John J. Ballentine, Jr., Fredericksburg Architect

John Jennings Ballentine, Jr., Fredericksburg Architect

By Michael Spencer, Assistant Professor University of Mary Washington, Department of Historic Preservation


Fredericksburg Post Office_1973_Ballentine-crop-v2-999x332

Early design for the Fredericksburg Post Office, Princess Anne Street-John Ballentine, Jr.


John Jennings Ballentine Jr. was born August 5, 1923 in Baltimore, Maryland to John and Catherine Ballentine. Ballentine’s father worked as an early aviator for the U.S. Navy and his position often required that the family move.[1] By high school Ballentine had lived in Yorktown, Dalgren, Newport News and Washington, D.C. Upon graduating high school, John Jr. enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania where he studied architecture.[2] There Ballentine would study under some of the best modernists of the era including Arthur F. Deam, Harry Parker, John E. Screet, Edward Wigham and Harry Sternfeld who combined art deco and international style design in many of his projects.[3] Upon receiving his degree Ballentine enlisted with the U.S. Navy, following in his father’s footsteps.[4] Upon completion of his service he moved to Fredericksburg where he began to practice architecture.[5]

One of Ballentine’s early successes was the shopping center he designed in 1956 for George and Francis King at 320-324 William Street, on the site of the 19th century Chancellor building, today known as Castiglia’s. The design utilized modern materials like steel and concrete block for the structural system, but used brick, stone veneer, and cast stone for exterior cladding to blend sympathetically with surrounding 19th century buildings. However, not all the exterior material used was based on local historic context. Ceramic tiles were installed around the bottom of the building and large, canted, plate-glass windows, with anodized aluminum surrounds, were installed along the primary elevations giving the building a “light” appearance. The elevations also echoed midcentury modern architecture with a strong horizontal emphasis created by the flat roof and projecting linear marquee. Two stone veneer stacks, reminiscent of nearby chimneys interrupt this horizontality and denote the changing of store spaces.[6] At the time, the newspaper remarked that the building was a “combination of colonial and modern architecture,”—attesting to Ballentine’s sympathetic, yet contemporary design.[7] Later local art and architectural critic Pauline G. King, Chairman of the Art Department at Mary Washington College, referred to the building as an example of “excellent design.” Her evaluation noted that the scale and materials were in keeping with the downtown but the overall design was “unmistakably of the twentieth century.”[8]

Another one of Ballentine’s designs, the Fredericksburg Public Health Center, was built in 1959 and also displays a well-contextualized midcentury modern appearance with large windows and a flat roof. Initial schematics for the building, however, show a more progressive design that was somewhat diminished over the course of a series of reviews, perhaps reflecting Fredericksburg’s conservative architectural tastes, left over from the late-19th and early-20th centuries.[9]

Ballentine continued to practice architecture in Fredericksburg during the 1960s but also took on another role in 1965 as the President of Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc. There he implemented a revolving fund program that purchased properties beginning with the 500 block of Caroline Street with the intent to preserve them. During a later interview Ballentine recalls that they “never really pulled it off”, however other preservation efforts by Ballentine were successful.[10] One notable success was his time as chairman on the Board of Historic Buildings, the precursor to today’s Architectural Review Board (ARB). Not only was he the first chairman beginning in 1967 but would continue to serve well into the 1970s taken on controversial projects like the Post Office building on Princess Anne Street.[11]

After years of service to Fredericksburg’s design and preservation communities, Ballentine passed away in 2007 leaving behind a significant community legacy.[12]




[1] U.S. Social Security Death Records Index, 1935-2014

[2] Free Lance-Star, John Ballentine Jr. Obituary, June 12, 2007

[3] University of Pennsylvania 1940-1950 Yearbooks

[4] Free Lance-Star, John Ballentine Jr. Obituary, June 12, 2007

[5] Examination of Ballentine drawings, HFFI collection, stored at UMW, 2015-16

[6] John J. Ballentine Jr., “Shopping Center Drawings, Street Elevations, Sheet No. 5”, July 20, 1956.

[7] “Old Landmark’s Future Awaits Bid Opening,” Free Lance-Star, August 23, 1956, 1.

[8] Pauline G. King, “Plan is Called ‘Aesthetic Prostitution’”, Free Lance-Star, December 11, 1973, 4.

[9] John J. Ballentine Jr., “Conceptual Designs for the Fredericksburg Public Health Center” (1958-1959)

[10] Free Lance-Star, “HFFIs 15 Years Old”, September 12, 1970, pg. A-13

[11] Free Lance-Star, “Council Names Six to Panels”, December 13, 1967

[12] Free Lance-Star, John Ballentine Jr. Obituary, June 12, 2007