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: 

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!