Please, no historical histrionics

Last week’s C-VILLE asked whether Charlottesville can be “too historical” [“City considers more historic districts,” Government News, March 13]. No. But with concerted effort Charlottesville might make slight amends for decades of neglecting its small-to-begin-with and constantly dwindling stock of historic structures.

So what about the city’s most recent “accolade”—that is, its naming as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Dozen Distinctive Destinations”? Well, the Trust’s website reveals that all communities considered for inclusion in this “august company” were nominated (rather than being selected objectively) and that only 63 communities applied (which means that almost 20 percent of entrants were guaranteed top honors). The site further notes that Charlottesville’s premier “historic” attractions—as opposed to the also cited golf courses, hot air balloon livery, et alia—are Monticello (in Albemarle County), Ash Lawn-Highland (in Albemarle County), Montpelier (in Orange County), and the University of Virginia (state property outside city control).

Indeed, the only cited “historic” attraction actually within city bounds is “the restored Paramount Theater”—a ringer by any proper preservation standard. (The Paramount was built to show movies and not equipped for any other use. To be “restored” as a performing arts center, it had to be supplied with a fly loft, an orchestra pit, even a stage deep enough to stand on at huge trouble and expense.)

I do wish Charlottesville would do something, albeit belatedly, to curate the built history it has left. So I very much wish that I could support the historic designation proposed for my area of the city. But I cannot do that because the planned “Fifeville-Castle Hill” district is so unhistoric that it is anti-historic.

I live (and research the past) in the area bounded by Ridge Street, Cherry Avenue, Fifth Street SW, and the railroad tracks. That roughly 10-acre zone was never owned by the Fife family (Fifeville’s namesakes), who began in the 1870s to plat portions of their Oak Lawn farm for building lots. The creation of my zone’s streetscheme, together with the establishment of both Ridge Street and Fifth Street as public thoroughfares, dates to 1825 (a full half-century earlier) when Alexander Garrett (namesake for Garrett Street and UVA’s Garrett Hall) platted his Oak Hill farm

Further, my zone bears three-dimensional witness to the important life and legacy of Allen W. Hawkins (ca. 1800-1855). Hawkins came here as a teenaged brick mason to help build UVA’s original Academical Village (recognized today as a World Heritage site). By 1830, he had bought all the land now bounded by Ridge, Cherry, Fifth, and the tracks. And by his death, he had built multiple houses both on his property and elsewhere while also teaching his considerable skills to an array of apprentices—kin and unrelated, white and black, slave and free—who went on to be Charlottesville builders in every sense.

What’s more, at least four Allen Hawkins-built houses still stand on the land he once owned—505 Ridge St., 402 Dice St., 418 Fifth St. SW, and 406 Oak St.—and thereby constitute a unique cluster in a city where antebellum structures are truly rare treasures. Despite that eminently celebratable history, however, city planners appear determined to lump the Hawkins’ blocks and buildings into a catch-all being rushed through in a frantic attempt to catch up.

Charlottesville’s real history deserves much, much better. It would be lovely if we could skip both histrionics and hysteria and finally do the job right.

Antoinette W. Roades

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