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Learning from Loss: Lessons from Virginia`s Lost Architecture 

12-09-2015 17:35

Architecture is a measure of human aspiration and achievement. But if buildings are to be read in that fashion, those that are now lost must be considered along with those that still stand; only then do we see the full landscape of a region. Hundreds -- if not thousands -- of buildings of architectural or historical importance and interest are now lost. Many have been demolished; some have been replaced by larger, more functional structures; a number have burned; some even were abandoned and lost to neglect, as populations and needs have shifted. The consequence is that significant evidence of history has vanished from the earth and, perhaps inevitably, this evidence has been at least partly forgotten. And while we can recover and reconstruct the appearance of some lost buildings, many important structures are beyond visual recovery. They were never sketched or photographed, some gone before the era of photography.

Yet, in order to clearly understand the architecture of a region, preservationists must confront not only that which has survived, but that which has not. If we base preservation decisions only on what can be observed at present, we are viewing only a small percentage of what was once part of the built landscape. By examining the lost landscape in tandem with that which survives, one can uncover important structures and trends no longer reflected in the extant architectural landscape, and thus be able to consider the built landscape more fully and inclusively.

Virginia Study

Although exhibitions and publications about the lost architecture of other regions have appeared, no effort has previously been made to document and reconstruct the appearance of the Virginia landscape of earlier times, when the nation’s destiny and history often were intimately tied to this setting. A recent exhibition and book entitled Lost Virginia: Vanished Architecture of the Old Dominion seeks to recover, at least in a gallery setting and on paper, Virginia’s lost architectural heritage by presenting a sampling of it, grouped according to the categories of domestic, civic, religious, and commercial buildings. While a publication such as this may appeal to nostalgia, its greater value is to revise incomplete views about local or regional architecture and, in turn, about patterns of life in the region.

Our goals were twofold. First, we sought to add to the ongoing architectural and historical dialog a number of previously unknown or unappreciated buildings to expand our knowledge of Virginia’s architectural heritage. Second, we wanted to make this broad base of information available to preservationists, so they could make more substantive arguments for the preservation of under-appreciated resources. In particular, we hoped to make clear the ephemeral nature of the built landscape, and the necessity of determined vigilance to insure its survival for future generations.

We researched 600 buildings for Lost Virginia. We narrowed that 600 to 300 for the book, and for the exhibition, further narrowed the 300 to 100. Of the 300 buildings that appear in the book, we discovered that one-third were lost to fire. More surprising, though, was the revelation that three-fifths of the 300 buildings were lost to demolition. Of those lost to demolition, nine-tenths of were obliterated in the 20th century. Even more shocking, though, was the discovery that of the buildings lost in the 20th century, fully one-half of those were demolished in the third quarter of that century. To put these losses into perspective, though, one must remember that these 300 lost structures were themselves already from a very select group. All of them not only possessed significant architectural or historical importance, but all were photographed and had surviving historical documentation, qualities that are generally, very unusual. Few buildings actually met the high standards we established for inclusion, and even from this select group, three-fifths were lost by demolition. As for the losses of more modest or remotely located structures, while we can surmise that the losses occurred at a higher rate, in truth, we will never know how much was lost.

Significant Buildings that Are Lost

The lost buildings examined in the study either are significant themselves or are representative of significant architectural trends that developed in the commonwealth following the first English settlement. We started by looking at some of the earliest buildings in the Virginia colony that aspired to sophisticated design. It is remarkable that we know as much as we do about them, because they vanished so long ago. Green Spring, the rambling mansion built in the mid- 1600s by the governor, Sir William Berkeley, was certainly exceptional for its time and place. Conceived at least in part to set a cultural example for Virginians to emulate, it disappeared not long after Benjamin Henry Latrobe sketched it in 1796 and thereby left us a record. Also gone is the H-shaped Williamsburg Capitol of 1699-1705 (burned 1747), which was envisioned as an impressive edifice in the Anglo- Dutch tradition of town halls, guildhalls, and markethouses of England. It was rebuilt after the 1747 fire with a portico, only to burn again in 1832.

Virginia’s famed Georgian mansions -- the ones that are still standing -- are appreciated by modern tourists, and for more than a century they have inspired Colonial Revival architects nationwide. These, however, are but part of a larger group that was built in this style in the colony. Rosewell, for example, erected in Gloucester County c. 1721- 41, was the grandest and most lavishly designed house in the Virginia colony, and one of the largest structures built in colonial America. It was lost to flames in 1916.

As many as 300 Anglican churches may have been erected in Virginia during colonial times, because the Anglican Church was the government established religion. All but some 50 of those buildings are now gone; most vanished in the years following the 1784 act disestablishing the Anglican Church. Eastern Shore Chapel, in Virginia Beach, stood from 1752 until it was dismantled in 1952 for the construction of the Oceana Naval Air Station.

As to lost 19th-century Virginia buildings as important as the 18th-century ones just cited, the numbers are comparable. For example, Barboursville (1817-22), home of Governor James Barbour, was designed, at least in its basics, by Thomas Jefferson. Kinloch (1847-48) was a Greek Revival structure of remarkable refinement, designed by an accomplished urban architect, Robert Cary Long, Jr., of Baltimore. The Lodge (Elk Hill) in Amelia County (1851-52) was a Tudor-Stuart manor house designed by New York architect A. J. Davis. Mount Erin (Cameron Castle) in Petersburg (c. 1815 and later) can be cited as a third representative of what was a group of adventuresome and exotic mid-century designs; buildings of this type were easily forgotten once they were lost and when Victorian styles went out of fashion.

A list of lost 19th-century civic architecture that holds exceptional importance would start with Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond (1797- 1806), a building that made a significant statement about rationalized and humanitarian penology and about how design should express the character or nature of a building. An early mental hospital, Eastern Lunatic Asylum in Williamsburg displayed both classical and medieval-style buildings worthy of note and is significant as the first public institution in America created solely for the care of the mentally ill.

The list of lost 19th-century commercial buildings of special importance includes the giant flour mills of Richmond; these were highly visible evidence of the industrialization of the 1850s that was radically changing the traditional image of the Old South as a rural, plantation society frozen in time.

Other lost Virginia buildings warrant re-creation, on paper, less for their architectural merit than because they tell us about important historical figures who lived in them, or they help to illustrate significant episodes of history that unfolded within their walls, particularly during the Revolutionary era, the early Republic, and the Civil War. George Washington’s remarkable multisided barn at Mount Vernon (c. 1795), a building of his own design, is lost (it has been reconstructed, but on a different site). So is Martha Washington’s childhood residence in New Kent County, Chestnut Grove (c. 1735-50).

Only three birthplaces of Virginia’s eight presidents remain standing: Berkeley (William Henry Harrison), Greenway (John Tyler), and the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace. Patrick Henry’s birthplace is gone and little remains standing at Menokin (1768- 78), the plantation of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Francis Lightfoot Lee. The Southern Literary Messenger Building in Richmond (1813), where Edgar Allan Poe served as editor in 1835- 37, was long ago taken down.

Richmond’s Libby Prison, which became notorious because it housed a total of some 30,000 Union Civil War prisoners in a dirty and unhealthful environment, was later carted off to Chicago to serve as a visitor attraction, only to be demolished there. The Appomattox County Courthouse (1846) is gone; this structure bore witness on Palm Sunday in 1865 to Lee’s surrender to Grant inside Wilmer McLean’s farmhouse across the street, thereby ending the Civil War.

Buildings closely associated with African-American history have been allowed to disappear. One was the Alexandria Slave Pens (1828), a site of misery suffered by thousands of slaves who passed through the place on their way to the deep South. Another was Maggie Walker’s St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond (1909), which stood for more than half a century as an example of African- American progress, because it was financed, designed, built, and operated by African- Americans. The bank is also important as the first commission awarded to Charles T. Russell, a Richmond native who studied architecture at Hampton, Va. The success of this commission enabled Russell to establish what was probably the first architectural practice in Virginia by an African-American.

Also lost is Richmond’s True Reformers Hall (1895), the meeting place of the Grand Fountain, United Order of True Reformers. Organized by William Washington Brown, the True Reformers organized a bank, endorsed African-American self-reliance, and were praised by W. E. B. DuBois for their many achievements. Successors, such as the St. Luke Building in Richmond and the True Reformers Hall in Washington, D.C. (both built in 1903) as well as countless other halls around the nation, owed a debt to Richmond’s True Reformers Hall.

Entire towns have disappeared from the Virginia landscape. The first to be lost was America’s first permanent English settlement. Jamestown was a sprawling village that was hastily and inconsistently built. Most of the buildings there were small and simple one-and-a-half-story structures that burned when the followers of Nathaniel Bacon set fire to the town in 1676.

Whole blocks of cities have disappeared, as communities have evolved. Innumerable blocks of Norfolk have been lost, none more picturesque than those around the East Market, which developed as early as the 1680s. With the end of ferry service to Berkley and Portsmouth in the 1950s, activity slowed there; the whole area was redeveloped in the 1960s.

How Buildings Are Lost

When a building was not intentionally removed, it was generally destroyed by fire. Fully one-third of the examples surveyed in Lost Virginia burned. The Ambler house in Jamestown survived one fire in 1862 only to be destroyed by a second fire 32 years later. The buildings at Eastern Lunatic Asylum fell victim to fires in 1876, 1885, and 1902. When the Surry County courthouse of 1907 burned in 1922 it was the fourth courthouse there lost to fires. Grist mills were particularly susceptible to fire because of the volatility of flour dust. The large mills in Richmond burned repeatedly during the 19th century. Byrd Mill (1740) had somehow survived nearly two-and-a-half centuries of continuous operation before it burned in 1968.

Half of the losses by fire occurred in the early 20th century, when heating and electrical systems were increasingly available and less than reliable; perhaps primitive heating and wiring systems contributed to the upsurge in fires at that time.

Fire remains a threat to buildings even in modern times. The Peacock Ballroom in Virginia Beach (1906) burned in 1955. Most recently, in the summer of 2000, Thomas U. Walter’s Greek Revival Presbyterian Church in Lexington (1845) was gutted by fire, a casualty of workmen using heat for paint removal. In 1975, Caserta (c. 1840) was struck by lightning and burned to the ground, only five years after it was listed in the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. In 1990, Fort Rhodes (built about 1770) was lost the same way.

But, as said before, more Virginia buildings have been lost to demolition than fire. Some three-fifths of the examples surveyed in Lost Virginia were demolished; nine-tenths of that group were removed in the 20th century. Nearly as many were taken down in the third quarter of the 20th century as at the beginning or middle.

It followed that when neighborhoods lost much of their residential base, churches more often than not relocated with their congregations, and the old building was demolished. An example is Richmond’s St. James’s Episcopal Church (1837-40), which was incorporated with the provision that if the congregation moved, the building had to be demolished rather than sold for commercial use. The St. James’s congregation relocated not only to what was a more residential neighborhood but also to a larger building; the original structure no longer housed the needs of the church.

Religious, civic, and commercial buildings have been demolished when they failed to function. Courthouses also were frequent victims; these had to be replaced when they no longer were large enough to handle the courts’ business. The Arlington County courthouse of 1898, for example, expanded into wings in 1929 and 1950, then was demolished and rebuilt in 1960, only to be demolished and rebuilt a second time in 1997. Hotels functioned for relatively short periods of time in the 19th century, when such amenities as plumbing, lighting, and heating were dramatically and frequently upgraded.

Among the other types of commercial and civic buildings that were demolished when they proved no longer useful were train stations, such as Union Station in Lynchburg (1890); school buildings, such as the Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia (1826-27); and bridges, such as the Springwood Truss Bridge in Botetourt County (1884) that was replaced by a concrete structure.

Buildings have been demolished when the properties on which they stood were developed for new uses. For example, in 1850 the route of the new Richmond and Danville Railroad was projected through the center of the 1792 Amelia County courthouse, forcing its demolition. But this was particularly true in the second half of the 20th century. Ossian Hall (1783) was actually burned in 1959 by the Fairfax County Fire Department as a training exercise, but the burning was a way of demolishing a building that stood in the way of a housing complex that was developed around it. In the 1960s Maplewood (c. 1873) in Fairfax County lost part of its property to the construction of the Capital Beltway and the cloverleaf interchange serving Tyson’s Corner, then the house was demolished for an industrial park. Mindless and massive urban renewal programs of the modern era have destroyed numerous properties.

Conversely, insufficient development also has resulted in the demolition of buildings, including a whole group of land-boom hotels erected around 1890 but little needed after the Panic of 1893. To cite one example, the Rockbridge Hotel in Glasgow (1889-92) was sold soon after completion for a fraction of what it had cost to build; it was used only as a storage barn for hay until it was demolished.

Buildings have also been demolished when their styles seemed old-fashioned. Victorian designs in particular have suffered from changing tastes and many buildings were pulled down because they seemed less than attractive to 20th-century eyes.

Storms or flooding have also demolished or contributed to the destruction of mills and houses. Finally, some buildings developed structural problems. The removal of bearing walls in the Bowers house in Petersburg (1829) proved to make the building too dangerously unstable for restoration. The collapse of an upper floor in Thomas Jefferson’s Capitol building in 1870 generated so much hysteria that the Richmond City Hall of 1816-18 by Robert Mills was demolished in 1874, out of fear that it too might be structurally unsound.

Recent Preservation Efforts

In more recent decades, however, preservation efforts have slowed the destruction. Through the leadership of the state and federal governments, working in concert with local and regional private preservation organizations, the widespread erosion of historic resources has been significantly curtailed. What we have witnessed, however, is that while losses have slowed, they have in no way been prevented. While natural disasters may never be prevented, we must always remain vigilant over our valued historic resources.

In particular, we must exercise special care over the seemingly humblest of our historic resources, as many of these modest resources—once common on the landscape— are now quite scarce. The demolished log house in Prince William County, shown on this page, represents many thousands of lost structures that, once commonplace, are now exceedingly rare. And as a result -- as with this structure -- we may never know very much about them.

While governmental and nonprofit preservation agencies may be very effective advocates for preservation, it remains that the best protection comes from citizens who are aware of the importance of the historic resources in their care, and who are committed to good stewardship of them. One of our greatest hopes for this project is that it will give citizens reliable historical information that will enable them to adopt a preservation ethic, practice stewardship of historic resources in their care, and hold public officials to the highest standards of stewardship for historic resources in public ownership.

Inevitably, interesting and important historic buildings and structures will be lost, either through the pressures of growth or by natural disaster such as fire and flood. It is hoped, however, that Virginians, along with other Americans, have come to value historic buildings and to recognize that such structures, both grand and simple, both famous and typical, are assets to the community and a means to establish a sense of time and place.

Publication Date: Spring 2002

#ForumJournal #Architecture

Author(s):Bryan Clark Green