete restoration. You can follow their progress on their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/WhitePostVillageVA.

They also have a GoFundMe site where you can make a donation.

Closeup of bottle dash stucco
Bottle Dash Stucco

One thing that appears to make the White Post Gas Station unique – at least here in the Northern Shenandoah Valley – is its “bottle dash stucco.” Bits of broken colored glass are embedded in the stucco. When the light catches the glass, the whole building sparkles. Or it did at one time. Some of the original stucco has fallen off and been replaced with plain stucco.  The WPVA is looking for someone to repair the stucco to its original glory.

*Interesting side note: Thomas, Lord Fairfax, was the only English peer to live in the colonies. The site of his plantation, Greenway Court, is one of two National Historic Landmarks in Clarke County.