“The Most Historic Park in America’s Most Historic City”

by Danae Peckler, HFFI Preservationist

On the first page of his 1991 book, Robert A. Hodge called Alum Spring Park, “the most historic park in America’s most historic city.” These days, people might view that ambitious moniker with suspicion. However, the more one learns about Fredericksburg’s past, the more remarkable it becomes. The park encompasses 34.75 acres around the Alum Spring—named for the crystalized salts that form on the surface as the spring’s water evaporates. However, the area has also served many other purposes:

  • A source of clay for local indigenous populations that camped along area waterways
  • The site of multiple 18th and 19th century grist and saw mills along with millworker houses
  • A hospital and prison camp for Hessian and British soldiers marched to Fredericksburg after Cornwallis’ surrender in October 1781
  • A place for dueling and more than a few tragic deaths
  • A quarry for local sandstone
  • A place of refuge and conflict during the Civil War, as well as the site of many veteran reunions into the 20th century
  • A plentiful source of ice in the winter
  • A popular local swimming hole in the summer
  • A wondrous place to explore the area’s natural and cultural history.

Local newspapers and long-time residents credit Hodge—a geologist, educator, and local historian—as the galvanizing force behind the creation of Alum Spring Park. After moving to Fredericksburg for a teaching job at James Monroe High School in 1956, Hodge began taking students to Alum Spring to illustrate the area’s natural history, using its diverse rock formations, from the bed of Hazel Run to its sandstone cliffs, as visual aids for teaching geologic time. And for the many decades that he lived here, Bob Hodge also read, thoroughly researched, and wrote about local history in his spare time. Decades after his efforts to create Alum Spring Park, he published a small book about the property, entitled A History of Alum Spring Park, to chronicle all that makes it unique and historically significant (copy available at the CRRL Downtown branch).

The area was actually first proposed as a park by the Fredericksburg Development Company and appears in the firm’s 1891 map of holdings in and around the city. However, the idea for a public park did not come to fruition until the land was threatened by a large townhouse development in the mid-1960s. The Planning Commission and Recreation Commission supported the park idea, and in October 1965, Fredericksburg City Council voted unanimously to purchase the land that comprises Alum Spring Park today (The Free Lance-Star, Oct. 6, 1965:4).

The city’s Recreation Commission, of which Bob Hodge was a member, made a careful study of the 34.75-acre property in consultation with National Park Service staff and state Outdoor Recreational Department officials. In December 1967, a formal report made to the City Council “emphasized the primary purpose of the park was to preserve the natural state of the tract as much as possible,” and provided a plan for the park’s immediate development along with some long-range proposals (Hodge 1991:39).

Presently, two planning efforts stand to substantially affect the landscape within and around Alum Spring Park—both require and assume that the city will acquire the neighboring 34-acre tract of woodland on the east side of Emancipation Highway, north of the park, from the University of Mary Washington (UMW).

The Parks & Recreation Master Plan currently proposes a wholesale redesign of Alum Spring Park, reorienting it toward the busy Emancipation Highway (Route 1). This plan calls for closing the ford entrance and removing most of the existing facilities to build a new larger parking lot, bathroom/ welcome center, and playground on UMW’s undeveloped land (Figure 1). Simultaneously, the Small Area 5 plan currently proposes the construction of a new “connector road,” extending from the William Street/Blue & Gray Parkway (Route 3) intersection to meet with Idlewild Drive or Beverly Lane (Figure 2).

Figure 1: Detail of proposed alterations to Alum Spring Park in a recent update provided to City Council and the Planning Commission (City of Fredericksburg Parks Master Plans, July 2024).
Figure 2: The Small Area 5 Plan report from April 2024 features several graphics with varying depictions in the locations of the new connector road, as well as the new entrance and parking lot at Alum Spring Park (above images on pages 32, 40, and 42).

City staff’s proposed plans to build a new roadway with a multi-use path, 50-space parking lot, new welcome center/restroom facility, picnic shelters, and a playground on UMW’s forested tract seems to be at odds with many stated environmental and historic preservation goals.

Given its proximity to Hazel Run and Alum Spring, much of Alum Spring Park and UMW’s wooded 34 acres are located within “Resource Protected” and “Resource Management Areas” under the Chesapeake Bay Protection Program. The rest of UMW’s parcel is within the “Whole Lot Provision” of the Resource Management Area (Figure 3). Both the Alum Spring and UMW tracts have also been identified in George Washington Regional Commission (GWRC) reports focused on bettering our environment. In the Green Infrastructure Regional Plan, both parcels are identified as Contributing Eco-Core areas, and “the over-arching finding is that proper forest retention can provide important water quality benefits to the Commonwealth and Chesapeake Bay Watershed,” based on recent studies on the impact forest buffers have in protecting against erosion and stormwater runoff (GWRC 2016, 2017). 

From a preservation perspective, these plans will have a negative effect on known cultural historic resources. The 1968 Recreation Commission report to the City Council called for archaeological investigations at one of the known mill sites; however, few, if any, such studies have been conducted. The area also has a significant indigenous, Colonial, Civil War, and industrial history—much of which has yet to be thoroughly documented and analyzed. Localities and other state agencies often avoid disturbing areas known to contain important cultural artifacts, embracing the cheapest option, which is to preserve them in place. Given that almost every inch of the UMW and Alum Spring Park tracts falls within the highest probability in the City’s Archaeological Predictive Model, both plans will come at a higher price to taxpayers (Figure 3).

Figure 3: FredGIS imagery showing the current Alum Spring Park property and neighboring UMW tract with the Chesapeake Bay Watershed layers at left and the Archaeological Predictability Model at right.

It is often said, “history repeats itself” and “no idea is ever new.” In 1980, a proposal for a new road connecting the end of Alum Spring Drive to the Route 1 Bypass was voted down by City Council after an uproar from local groups, including “the Jaycees, the Planning Commission, Recreation Commission, Economic Development Commission, and the Rappahannock Garden Club,” who “chiefly [opposed the road] because it would border tranquil Alum Spring Park” (The Free Lance-Star, Feb 28, 1980:17). The Public Works Committee had supported the idea as a “trucking link that would open an undeveloped section to business use” (The Free Lance-Star, Jan 25, 1980:3). A January 28, 1980, editorial in The Free Lance-Star addressed the feelings of many residents had for this special place in the city:

Crossing tiny Alum Spring is like entering another century. You may hear a truck on the Bypass or spot the top of a nearby apartment complex. But the distractions are few amid the splendid isolation of Alum Spring Park’s wooded hills.

There is a sense of discovery and reflection to these 35 acres. A 2,000-year-old sandstone cliff and an abandoned railroad bed from a century ago suggest a resistance to change. For close to 40,000 visitors a year, a piece of Fredericksburg’s past has been delicately and beautifully preserved….

With the Fredericksburg area leading Virginia in growth, it has never been more important to safeguard our remaining natural and historical resources from the temptation of short-term economic gain….

The Council should do more than ratify the overwhelming arguments against this proposal. It’s time to go on the offensive in protecting our natural assets. Possible scenic easements on nearby undeveloped tracts should be explored as a way to insulate the Alum Spring “experience” from future developments.

As currently proposed, the “new” plans fail to protect much of what City Council’s Vision for 2036 describes as important to Fredericksburg’s future and identity. They do not preserve one of the few sizable, undeveloped, Eco-Core areas in the City; do not reduce run-off into our waterways; do not protect known cultural historic resources; and do not appear to make prudent use of taxpayer dollars.

The Ties Between Modern Architecture and Healthcare History in Fredericksburg

Danae Peckler, HFFI Preservationist

*A public meeting to discuss the proposed St. Mary’s Landing townhouse development is set for Thursday, June 20th at 6 pm at the Dorothy Hart Community Center.

**Next week is the first public meeting about revising Fredericksburg’s Comprehensive Plan on June 26, 2024, 6:30-8:30 pm, at 210 Ferdinand Street in the School Board meeting room.

In the last few years, there has been much talk about the future of the old hospital building at 2300 Fall Hill Avenue and the neighboring lots. The property was owned by Medicorp Properties Inc—an arm of Mary Washington Hospital—until earlier this year (FredGIS 2024). Since the site plan for the St. Mary’s Landing townhouse project was initially submitted to the City at the end of January 2024, the public has become aware of the developer’s intention to demolish two extant buildings on the block across from the hospital bounded by Fall Hill Avenue, Hunter, and Elm streets. One is a brick bungalow built in 1947 by contractor H.H. Tyler for Arthur Greene at 2315 Fall Hill Avenue, while the other is the former Fredericksburg Public Health Center at 435 Hunter Street, designed by architect John J. Ballentine, Jr., and constructed between 1959 and 1960 by contractor L.C. Mitchell (Stanton 2014).

Although little funding has ever been dedicated to documenting our historic built environment, the demolition of our existing building stock is not something we should continue to ignore. As with the conservation of natural resources, preserving and repurposing our built environment has great benefits. It is estimated that 25–30% of our landfills are now filled with construction debris, some of which has proven toxic to our air, water, and wildlife. In an effort to save high-quality historic building materials, some localities have established programs to foster salvage and reuse of these valuable materials. Acknowledging that some older buildings cannot be salvaged or that the greater needs of the community outweigh the benefits of preserving them, many localities have policies and procedures that allow the thorough documentation of historic properties, recording their historic occupation, use, and physical fabric before their removal. Regardless, it’s always good to know what you’ve got before it’s gone. HFFI hopes this article provides some historic context for the old hospital and the associated healthcare buildings around it, as well as for the architecture and time period that defined them. 

Funding for the construction of the hospital and public health center stemmed from landmark healthcare legislation referred to as the Hill-Burton Act. Passed by Congress in 1946, “this bill invested significant sums of federal tax dollars to increase access to healthcare for citizens across the nation. Among its many initiatives, the program offered local governments the majority of funds necessary to build dedicated structures for their health departments” (Marshall 2021:96–97). Government’s role in preserving the health of its people was certainly nothing new, but the impacts of wartime mobilization revealed both the relative scarcity of healthcare facilities across the country and how successful “public health centers” could be in maintaining it, distributing vaccines and offering basic care. Work to erect Fredericksburg’s third hospital building began in 1949. More than $520,000 in federal funds and over $314,000 from the State of Virginia supported its construction, augmented by roughly $350,000 from local sources and donations (Alvey 1989:60,62). On February 18, 1951, a small dedication ceremony on the grounds of 2300 Fall Hill Avenue marked the official opening of the new Mary Washington Hospital. At five stories and encompassing nearly 28,000 square feet, this new brick, steel, and concrete facility became the very model of a modern healthcare facility (Figure 1). It was designed to accommodate future growth, and between 1951 and 1990, the building underwent seven major upgrades and expansions. One of the more dramatic changes to the hospital building was the relocation and reorientation of its main entrance from the southwest elevation to the east side, facing Fall Hill Avenue. A 1980 aerial image and more recent photographs from the 2023 property listing provide a striking contrast to its initial architectural form and design (Figure 2 and 3).

Figure 1: Early 1950s postcard image of the old Mary Washington Hospital on Fall Hill Avenue
Figure 2: 1980 aerial photograph shows two new wing additions under construction (“Hospital Expansion,” The Free-Lance Star, Feb. 28, 1980).
Figure 3: Ground view of south elevation (top) and aerial image looking west (bottom) from property listing webpage (Coldwell Banker Commercial Elite 2023).

The growth and success of Mary Washington Hospital prompted the construction of other supportive, Modern-era, healthcare buildings around it. The “Medical Arts Building” at 2301 Fall Hill Avenue was constructed in 1956 by local builder/contractor, Bernard Cline, as a “professional office building” for a select group of physicians with private practices (Stanton 2014). The building also contained commercial space. A second Peoples Drug Store opened in the Medical Arts Building that year, offering “free prescription delivery service anywhere in the city” (The Free Lance-Star, Dec 20, 1956:16). A third-floor expansion occurred in 1964 as demand from local practitioners grew (Moore 1979:13). In fall 1969, drawings by architect Henry C. Johnson, Jr., for a sizable addition to the north side of the building were submitted to the City Engineers Office, along with a request for exemption from the setbacks and height limits of earlier residential development. The requested variance was granted, but Johnson’s Modernist addition to this Georgian Revival-style building did not materialize (Figure 4 and 5). However, a single-bay addition matching the original material composition of the building was added to the north elevation sometime after 1969, along with other modifications to the exterior.

The Medical Arts Building’s Georgian Revival style reflects a conscious choice by the physicians who funded its construction. Did the doctors believe a more traditional look  would give a sense of continuity to their previous practices or instill greater trust among new patients in the physicians’ depth of experience? Or perhaps they felt that a Georgian exterior would help their new multi-story office building blend with the surrounding residential neighborhood (Figure 6), composed of one- and two-story dwellings?

Figure 4: Sheet 5, “Preliminary Design Addition to Medical Arts Building, Fredericksburg, Virginia,” by H.C. Johnson, Jr. Architect, AIA (October 1969). Full image of west or Fall Hill Avenue elevation (top) and detail of “Existing Construction” (bottom) (City of Fredericksburg Planning Department).  Note: most of the Georgian Revival architectural features depicted in these drawings have since been removed and replaced.
Figure 5: Façade or west elevation (top) and southeast oblique of Medical Arts Building (bottom) from property listing webpage (Coldwell Banker Commercial Elite 2023).
Figure 6: Detail of 1941 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map of Fredericksburg, Sheet 21, showing scattered residential development in the area.

On another lot across from the hospital and southeast of the Medical Arts Building is the modest one-story Public Health Center, at 435 Hunter Street. Fredericksburg’s City Council voted unanimously to support its construction with the understanding that at least 55 percent of the cost would be obtained through the Hill-Burton Act (Figure 7; The Free Lance-Star, Aug 29, 1958:1). Designed by local architect, John J. Ballentine, Jr., in conjunction with Fredericksburg Health Director, Dr. Frederick J. Spencer, this Modernist building was completed and open to the public in 1960 (Figure 8; The Free Lance-Star, May 20, 1960:11).

Figure 7: News article detailing City’s approval for creating the Fredericksburg Public Health building (The Free Lance-Star, Aug. 29, 1958:1,3).
Figure 8: Image of the south elevation and main entrance to the “Health Center” (The Free Lance-Star, May 20, 1960:11).

At a time when “new planning techniques, modern medical equipment, advanced building systems, and sterile treatment spaces radically changed health-care design,” some historians view healthcare architecture in the postwar period as the embodiment of medical technology used for patient treatment (Marshall 2021:102). The administration of Modern-era healthcare planning and services placed stringent demands on its architecture—the design of such facilities needed to be as maintenance free as possible and support the efficient and economical administration of services, while remaining flexible to meet new and growing demand from the community. A Public Health Center’s plan was “delineated by five primary functions: patient waiting, administration, clinic, assembly, and service” (Marshall 2021:102).

While many new public healthcare facilities embraced the cost-effective, minimal maintenance construction of the Modernist designs with International and Contemporary elements, great stylistic variation occurred in Virginia’s units. Modernist examples most often appeared when the buildings were erected at the urban fringe—similar to the approach and design trends that affected public schools during this time period.

Fredericksburg’s Public Health Center was not the only one John J. Ballentine, Jr., designed in Virginia. In 1954, he was selected by the Board of Supervisors in Caroline County to design their new public health center, which would be located across from Bowling Green’s town hall (Marshall 2021:107). Given the site’s surrounding architectural context at the town’s historic civic core, the selected design featured a traditional exterior skin—what Ballentine called “Pseudo-Colonial” styling—with a Modernized floor plan informed by recommendations from the Virginia Department of Health and Caroline County’s Director of Health (Figure 9; Marshall 2021:108).

In Fredericksburg, Ballentine customized his design in a series of seven schematic drawings to suit local officials and medical professionals, using the popular International style. The individual with the most influence appears to have been Fredericksburg’s Health Director, Dr. Frederick J. Spencer, a young physician from England, who had been selected for training by the State Health Department (Suffolk News-Herald, Apr. 3, 1956:1). In his mid-30s at the time, Dr. Spencer held the position in Fredericksburg for just a few years before moving to Richmond circa 1962 to become the State Health Department’s Director of Communicable Disease Control (Suffolk News-Herald, Oct 8, 1962:6).

Figure 9: Figures of Caroline County’s War Memorial Health Center printed in “’A Suitable Memorial’: The History of Public Health Centers in Post-World War II Virginia,” an article written by Andrew Marshall, Preservation Architect at John Milner Associates Preservation Division, and published in the Fall 2021 issue of Buildings & Landscapes, a journal of the Vernacular Architectural Forum.

Ballentine’s use of the International style at Fredericksburg’s Public Health Center strongly reflects the building’s modern medical purpose and use, as well as its public funding, location, and context within the community (Figure 10). He continued to work in the International style when he was hired to design an addition to the building in the mid-1970s. Drawings finalized in 1975 included a one-story, three-bay, brick addition to the east end of the center, designed to accommodate a second story in the future (Figure 11).

Relatively few truly Modernist designs made it off Ballentine’s cutting room floor in Fredericksburg—a community dedicated to preserving its Colonial history and architecture. Ballentine was successful, however, in balancing Modern architecture within a traditional context. Aside from the Public Health Center, the most recognizable of his Modernist works include the commercial shopping center now home to Fahrenheit and Castiglia’s restaurants at 320–324 William Street (1956), the Virginia ABC store at 505 William Street (1963), and the U.S. Post Office (1972) at 600 Princess Anne Street (Spencer 2016). He is more often remembered in Fredericksburg for his efforts to preserve and rehabilitate historic buildings in the community, often in conjunction with Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, Inc.—an organization for which he served as President for a time. As strong a preservationist as he was architect, Ballentine donated his collection of architectural drawings to HFFI, many of which are being digitized by our friends at University of Mary Washington’s Department of Historic Preservation.

Over time, Ballentine’s Mid-Century Modern exterior at Fredericksburg’s Public Health Center has been somewhat “Colonialized” by the removal of many original windows and aluminum panels, infilling the space with masonry and stucco, and the replacement of its original vestibule with a pedimented portico. The remaining aluminum-frame windows are original and the addition of stucco around them has some precedent, as seen in Ballentine’s 1975 addition to the building. But the cover is not the book. This customized example of Modern medical architecture is worth a closer look, particularly at the interior, which has not been explored. HFFI hopes that there will be an opportunity to more fully document this cultural historic resource, inside and out, so that we might continue to learn from it in the future.

Figure 10: Details from Ballentine’s January 6, 1959, “Fredericksburg Public Health Center, Sketch #6,” drawing with Hunter Street elevation (top) and proposed floor plan (bottom). Note: all elevations in Sketch #6 appear consistent with the as-built design; however, it is unclear if the interior floor plan from this model was also built. No documentation has been made of existing conditions at the interior.
Figure 11: Details from Ballentine’s March 1975, “Additions and Alterations to Fredericksburg Public Health Center, Schematic Sketch II…” drawing showing exterior elevations and site plan for expansion.

The omission of Fredericksburg’s Public Health Center from the area’s “Character Structures” list also offers a few lessons on how we identify and assess our historic built environment, particularly what parts of it provide valuable “character” to our neighborhoods. There’s little comfort to those who care about Fredericksburg’s cultural historic resources that even IF the Public Health Center had been identified as a “Character Structure” in Area 6, current zoning does nothing to prevent or discourage its demolition.

Some might say, “Why does this keep happening? Preservationists always sound the alarm at the 11th hour!” Yet both more common and less public are the many times when the insights and efforts of local preservation advocates are ignored, dismissed, or excluded from the discussion in the “hours” (months, years, and even decades) leading up to the alarm sounding.

In this case, the timing seems to be good. There is an opportunity to reevaluate the process for selecting and protecting “Character Structures” and also how we handle the demolition of our historic resources in and outside of the Historic District.

Next week is the first of many public meetings about rewriting much of Fredericksburg’s Comprehensive Plan: June 26, 2024, 6:30–8:30 pm, 210 Ferdinand Street in the School Board meeting room. I sure hope to see you there!

References:

Alvey, Edward, Jr. 1989. 90 Years of Caring: Mary Washington Hospital 1899–1989. Mary Washington Hospital. Moran & Company: Charlottesville, Virginia.

Coldwell Banker Commercial Elite. 2023. 2300 Fall Hill Avenue property listing webpage. Coldwell Banker Commercial Elite, https://cbcelite.com/property-search/?propertyId=1195794-sale

Marshall, Andrew. 2021. “A Suitable Memorial”: The History of Public Health Centers in Post-World War II Virginia, Buildings & Landscapes, Vol. 28, Issue 2, Fall 2021, pp. 96–123.

Spencer, Michael. 2016. “John Jennings Ballentine, Jr., Fredericksburg Architect,” Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, Inc., https://hffi.org/john-j-ballentine-jr-fredericksburg-architect/

Stanton, Gary. 2014. “Surviving Fredericksburg Building Permits: 1938-1960,” Fredericksburg Research Resources. Department of Historic Preservation, University of Mary Washington, https://resources.umwhisp.org/fredburg.htm

Fredericksburg’s 2024-2025 Goals for Preservation

For generations, Fredericksburg residents have taken pride in learning, sharing, and retelling tidbits of the extraordinary history our city holds. Many might recall that we once proclaimed ourselves to be “America’s Most Historic City.” An ambitious moniker that might sound audacious and pompous to some, yet we need only spend some time at local historic sites or read about the notable individuals and events that have put FXBG “on the map” for a few centuries now.

Other places have their own important history, but what TRULY sets Fredericksburg apart from the majority of localities is our community’s decades of dedication to Historic Preservation—the act of preserving the physical tangible evidence of our unique past.

Fredericksburg was a national leader in preservation in 1891 when a group of residents saved Mary Washington’s house from dismantling; in 1922 when efforts were made to save one of the finest examples of early American plasterwork; in when 1955 when Historic Fredericksburg was created to save an antebellum kitchen outbuilding; in 1972 when our historic district was listed in the National Register of Historic Places; in the 1980s when the nation’s first undergraduate program in Historic Preservation was established at what is now the University of Mary Washington; in 1991 when Fredericksburg was one of two localities selected for study in a ground-breaking economic analysis on the financial impact of historic preservation across the community; in 1996 when Ferry Farm was saved from being turned into a Walmart; and in 2021 when an archaeological ordinance more than a decade in the making was adopted.

Preserving the City’s cultural legacy—the historic buildings, sites, stories, and places, big and small, elaborate and commonplace—is a choice. It’s what we choose to do in Fredericksburg and our elected representatives are preeminently charged with caring for this tangible inheritance from the past.

As another Historic Preservation Month draws to a close, HFFI’s Board of Directors has laid out some important goals for the coming year—many of which are familiar to those with local leadership experience. By May 2025, we hope to report that these goals have been met. A full description of these goals is spelled out in HFFI’s press release (at bottom of post) with an abbreviated list below:  

  • Establish a Preservation Advisory Committee—Outlined in the City’s 2021 Preservation Plan, listed among Council’s top priority tasks that same year, and more recently proposed by the City’s Preservation Planner, this standing advisory committee would provide local preservation insight, expertise, and additional resources to carry out several City preservation goals. HFFI will work with the City to provide needed support and network with professional preservationists in the community to accomplish the goals of this committee.
  • Conduct a Historic Preservation Economic Impact Study—It is important that the community and its leaders are aware of the significant and far-reaching economic impacts generated by the preservation of the City’s historic character and diverse built environment, including its direct and indirect benefits. Last summer, the National Park Service released an economic impact study of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park that found its visitors spent $49.9 million in surrounding communities in 2022 alone. Funding for this kind of study was requested by City staff and the Planning Commission last fall. It did not make the FY2025 budget and was recently struck from a list of potential state grant applications. HFFI will work with City staff, the EDA, EDT, Main Street, Chamber of Commerce, cultural historic sites, and other organizations to make this longstanding goal come to fruition. We hope we can count on City Council’s support in the future.
  • Implement Incentives for Preservation—Daniel Becker’s expert Recommendations report, completed in June 2023,outlined several potential incentives to fulfill one of City Council’s priority goals for Historic Preservation. The EDA and Council were briefed on this study last summer. We will work to support the City in acting upon those recommendations.
  • Implement the 2012 MOU between City and HFFI—In 2012, a Memorandum of Understanding was established between the City and HFFI following years of proactive discussion and collaboration to improve the community’s response to decaying and blighted buildings. Several of the tasks and goals therein were reiterated in the June 2023 report on Economic Incentives and Prevention of Spot Blight and Demolition by Neglect. In the next year, HFFI will work toward implementing some of those tasks to assist property owners in and around Fredericksburg’s historic downtown core that are affected by blighted resources. We will coordinate with City Planning and Public Works staff in our efforts and expand the community’s support network for preserving our existing building stock, especially its residential resources. HFFI hopes that increased outreach, combined with more productive preservation incentives, will help achieve the City’s goal to ensure demolitions of historic buildings are the option of last resort.
  • Preserve Neighborhood Character—HFFI is pleased to engage in ongoing Planning staff and City Council discussions about Neighborhood Character Preservation, including the current dialog concerning Conservation District zoning. We share the desire to help protect the character of neighborhoods and to ensure housing options in the City.
  • Adopt Best Practices for City-Owned Historic Properties, including Renwick Courthouse Complex—HFFI would like to see the Renwick Working Group continue to interact with City staff and meet quarterly to support work to rehabilitate the complex. This model of collaboration among different skill sets from the community looks to be the best chance for success. Beyond the Renwick, the City oversees many historic resources that require sensitive and thoughtful approaches for their maintenance and preservation. HFFI will continue to advocate for best preservation practices to prevent the deterioration and destruction of our historic built environment. 
  • Assist in Identifying and Protecting FXBG’s cultural historic resources as Master Plans, Small Area Plans, and Comprehensive Planning moves forward—The civic pride distilled from the preservation of historic places and spaces across our community is visible and reiterated in every planning document intended to guide Fredericksburg’s growth and development since the twentieth century. Hiring consultants for assistance in steering future growth, many based outside the Fredericksburg area who lack the depth of awareness that local historians, organizations, and repositories possess about local history, has limited the City’s ability to preserve and nurture our community’s sense of place. Recent planning documents and presentations have shown significant gaps and omissions regarding known archaeological sites and historic resources within the City. Greater awareness of local history and the places that embody it is important to avoid the unnecessary destruction of cultural resources along with any valuable information they could reveal. HFFI wants to work with various city department staff to fill those gaps and support the City’s goal to preserve significant historic resources and protect archaeological sites across the community moving forward.

HFFI’s Board of Directors and staff hopes that the next year will bear witness to the successful completion of longstanding preservation goals in Fredericksburg. To ensure their completion, we would greatly appreciate your help. Show our elected officials and leaders that you care! Write them a note directly (visit City Council’s website to submit comments) or sign HFFI’s petition to show your support!

HFFI’s 2024 Preservation Award Recipients

The Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, Inc., held its 69th Annual Membership Meeting on Saturday, March 9, recognizing people, businesses, and institutions that have made outstanding contributions to preserving the unique cultural heritage and historic built environment of the Fredericksburg area.

Five recipients of HFFI’s 2024 Preservation Awards were individuals. The first, retired Spotsylvania middle school teacher Mayo Carter, was honored with the Lillian D. Reed Volunteer Award for her support of local history education and efforts to connect the public to the past at HFFI events and throughout the community. This award, given to a dedicated volunteer, is named for one of HFFI’s founders. Lillian Dooley Reed (1903–1998) was an outstanding area preservationist who championed HFFI’s earliest efforts to save and relocate the two-story brick dependency from behind the National Bank, now home to Foode restaurant.    

Linda Billard received the President’s Exceptional Service Award this year in recognition of her unflagging support and invaluable editing and writing skills for HFFI’s publications for many years. Ms. Billard is a retired writer/editor, who has supported the production of many HFFI publications, including the 2018 book, Home for the Holidays: Historic Fredericksburg’s Candlelight Tradition.

Mayo Carter, 2024 Lillian D. Reed Volunteer Award (left); Linda Billard, President’s Exceptional Service Award (right).

Two individuals received the President’s Special Recognition Award. The first is historian and author, Dr. Keith Littlefield, who grew up in Fredericksburg and continues to research and publish local history. His most recent book is From New Post to Princess Anne St: The Postal History of Fredericksburg, Virginia 1657–1990. The second recipient of a Special Recognition Award is Michael Way, a project manager with Island Architects in Richmond. Mr. Way was recognized for volunteering his time and expertise to retrieve and reformat measured drawings of the Renwick Courthouse, Wallace Library, and Old Jail. This documentation has already been used to assist the ongoing structural analysis of the tower by REI Engineering and will reduce the cost of any future rehabilitation work at the complex.

Dr. Keith Littlefield (left) and Michael Way (right), President’s Special Recognition Awards

The last individual honored at HFFI’s meeting was Noel G. Harrison, recipient of the Dr. Edward D. Alvey, Jr. Education Award. Named in honor of Alvey (1902–1999), a former Dean and Professor of Education at Mary Washington College and past president of HFFI, the award recognizes Harrison’s significant contributions since 1984 toward the advancement of preservation-related education. A cultural resource specialist with the National Park Service at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, and specializing since 2007 on the management of Park Service-held conservation easements, Harrison is an exemplary scholar of histories well beyond Fredericksburg and regularly shares his knowledge in regional publications. He has written definitive reference guides to local sites of historical importance to the Civil War, including Fredericksburg Civil War Sites, Volumes I & II (1995); Chancellorsville Battlefield Sites (1990); and A Walking Tour of Civil War Sites on the Campus of Mary Washington College (1993). Harrison was also a regular contributor to the National Park Service’s website, Mysteries & Conundrums: Exploring the Civil War-Era Landscape in the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania Region and has written articles for HFFI publications. Fellow cultural resource specialist at the National Park Service Eric Mink presented the award on behalf of HFFI, and many local researchers posed for a group photograph to show their appreciation.

Noel G. Harrison (left) and select published works (right), 2024 Dr. Edward D. Alvey, Jr. Education Award

The final two HFFI awards recognized the act of preservation through the rehabilitation of historically significant resources in the Fredericksburg. One project was spearheaded by the University of Mary Washington and the other by the Virginia Railway Express. 

In the UMW project, the university undertook a historically sensitive rehabilitation project to adaptively reuse the 1931 Seacobeck Hall designed by architect Charles Robinson. The project converted the former dining hall into a mix of “classrooms and lab space with the latest technologies, faculty offices, collaboration and group work rooms, student organization spaces, a large assembly space, a curriculum lab, and makerspace,” according to architects at the Richmond firm Hanbury. Members of Hanbury’s design team and the Whiting-Turner Contracting Company joined Capital Outlay Director, Gary Hobson, of UMW in accepting HFFI’s E. Boyd Graves Preservation Award, presented by Professor Michael Spencer, author of UMW’s Campus Preservation Plan and acting Chair of the Department of Historic Preservation. The E. Boyd Graves Preservation Award is named for one of HFFI’s founding members who played an instrumental role in protecting, preserving, and adaptively reusing some of Fredericksburg’s most recognizable historic landmarks.

Left to right: G. Scott Walker; Michael Spencer; Robert V. Reis (Hanbury); Gary Hobson; Yatharth Shukla, Paige, and Bryan Ozlin (The Whiting-Turner Contracting Company); Danae Peckler: Seacobeck Hall, 2024 E. Boyd Graves Preservation Award.

HFFI recognized another notable preservation project by the Virgina Railway Express (VRE) to preserve the Fredericksburg train station’s 1927 concrete platform and Sophia, Caroline, and Charles street overpasses. Designed by noted engineer John E. Greiner & Company in 1924, the platform and overpasses are a connected series of form-poured, reinforced-concrete structures that carry the elevated tracks through downtown. VRE’s laudable effort required skillful precision and technologically advanced techniques to properly analyze existing conditions, remove deteriorated fabric, conserve sound historic material, and make necessary repairs. Recognizing the significance of this historic transportation resource and the vital economic role it serves in our community, HFFI gave its Preservation Spark Award to VRE CEO Rich Dalton and Fredericksburg Station Project Manager Kip Foster. Fredericksburg City Council members Jannan Holmes, who represents the city on the VRE Operations Board, and William Mackintosh, Ms. Holmes’ alternate on the VRE board, were also in attendance.

Left to right: Danae Peckler; Rich Dalton and Kip Foster (VRE); Jannan Holmes and William Mackintosh (Fredericksburg City Council members/representatives): Fredericksburg Train Station Project, 2024 Preservation Spark Award.

HFFI’s Board of Directors is pleased to honor these exceptional individuals and organizations for their unwavering commitment to preserving Fredericksburg’s rich history, architectural legacy, and cultural landscape. Their dedication serves as inspiration to us all, reminding us of the important ways that historic preservation nurtures our collective memory and challenges us to learn from the past.

Most Affordable Housing Isn’t New

We all support increasing the supply of housing within Fredericksburg city limits. We just don’t have much of a shared understanding about what that growth will look like—what types of new housing is best suited for which locations or what kind of benefits and trade-offs are expected in those places.

Our city is not alone in grappling with the current housing crisis and this is not the first time local residents have voiced concern about rapid growth’s impact on the community; shown interest in preserving the character of their neighborhood; and struggled with the rising cost of housing.

A look back at vision statements, goals, planning documents, and action plans produced by our elected leaders and professionals on City staff over the last two decades reveals a consistent dialogue about Fredericksburg’s future with the simultaneous desire to grow AND preserve this community.

It is widely acknowledged that the most “affordable” housing units are within older, smaller buildings on smaller, narrow lots. Densely developed from the start, these spaces are essential, critical components of a city’s housing stock—yet they are also at the highest risk. The last 30 years or more across Virginia, areas with increasing development pressure saw these older resources become soft targets for neglect and demolition as profit margins from newer, bigger buildings rose.

In the last decade, several less “historic” and “attractive” houses have disappeared around town. Perhaps you have noticed one or two?

This circa-1900 house at 619 Lafayette Blvd was demolished in November 2020.
Located outside the local historic district, the now-vacant lot at 619 Lafayette Blvd and the turn-of-the-century, working-class houses that flank it are documented historic resources within Fredericksburg’s “Extended Historic District”—an area determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places that includes much of the Lafayette corridor and older neighborhoods north of it. These four contiguous lots are zoned as Creative Maker District and owned by the same entity (January 2024).

Some people say that is “the way of things”—older smaller buildings should be sacrificed for progress. Short-sighted and wasteful, this thinking has eroded the historic fabric and collective memory of many American cities.

Fredericksburg’s existing residential resources—in and out of the historic district—are the most vital and affordable components of our housing stock. What kind of support is available for individual property owners and smaller-scale real estate investors who wish to maintain and significantly rehabilitate these assets? 

A June 2023 report produced by a nationally recognized expert compiled nearly a dozen ways the City of Fredericksburg could incentivize the preservation of our built environment—none of which place any restrictions on property owners or City staff.

So if we, as a locality, are going to change the rules in support of new housing construction, why hasn’t the City Council moved with equal speed to encourage and support those seeking to preserve and update our existing stock? We hope that our elected representatives will join HFFI and engage whole-heartedly in the thought-provoking dialogues occurring throughout the Preservation community, particularly at the local level. Because we can all agree that Fredericksburg should do as much as we can to promote the preservation and rehabilitation of its most affordable, most sustainable, and most culturally diverse housing type.


More About the Connections Between Preservation, Affordable Housing, & Increasing Density:

Older, Smaller, Better: Measuring how the character of buildings and blocks influences urban vitality” National Trust for Historic Preservation Green Lab, May 2014. Analysis of data from three major American cities shows that areas with a mix of older, smaller buildings perform better than districts with larger, newer structures when tested against a range of economic, social, and environmental outcome measures.

“Affordable Housing and Historic Preservation: Opportunities in 2024.” National Trust for Historic Preservation webinar featuring expert panelists from the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation (ACHP), American Planning Association (APA), and an conservation architect working in the private sector who examine the opportunities and strategies for changing federal policy and expand the marketplace for utilizing historic and older buildings to increase the supply of housing nationwide.

Why Housing Policy Should Include More Funding for Home Repairs” by Todd Swanstrom and John N. Robinson III – August 17, 2023 – Researchers found that older homeowners in St. Louis averaged $13,000 in unmet home repairs. Here’s how advocates can measure home repair need in their own cities, and why repairs make a difference.

Densifying Suburbs Is the Better Path to Housing Affordability” by Alan Mallach -August 10, 2020 – Alan Mallach responds to critiques of his assessment of urban versus suburban upzoning.

Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s Policy Statement on Housing and Historic Preservation. Finalized in December 2023, the ACHP’s “policy statement discusses the need for more incentives – including expanded rehabilitation tax credits, plus energy and housing credits that work well with rehab credits – to promote rehabilitation of historic buildings for housing and the need to remove disincentives. For instance, changes to zoning codes could encourage greater density and availability of housing, and allow for mixed uses and for creation of housing in historic buildings in areas where it is now prohibited…. [It also] supports the federal government making underutilized historic government buildings available for housing development and developing expanded guidance regarding reuse and rehabilitation of historic properties for housing…. [It further] encourages consultation and engagement with Indian Tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations, disadvantaged and underserved communities and communities with environmental justice concerns, all of which are disproportionately affected by the housing shortage. Another focus of the document is the need for research and sharing of information about the costs, benefits, incentives, and disincentives associated with rehabilitating historic buildings for housing.”  

HFFI supports expert’s Preservation Recommendations and the creation of Preservation Advisory Group

Throughout 2023, Fredericksburg city staff and Historic Resources Planner, Kate Schwartz, worked with Heritage Arts of North Carolina LLC to enhance incentives and non-regulatory tools for preservation and to update the city’s spot blight/demolition-by-neglect provisions (see Chapter 8, Goal 2). Heritage Arts is a North Carolina-based historic preservation consulting services firm owned and operated by Dan Becker.

Becker, a nationally recognized expert in the field of Preservation Planning and Policy, is familiar with Fredericksburg’s preservation and planning initiatives. In 2021, HFFI hired him to provide an independent review of the city’s updated Preservation Plan and Historic District Guidelines. At that time, Becker also reviewed the City Council’s 2036 Vision and Comprehensive Plan along with related program and budget documents to get a broader sense of the principles, goals, and activities shaping our community.

The current investigation reviewed Fredericksburg’s existing preservation economic development tools and “demolition-by-neglect” provisions and gathered input from local stakeholders through a strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis survey. HFFI volunteers invested many hours to complete the SWOT survey and participated in a work session, along with city planning staff and representatives from the Architectural Review Board, FXBG Main Street, and UMW’s Department of Historic Preservation, to discuss these matters.

The results of this collaborative effort are documented in Becker’s report entitled, Historic Preservation Recommendations: Economic Incentives and Spot Blight/Demolition by Neglect, presented by Historic Resources Planner, Kate Schwartz, to the public and City Council at their work session on September 12, 2023.

The report presents recommendations to strengthen local preservation tools and boost their effectiveness. However, the measures outlined in this report go far beyond preservation to support a multitude of Comprehensive Plan goals and initiatives in the sectors of business, transportation, and public services to:

  • foster a more livable community;
  • promote sustainability in our built environment;
  • retain neighborhood character;
  • strengthen business and employment opportunities; and
  • enrich Fredericksburg’s cultural experience for visitors and residents alike.

One of the most important recommendations in Becker’s report calls for a citywide Historic Preservation Economic Impact Study. Local preservationists have long advocated such a study, which has been listed as a Preservation goal on the City Council’s 3-Year Priority Task List since 2021. This kind of economic assessment is long overdue for a town as historically rich as Fredericksburg! It should also study preservation’s impacts beyond the boundary of our Old and Historic District to provide insight into the beneficial ripple effects that conserving the built environment of our community has on other “quality of life” indicators such as affordability, walkability, sustainability, job production, and cultural enhancement.

HFFI fully supports the findings of this report and hopes that the Council will not shortchange this important subject. Talk to your council representatives and those running for office to raise their awareness of the value of the report’s recommendations to Fredericksburg residents! Consider asking them: “Are you familiar with the new Preservation Incentives report? What about it resonates most with you? Will you support its recommendations to strengthen FXBG’s preservation incentives and encourage investment in the repair/rehabilitation of our existing building stock?”

But wait, there’s more good news!

HFFI also fully supports city staff’s proposal to establish the Historic Preservation Advisory Group. The creation of this group is another goal from the 2021 Preservation Plan (Chapter 8, Goal 7). Its purpose is to draw from local expertise in the field to assist the city in furthering best practices and support the Council’s vision to be “a proven leader in historic preservation.” Although this group was also discussed at the September 12, 2023, work session, no written document is yet available on the city’s document center. However, the discussion during the work session indicated that the new group’s participants would include an appointed Council member and representatives from HFFI, UMW’s Preservation Department, the National Park Service, Fredericksburg Main Street, and the City’s Museum Work Group.

HFFI is ready to participate in and support this new advisory group, assist city staff and hired consultants with technical support, and to continue serve as a preservation advocate and resource for the community.

Want to learn more on this topic?

Preserving the Renwick (2023 edition)

Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, Inc. is pleased to see that the City has begun discussing the future of the Renwick Complex with the public once again, and we are glad to have been asked to participate in the newly established “Renwick Working Group” charged with finding a new path forward for its future.   

It’s been a couple of years since the Renwick was discussed at City Council, but it first appeared in 2023 on the January 10 work session agenda when the idea was floated to sell the entire complex to a private developer-this did not resonate well with many in attendance, according to observer accounts. The second time it came before the Council was at its March 14 regular meeting where some local leaders seemed unaware of the added benefits derived from individual listing on the National Register of Historic Places particularly state and federal grants (Cut to the Council Agenda around 39:00-59:00 to watch that March 14 discussion: https://www.regionalwebtv.com/fredcc). 

The third time the subject was on the agenda was at the May 23 work session where a hired consultant, Paige Pollard of Commonwealth Preservation Group (CPG), gave a presentation that focused on finding and funding a new use for the property. City Manager, Tim Baroody, also addressed upcoming rehabilitation work to stabilize the Renwick tower–said to be completed by the end of the summer. Ms. Pollard continues to be involved with the City’s effort to plan for the Renwick’s future and has been hired to support City staff as part of the Renwick Working Group, an 11-member advisory committee created by City Council on June 13, 2023.

The Renwick complex continues to be a topic of discussion at HFFI Board meetings. Our organization sent two letters to Fredericksburg’s City Council about the courthouse in April 2023 to advocate for critical maintenance work needed to prevent its further deterioration. The first letter renewed HFFI’s 2019 offer to split the cost of preparing a National Register nomination to analyze and quantify the historic significance of our unique, one-of-a-kind, Gothic Revival courthouse. HFFI’s second letter expressed our concern for much-needed basic maintenance at the complex sevens years after a Historic Structures Report (HSR) detailed the work needed to preserve it.

We will pay a high price for this deferred maintenance, and in more ways than one. While we have watched the original cupola windows deteriorate and fall apart over the last few years, other less visible matters remain unabated, possibly worsening over time and potentially creating new problems. Ultimately, the cost of continued negligence includes 1) a loss of authenticity and material integrity of the building(s); 2) higher costs for the materials and labor needed to repair/replace damaged fabric or address bigger/new problems; and 3) a reduction in the entire complex’s property value. The immediate maintenance needs of the complex should not be deferred a moment longer.

Why does HFFI think the preparation of a nomination is worth starting ASAP? Because its national historic significance would enable greater access to federal grants like “Save America’s Treasures” that can match up to $750,000 bricks-and-mortar preservation work. And getting additional grant funding is not such a long shot! As long as the building remains publicly owned, there are many more funding sources available to assist in its careful and sensitive rehabilitation.

What about Commonwealth Preservation Group’s suggestion at the May 23, 2023 work session to hold off on preparing a nomination until the new use has been selected? This is a fine suggestion but is geared more toward planning for the use of historic tax credits by a public-private group or private entity for rehabilitation than anything else. While it’s fine to wait for complete answers to the future use of all three buildings, it’s also fine to update an existing National Register nomination. The Courthouse’s “national level” of significance is all about its original architecture and design. Thus, the period of time that supports its national-level significance (a.k.a. “period of significance”) will not change. We know it will extend from 1849 until 1852 when James Renwick, Jr. was creating and shaping the courthouse complex. Obtaining official recognition of its national significance could take 6 months to a year. Add a little more time to apply for state and federal grants, and you can see why HFFI is anxious to finish what we advocated for back in 2019 and got started for the City in 2020 when we submitted the preliminary paperwork to the State Historic Preservation Office, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR).

What other sources of revenue are available other than historic tax credits? Historic tax credits (HTCs) are the most-popular financial incentives in the repair and rehabilitation of National Register-listed properties, yet this beneficial tool is designated and reserved for taxable entities. And Virginia supports the owners of historic commercial and residential buildings with one of the highest credits in the country! Non-profit organizations and localities can play a strong role in HTC projects, but non-taxable entities are not typically in the driver’s seat.

Sale or Lease: Another source of immediate revenue could be derived from the sale or long-term lease of any portion of the property. The market value of the Wallace Library alone has been estimated at around $1 million, but a long-term lease of the library or any building in the complex could generate consistent revenue to offset the cost of its preservation.

Grants: Additional sources of revenue are available to support the preservation of historic resources in Virginia, many of which can be applied to publicly-owned buildings like courthouses. The DHR’s Financial Incentives Guide “is a comprehensive listing of major sources of funding and tax incentives that Virginia’s citizens and local governments can use to preserve and capitalize upon historic sites. Whether you are a private homeowner, commercial investor, developer, planner, mortgage lender, banker, or real estate agent, this guide will prove a valuable resource to identifying current financial tools and incentives for rehabilitating historic buildings, districts, and cultural landscapes.” Other grants for preservation are available from national sources, like the Save America’s Treasures program. Once the Renwick Courthouse’s national level of significance is proven through an individual National Register nomination and subsequent listing, more doors to support the future preservation of the property will be opened.

Want to learn more about the Renwick Working Group and what’s being discussed about the future of the complex? HFFI will continue to provide regular updates to our members as this critical moment in our town’s preservation history unfurls, but members of the public are welcome to attend any of the Renwick Working Group meetings. The first meeting took place on July 13, 2023, and outlined the charges set forth for the committee by City Council. Further discussion was held this past Thursday (August 24th) at the group’s second meeting of the group.

Stay tuned as HFFI continues to provide updates and share news on this important topic in local preservation! The public is also welcome to attend upcoming Renwick group meetings – scheduled for September 28th, October 26th, and November 16th. Check the City’s calendar and agenda center to find the latest information and further details!

 

A Closer Examination of Historical Significance: The Charles Dick House and J.W. Masters’ Domestic Outbuilding at 204 Lewis Street