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.
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.
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.
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.