Staunton Finds Economic Success by Reclaiming Its History. (Special Report: Small Cities, Big Ideas)

By David, Lance | Nation's Cities Weekly, October 28, 2002 | Go to article overview

Staunton Finds Economic Success by Reclaiming Its History. (Special Report: Small Cities, Big Ideas)


David, Lance, Nation's Cities Weekly


The City of Staunton, Va., is building its future by preserving its past.

For more than 30 years Staunton--a city of about 24,000 located in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley--has reclaimed the historic buildings that form its downtown business district, bringing them from blight and despair and renovating them to their Victorian-era splendor. The ongoing effort, a partnership between the city, the Historic Staunton Foundation and a handful of other nonprofit organizations, is one of the most significant historic preservation efforts in the United States.

This is not only because the city has one of the largest collections of historic buildings dating to the 19th and early 20th centuries, but also because it is breathing new economic life into the downtown business district.

"The historic preservation efforts in this city are a selling point to businesses looking to locate here," said Brigette Cowan, owner of Holt's for the Home, the city's oldest table top and houseware business, which is still located in its original building in the heart of historic Staunton.

"These buildings have curves. They are softer, more colorful and have more character than any new construction," said Cowan, who lives in a renovated apartment above her store and who was voted Virginia's 2002 Retailer of the Year and is president of the Staunton Downtown Development Association (SDDA). "And they have a history, their own history, that intertwines with the city's."

The Gateway to the West

Few cities share the cultural or historical legacy that abounds in Staunton.

Named for Rebecca Staunton, wife of a colonial governor of the Virginia Commonwealth, Staunton was founded in 1747. A courthouse, a church, a mill and a few business, Staunton was the provincial capital of an area that extended from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Mississippi River.

Staunton became the temporary capital of Virginia during the Revolutionary War when the British Army overran Richmond. It is the birth place of President Woodrow Wilson, and was a frequent host to President Thomas Jefferson.

The oldest city west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Staunton was the gateway to the west during America's Manifest Destiny. Razed and nearly obliterated during the Civil War, Staunton became a center of commerce during Reconstruction.

Architects from across the Northeast played a role in designing its buildings, and the railroad connected its farmers and ranchers to neighboring cities and fueled a period of economic prosperity that endured until the 1920s.

By the 1950s, the city's business district was in slow decline. In the 1960s, a shift from rail transportation to Interstate highways dealt a further blow to the Queen City of the Shenandoah Valley. The rail depot and warehouses closed, businesses relocated and the bustling downtown became a distant memory.

All that was left were the buildings. Colonial, Italianate, Greco Roman, Victorian: the styles were as varied as the materials used to construct them. Brick, granite, limestone and marble adorned the facades, window arches, columns and sidewalks of the two- and three-story buildings. Their staggered sizes setting up a unique urban rhythm to for the throngs that once walked Staunton's streets.

As with many cities that had suffered similar fates, Staunton's city council embraced the promises of urban renewal. The city had approved the demolition of many historic buildings to make way for progress. The centerpiece of the plan was the destruction of the Wharf District, the rail depot and accompanying warehouses and commercial buildings, to make way for a new highway that would run through the center of downtown.

But a handful of visionaries challenged the project. In an 11th-hour rally they defeated the highway plan and saved the Wharf District, which would later become one of five contiguous historic districts in the city, and set in motion a renaissance in Staunton's downtown. …

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