Monday, January 31, 2011

Downtown Historic District

First settled in 1732, the city of Staunton (pronounced STAN-ton) is named for Lady Rebecca Staunton, who was the wife of Virginia’s Colonial Governor William Gooch. He named the town after his English wife.

Staunton is in the heart of Virginia’s storied Shenandoah Valley and at one time was the geographical center of the state, which once stretched westward all the way to the Mississippi River and encompassed parts of what is now West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Given its central location and fertile setting, it quickly developed into an early center for trade and commerce, particularly for the export of agricultural products.

Its importance was cemented in 1854 with the arrival of the Virginia Central Railroad, and its heyday was as a railroad town. Staunton became a center of banking, manufacturing and retail trade in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1856, future President Woodrow Wilson was born to a local Presbyterian minister and his wife. Wilson's restored birthplace and Presidential Library and Museum attract thousands of tourists. The city was largely spared from destruction during the Civil War, a significant factor in the remarkable number of historic structures that have been preserved in the downtown area. Staunton, which has experienced a remarkable renaissance in recent years, is an intriguing, often quirky choice for tourists who are looking for attractions a bit more off the beaten path. This blog will introduce a few of them to you.

Illustration of Staunton, circa 1851 (click to enlarge).

Architect T.J. Collins came to Staunton from Washington, DC, in 1891 and in a mere twenty years designed or remodeled over two hundred buildings, most of which exist today. Collins designed the gatehouse (photo below), bridge, tower, tombs and other structures at Thornrose Cemetery, which contains more than 1,770 graves of Confederate soldiers.

Note: Photos on this blog from Staunton's web site and from links displayed on web site.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Woodrow Wilson Birthplace

The nation’s 28th president comes to life in a tour of the 12-room Greek Revival Presbyterian manse furnished with items appropriate to the time of his birth here in 1856. As president elect in 1912, Wilson returned to Staunton on his 56th birthday and spent the night in the house in which he was born. The museum next door houses the only presidential library in Virginia, even though eight presidents were born in the state. The museum offers much to learn about the president’s life as a lawyer, college professor, president of Princeton University, U.S. president and peacemaker following World War I, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as the Founder of the League of Nations (the predecessor of today’s United Nations). His controversial veto of prohibition legislation (congress overrode his veto) and enactment of a national income tax are also explored. On the plus side, his administration gave women the right to vote and established Mother's Day as a national holiday. The terraced boxwood gardens and Wilson’s restored Pierce-Arrow limousine are part of the tour. The automobile has been restored to full working order, and the car traveled to Washington DC for the dedication of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge on May 15, 2008.

Hours: 9-5 Mon-Sat, noon-5 Sun Mar-Oct; 10-4 Mon-Sat, noon-4 Sun Nov-Feb. Adults $14, Senior/AAA/Active Military $12. 540-885-0897. 18 N. Coalter St.

Wilson was the first lay president of Princeton University.
He was the only president to retire to Washington, DC and is buried in Washington National Cathedral (Episcopal) alongside his second wife, an Episcopalian.
Himself the son of a Presbyterian minister, Wilson's mother and first wife were both daughters of Presbyterian ministers.

Below: Bow knot boxwood garden and gazebo at rear of house. The Wilson family never knew anything like it, because during the short time they were in residence, the rear yard was home to outbuildings, pigs and chickens. The local chapter of the Garden Club of Virginia installed these handsome boxwood gardens in the 1930s; they hired famed Richmond based landscape architect Charles Gillette to design them.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Silent film star William Haines

William Haines (shown at left with Joan Crawford) was the top grossing male film star of 1930. Mostly unknown today, he was born in Staunton on January 1, 1900, at the birth of a new century. He went to local schools and even sang in the choir of the Episcopal Church. Deciding early on that Staunton was too small a town for the likes of him, he ran away from home at age 14 and never looked back. With no training as an actor, he became an MGM contract player in 1922, and "Brown of Harvard" (1926) was his star-making movie role. The house he was born in still stands at 419 N. New Street.

BROWN OF HARVARD (1926) MGM silent film
86 minutes; Black & White; 8 reels

An early example of the “buddy film” genre. Starring William Haines, Jack Pickford (brother of Mary), Mary Brian, Francis X. Bushman Jr., Mary Alden, David Torrence. Adapted from the 1909 stage play by Rida Johnson Young, directed by Jack Conway. This is a silent film rendering of Young’s play, a drama about friendship, loyalty, compassion and growing up from a boy to a man.

Haines plays Tom Brown, a breezy youth with a Don Juan reputation who is a freshman at Harvard. He soon locks horns with Bob McAndrews, a studious, reserved boy who becomes his chief rival for the affections of Mary Abbott, a professor's daughter. Brown rooms with Jed Doolittle, an awkward but good-hearted youth who comes to idolize him. At a party, Brown forcibly kisses Mary, and a tussle with McAndrews follows. Brown challenges MacAndrews as stroker on the college rowing team but loses. When Brown replaces MacAndrews in a rowing match against Yale, Tom is disgraced and decides not to return to Harvard the next year. However, he is persuaded by his father to go back to fight for the girl. During the following semester Brown believes that he has been cut from the football team and leaves campus. Jed Doolittle, his "half-pint" roommate, learns that the coach wants Brown to play and gets out of bed to find him, even though he is sick with fever. In a deluge of rain, after riding on the outside of a train, he eventually finds Brown and gets him to report to the coach for the big Harvard-Yale game, which is the climax of the film. Doolittle, by this time in grave physical condition, checks himself into the hospital while the game is on. At a crucial moment in the game Brown gives his rival MacAndrews a chance to score. After injuring his ankle, Brown captures the honors of the game, is acclaimed a hero and is happily united with Mary. When he goes to tell Doolittle of the victory, Brown learns that his roommate has died.

This silent film is a pot-boiler of suspense, maudlin sentiment and comedy – and of lessons painfully learned. Haines reworked this winning buddy-film formula in several subsequent films: “Tell it to the Marines” with Lon Chaney and “West Point” with Joan Crawford, who became Haines’s best friend in Hollywood. In each he plays a brash smart aleck who takes nothing seriously until he is rejected, then wises up and becomes a man/hero and wins the girl.

Trivia: The football scenes and those of the boat race are real. The football game includes actual footage from a Harvard football match. In addition, we are treated to an uncredited cameo by John Wayne, which is widely regarded as Wayne's first-ever appearance on film, playing the part of a Yale football player (Wayne was a player for USC in real life).
Jack Pickford (half-pint Doolittle) was the established star of the cast (Haines had heretofore played only secondary roles). At only 29 years old when the film was made, Pickford's star was already in decline due to acute alcoholism; he was dead by the age of 37. Haines stole the movie from Pickford.
Some of the witty silent film titles (by famed humorist Donald Ogden Stewart) were inspired by Haines' own ad-libbing on the set, and the entire film was shot in just three weeks.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Shakespeare at Blackfriar’s Playhouse

The 300-seat Blackfriars Playhouse is the world's only re-creation of Shakespeare's original indoor theater. Opened in 2001, the playhouse offers the works of Shakespeare presented under original conditions, on a simple stage, without elaborate sets, and with the audience sharing the same lighting as the actors. Actors play multiple roles and interact with the audience. Home to the American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars offers performances year round. Located at 10 S. Market Street, adjacent to the Stonewall Jackson Hotel. 540.851.1733.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Stonewall Jackson Hotel

Located in the historic Red Brick downtown quarter of Staunton, this 124-room hotel captures the spirit, history and charm of the old South. Originally built in 1924, the property underwent a complete top to bottom renovation in 2005 and has been painstakingly restored to its original grandeur. The hotel boasts an indoor swimming pool, hot tub, lobby bar, restaurant and fitness center.

The original Wurlitzer theatre organ on the mezzanine of the two story lobby was also restored to full playing condition, although the hotel staff says that the sound is too loud for live entertainment; instead, the hotel plays recordings of the organ during Christmas and other holiday occasions. The Georgian-style, red brick structure was designed by renowned architect H.L. Stevens, cost $440,000 to build in the 1920s and boasted every major technical innovation of the day. Today the property is a member of the Historic Hotels of America division of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mary Baldwin College

Founded in 1842 as Augusta Female Seminary, Mary Baldwin College is one of the oldest institutions of higher education for women in the United States. The school was established as a Presbyterian seminary (teacher's college; at the time, only unmarried women could be school teachers) by Rufus Wm. Bailey, a minister and teacher from Maine. After plans for the school were approved by the ministers and members of the Presbyterian churches of Augusta County, the seminary opened with Bailey as principal, and the first charter was granted by the Virginia General Assembly in 1845. The school's first building, now the Administration Building, was built adjacent to the First Presbyterian Church of Staunton. In 1872 the church building and land were given to the school. Until it was demolished in 1962, the church building was known as Waddell Chapel, in which Thomas Woodrow Wilson, twenty-eighth President of the United States, was baptized in 1857. His father, Reverend Joseph Ruggles Wilson, was minister of the First Presbyterian Church at the time and also served as chaplain to the Augusta Female Seminary.

It is likely that the seminary would not have survived the Civil War period except for the efforts of Mary Julia Baldwin, who became principal in 1863. The courage and ingenuity of Baldwin and her assistant, Agnes McClung, enabled the school to remain open when nearly every other school in the Shenandoah Valley was forced to close because the area was a continual battlefield between Union and Confederate armies. The seminary became Mary Baldwin Junior College in 1916 and a four-year college in 1923, when the name was changed to Mary Baldwin College.

Associated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Mary Baldwin is today a private, independent four-year liberal arts women's college that also offers co-ed graduate and adult degree programs. It is unique for its Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership program for female cadets, affiliated with nearby Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, intended to satisfy non-discrimination laws that forced a legal challenge to all-male VMI. The state proposed that single-sex leadership programs, with opportunity for commissioning into the military, be offered at Mary Baldwin College and at VMI, while co-educational military opportunities be continued at Virginia Tech; funding to design the program was provided by VMI. Mary Baldwin also hosts the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted, a program designed for girls 12–16 years of age to earn a bachelor's degree from the college.

The college now incorporates the buildings and grounds of the Staunton Military Academy that closed in the mid-1970s. The Mary Baldwin College Main Building (photo below), built in 1844, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 along with Hilltop, another campus structure.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Willy Ferguson's Sculptures

Willy Ferguson, 61, is a welder and sculptor who operates a metal-fabrication shop, but is best known for his oversized metal sculptures of carbon steel: to wit, Staunton’s giant watering can and flower pots at the intersection of U.S. 250 and U.S. 11 and a huge book outside the town’s library.

The son of a Scottish father and a Sicilian mother, Ferguson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. He came to the U.S. at age seven, when his family settled in Staunton. At the time they lived on the grounds of Western State Hospital, a facility for the mentally ill, where his father was a physician.

After his parents divorced, his father wanted him to go to college, but Ferguson decided on welding school in Richmond. He has built Ferguson Metal Fabrication into a successful operation. Sculptures are a small portion of his business, but by far the most recognizable. People tend to remember giant milk cans, plows and apples. Ten of his works are listed in the Inventory of American Sculpture as part of the Smithsonian's "Save Outdoor Sculpture!" program. These enormous works also represent the most enjoyable work for him and his only full-time employee, Jim Chestnut, who makes medieval armor in his spare time and whose great-grandfather was a blacksmith. They do it with no blueprints, no engineers, no computers. Ferguson doesn’t even own a cell phone.

Not everyone in Staunton had an appreciation for large pieces of metal art. When the watering can (18 ft. tall and 20 ft. wide) and flower pots, commissioned by the local garden club, were installed at a busy intersection in 1999, a mini-brouhaha ensued. Some thought the works an eyesore; others found them amusing and capricious. The controversy eventually passed, and the watering can and pots are still there, on either side of a railroad bridge, now considered iconic Staunton landmarks.

Below is Ferguson's own Big Foot sculpture, alongside the driveway to his workplace.

Trinity Church

The present red brick Gothic Revival church building, the third to occupy the site, was constructed in 1855, and twelve of the stained glass windows are made of opalescent glass from the studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany, dating from the first decades of the 20th century.

The historic churchyard contains the graves of 17 known Revolutionary War soldiers. Until 1853, when Thornrose Cemetery was opened, the Trinity churchyard was the town’s public burying ground, dating back to the 1750s. In July 1781, Virginia's general assembly fled to Staunton to escape the advancing British forces; while here they elected Thomas Nelson as governor in a session held at the original Trinity Church building (Nelson replaced Thomas Jefferson); present for this session were Patrick Henry and Daniel Boone. During the Civil War, Virginia Theological Seminary moved from Alexandria to Staunton, using Trinity Church as its base.

The church gallery contains a magnificent organ installed in 1999 by world renowned tracker action pipe organ builder Taylor & Boody, whose factory is located in a renovated school building three miles west of downtown Staunton. As well, a recently constructed open air labyrinth is available for use during daytime hours.

Trivia: Presbyterians played an important part in the history of Trinity Church. When Augusta County was founded (split from Orange County), Virginia's governor ordered that a parish of the Church of England be established in Staunton. Upon its founding in 1746, the first 12-member vestry included nine Presbyterians, because there were not enough members of the Church of England in the area; only one member of that first vestry was an official member of the Church of England, which was the mandated church of Virginia until the American Revolution (so long as citizens paid taxes to the Church of England, they could worship as other denominations, such as Baptists and Presbyterians). Trinity's first minister was local Presbyterian pastor John Hindman, who was shipped of to England to be ordained by the Bishop of London. Services were held in the Staunton courthouse for fourteen years, until the first brick church building was constructed on this site in 1760. Local Presbyterians did not build their first church until 1818, so they worshiped at Trinity up until that time.

Trinity Episcopal Church is located on Beverley St. at the corner of Lewis St. on the western edge of downtown's Red Brick District. 540-886-9132

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Frontier Culture Museum

This museum is an open air demonstration of living history, telling the story of the people who migrated from Europe to America and the life they created in the Shenandoah Valley. The museum is made up of original or reproduced examples of traditional buildings from the Old World and America. The Old World exhibits include a West African farm, an English farm, an Irish farm and forge and a German farm. On site interpreters help bring the sets to life in much the same way as is done at colonial Williamsburg. The American exhibits comprise a 1740s American settlement, an 1820s American farm, an 1850s American farm, and an early American schoolhouse. 540.332.7850. Located just 1/4 mile west of I-81 at exit 222.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Statler Brothers, Native Sons

The Statler Brothers, famed country and gospel singers, share Staunton as their home town. Only two were brothers (Don and Harold Reid), and none had the surname Statler. They named themselves after a brand of facial tissue. Their career began in 1955 and ended in retirement in 2002, during which time they released 40 albums. Phil Balsley sang baritone and Jimmy Fortune sang tenor from the early 1980s, due to the ill health of original Statler tenor Lew DeWitt. A heavy dose of humor was always incorporated into their live performances. The Statler Brothers were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Gospel Hall of Fame in 2007.

Three of the singers still reside in Staunton, but Jimmy Fortune has relocated to Nashville to pursue a solo career. The group maintains a gift shop in Staunton at 1409 N. Augusta Street. Videos, recordings and memorabilia. Open Mon-Fri 11:00a to 3:00p. 540-885-7297.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Camera & Palette Museum

This privately owned enterprise includes daguerreotypes, view cameras, spy cameras, a large Leica collection and area historical photos. Highlights are a camera used by the Japanese during the Pearl Harbor attack and an official Nazi documentation camera.

Hours: 9:00 am-5:00 pm Mom-Fri; 9:00 am-2:00 pm Sat. Free. 540-886-7291. Located within a retail camera store at 1 W. Beverley Street.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Temple House of Israel

When they outgrew their meeting place on Kalaroma Street, the local Reform Jewish congregation (founded 1876) purchased a lot on North Market Street from Mary Baldwin College and engaged Sam Collins, nephew of T.J. Collins, to design a new house of worship. The cornerstone, dated 1925, was set by the local Masonic lodge. Since that time, this unique building has been in continuous use by the local Jewish community.

The building’s design is in Moorish style, rare among synagogues in the United States. The building itself, the treasured Connick stained glass windows, the Mercer ceramic tiles and other architectural details of the bima contribute to the structure’s historic and architectural significance. The stained glass windows, lights, and entry glass were designed and constructed by Charles Connick Associates of Boston. Connick, who was also responsible for the rose windows of St. Patrick's Cathedral and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, is considered second only to Tiffany in importance. Staunton’s Temple House of Israel is one of very few structures that still has the full complement of original glass as it was installed.

Rabbi Joe Blair, of Temple House of Israel, was appointed adjunct professor of religion at Mary Baldwin College in 2004. He also serves as Rabbi of Harrisonburg's Beth El Congregation.

Photo below: the architecturally distinctive ark that holds the Torah.

The former school (below) that served as home for Temple House of Israel's congregation from 1876 until 1925. It still stands, now somewhat derelict, diagonally across from the Stonewall Jackson Hotel, at the corner of Kalorama and South Market Streets.

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