Early in my preservation career, I was privileged to serve five years as the executive director of Virginia’s Historic Staunton Foundation, an award-winning preservation organization recognized over more than four decades for its work to protect and revitalize this historic Shenandoah Valley community. Our children were born during the 15 years we lived in Staunton, it shaped each of us in significant ways, and we still have deep friendships that bring us “home” several times each year.
Just as we like to return to this gem of a community, visionary leadership has made Staunton a year-round destination for tens-of-thousands of visitors annually and has generated national recognition for the city, including more than forty awards and accolades for its historic downtown from national organizations and media in the past ten years. Some of the top ones include :
- The Great American Main Street Award
- A National Trust for Historic Preservation Award
- Best Small Towns in America Award (Smithsonian magazine)
- The 15 Most Beautiful Main Streets Across America (Architectural Digest)
That level of success does not occur by chance. Great communities don’t remain that way by accepting whatever proposal comes along. So many in Staunton know this, but at times the leadership of a community needs to be reminded about what it takes to be a thoughtful steward of a national treasure.
Which brings us to 2020, and a proposal by Augusta County to demolish seven historic buildings that surround the downtown courthouse; buildings that grew up as a homegrown judicial campus along Barristers Row and Lawyers Row and are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The county proposes to replace these unique structures with an out-of-scale new development that would dwarf the historic courthouse. Staunton’s Historic Preservation Commission and the City Council will consider this proposal in the coming weeks.
In response to this challenge, I recently sent the following letter to Staunton Mayor Andrea Oakes and the members of city council:
Staunton’s national reputation in preservation and downtown revitalization did not occur by chance. Fifty years of work by a bipartisan coalition of government officials, long-time residents, and newcomers strengthened an irreplaceable historic core. As director of Historic Staunton Foundation from 1983 to 1988, I am part of that coalition. It is labor that never ends.
The plans to demolish the buildings surrounding the Augusta County Courthouse for out-of-scale new construction show how quickly a community’s distinctive character can be threatened and the qualities which give it value can be lost. Visitors who spend money at the city’s hotels, inns, restaurants, shops, and cultural events are attracted by Staunton’s historic character. That helps underpin the city’s financial base, support that could be threatened by plans to demolish key historic buildings in downtown.
A study I helped commission in 1995 shows the broad economic impact of preservation across the Commonwealth, including in Staunton. That study demonstrated that buildings in every one of Staunton’s historic districts appreciated at a faster rate of growth when compared with similar properties outside the historic districts. What was most interesting about this analysis was the breadth of housing stock that was affected. Staunton’s historic districts not only provide quality housing for people of more modest means, but reward them with faster rates of appreciation as well. That’s also tax revenue for the city.
National recognition came because the city did not take the path followed by so many failing small towns. The last two decades of my career I served as the Executive Vice President and Chief Preservation Officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Sadly, I have seen hundreds of struggling communities tear down their past while chasing the ephemeral promises of developers. Often, they are enabled by government officials who do not understand what a vibrant historic district means to a community. They forget those whose lives and memories are wrapped up in the brick and mortar of the community’s solid, durable buildings.
Such choices seldom result in the long-term sustainable growth that comes with a community-wide commitment to preservation and reuse.
My family’s fifteen years in Staunton were times that we treasure. They taught me the strength that comes to communities that work to understand, honor, and celebrate the unique history that we pass on to future generations. Staunton needs that strength now to reject calls for demolition and develop a plan that builds on its well-deserved reputation as a city with an irreplaceable past and a rich future.
No matter when each of us has lived, worked, worshipped, raised a family, played, mourned, and celebrated in Staunton, we are all simply stewards for a few years of the wonderful legacy of a vibrant community. Staunton’s contributions over the decades have enriched its citizens, spurred the growth of the Commonwealth, and enlivened the fortunes of the nation. The decisions made by a City Council can irrevocably alter a community’s future. National groups have recognized the benefits arising from Council decisions made in a bipartisan fashion over the past fifty years in Staunton. You have the opportunity to continue that legacy, and I encourage you to take that step.
Sincerely, David J. Brown
Former New York Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp said that “the essential feature of a landmark is not its design, but the place it holds in a city’s memory.” Staunton has suffered demolitions in the past, but far more often the buildings in the city’s historic core have been saved. These places are landmarks in so many minds, providing the motivation behind the efforts to save them from the wrecking ball, because of their innumerable, varied, and deeply personal connections to people in Staunton and Augusta County.
When those places are lost, communities lose a part of their soul.
I encourage those entrusted with leadership in Staunton to accept the challenge the moment provides and take the path that has brought so much of value to this community through the years.
More to come…
Image: Historic view of Staunton with the Augusta County Courthouse