Scattered history: The city’s 74 historic properties piece together our past

The Woolen Mills chapel dates back to 1887. Photo: Skyclad Aerial The Woolen Mills chapel dates back to 1887. Photo: Skyclad Aerial

The city of Charlottesville wasn’t incorporated until 1888, but people are recorded as living in the region as far back as 1612, when English explorer John Smith encountered a Monacan village and documented it on the very first map of Virginia.

The Native Americans gradually left as European immigrants moved in, relying on the Three Notch’d Road trade route that stretched from the Appalachian Mountains to Richmond. From there, Charlottesville grew from a small collection of settlers into the city it is today.

In addition to the local landmarks identified by the National Park Service as historical places, Charlottesville recognizes 74 individually protected properties that each contain a history that tells a chapter of our town’s story.

While the full list can be found online at the city’s website, here are 11 places that played important roles in shaping Charlottesville into the city it is today.

Woolen Mills Chapel

(1819 E. Market St.)

Dating back to the very beginnings of Charlottesville, Woolen Mills was one of the first communities to develop into a neighborhood. Several wool mills operated there as far back as 1795, but the most prominent one was situated on the east side of town; built in the 1840s, it was the workplace of most of the surrounding residents.

The mill was burned down by Union troops in 1864, but owner Henry Clay Marchant rebuilt it in a year. The wool industry became one of Albemarle County’s most successful, further expanding the surrounding neighborhood. This mill in particular specialized in making cloth for uniforms.

In 1886, a religious movement made its way through Charlottesville, prompting the mill workers to build a non-denominational chapel for their community. It was finished just in time for Christmas in 1887, before being formally consecrated on May 13, 1888. An addition was built to accommodate Sunday school classes in 1908, but the building hasn’t received any other alterations since.

The chapel represents a classic 19th-century church design, featuring tall, arching gothic doors and carved-wood pews on either side of the main aisle. Its most prominent feature is a 50-foot bell tower shaped like an octagon with green shingles.

The church remained non-denominational until 1956, when it was taken over by the Pentecostal Holiness Congregation. The Christian parish held onto it through 1964 before handing it over to the Calvary Baptist Church, which still uses it today. It was also around that time when the original woolen mill closed for good, but by that point the neighborhood had developed into much more than a community of mill workers. It will start its latest chapter next year, when local tech company WillowTree opens a new headquarters in the former mill, which will also house an events space, coffee and wine shop, and brewery.

Photo: Skyclad Aerial

C&O Coal Tower

(133-155 Carlton Rd.)

As with many Southern cities, it’s impossible to talk about the growth of Charlottesville without discussing the impact of the railroad. On June 27, 1850, the city was changed forever when the first coal train arrived, quickly making Charlottesville one of the biggest transportation hubs in Virginia.

The train station was burned down by Union troops during the Civil War, but rebuilt in 1870, opening its doors for the Chesapeake & Ohio line with the coal industry booming like never before.

By 1905, the original wooden structure was replaced by a brick station with prominent white columns out front. The coal tower next to it—also made of wood—was used until 1942, when a 91-foot concrete tower with a coal capacity of 300 tons was installed.

But as diesel trains began to replace steam engines in the mid-20th century, use of the station began to decline. Amtrak ditched the station altogether in 1979, opting to run its trains through Union Station across town instead. Commercial trains took a similar route three years later. In 1986, the coal tower closed its doors.

The station has since been demolished, but the tower is considered a significant local landmark—although it has developed a checkered history. The tower witnessed both a double homicide and an apparent suicide during the early 2000s, and has often been a gathering place for drug users.

C&O Row, an expensive townhome development, has since taken over the surrounding land, and in 2018 the Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review approved plans to create a pocket park around the tower,  complete with a covered patio and bocce court. But construction on that project—and the rehabilitation of the tower in general—has yet to begin. Meanwhile, the coal tower remains, reminding local residents of both the high and low points that took place there over the past 150 years.

Staff photo.

Jefferson School

(233 Fourth St. NW)

Opened in 1926, Jefferson High was the first high school for African Americans in Charlottesville—and only the 10th in Virginia.

The original Jefferson School, established in 1869 to educate former slaves, was a single room in the Delevan Hotel on West Main Street. It eventually expanded to grades K-8, and the Jefferson Colored Graded School was constructed at Fourth and Commerce streets (the site is now part of the parking lot of the current Jefferson School). In 1924, parents and community leaders petitioned the school board to add a high school for black students.   

Jefferson High School underwent significant renovations from 1938-39. A library and courtyard were added, part of an expansion project paid for with Public Works Administration funds.

When Jackson P. Burley High School opened in 1951 to serve African American students in both the city and the county, Jefferson High became an elementary school (the neighboring Jefferson Graded School building was demolished in 1959). As schools across the state began to integrate, attendance at the Jefferson School—despite undergoing further expansion in the late 1950s and switching to a junior high school in the ’60s—began to wane.

From 1975-1982, the Jefferson School functioned as a “swing school,” providing classrooms and facilities for other local schools in the area while they underwent renovations. In 2004, a city-appointed commission recommended that the site be used to honor Charlottesville’s African American history, leading to a nine-year process that resulted in the opening of the Jefferson School City Center.

Today the school is home to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center as well as Carver Recreation Center and nine other nonprofit organizations.

The Elijah Thomas House. Staff photo.

Tyree Thomas
and Elijah Thomas Houses

(406/410 Dice St.)

In one of the first early land purchases by an African American in Charlottesville, Tyree Thomas bought a three-quarter-acre lot in 1871—eight years after the Emancipation Proclamation. He built a house on the land three years later and sold part of it to his brother, Elijah. The structures on each of their properties laid the foundation for what is now the Fifeville and Tonsler Neighborhoods Historic District.

Both Tyree and Elijah were listed as “servants” in the 1880 census while Tyree’s wife, Lavinia, was described as “keeping house.” Although there are no official records of Tyree’s death or burial, Charlottesville’s Neighborhood Development Services estimates he died around 1898. Lavinia occupied the house with her children until the 1910s. The 1920 census places her in Philadelphia, where she lived until she died in 1932.

The Tyree Thomas House has since been used as both a private residence and rental property. It’s now in the hands of local residents Victoria Fort and Dylan McKenzie, who in 2018 submitted a Certificate of Appropriateness application for exterior renovation of nine different aspects of the house. The Board of Architectural Review unanimously approved the motion and the project, which is considered to be a long-term endeavor.

Staff photo.

Benjamin Tonsler House

(327 Sixth St. SW)

Benjamin Tonsler was born into slavery on April 2, 1854, in Albemarle County, and became a prominent educator and community leader. After attending Hampton University, Tonsler returned to Charlottesville and taught at the Jefferson Graded School, where he served as principal for nearly 30 years. Tonsler also surreptitiously tutored older students after hours, helping prepare them for college at a time when there were no local public high schools for African American students.

In the late 1870s, Tonsler purchased land on Sixth Street and built a home there, just a few years after Tyree Thomas built his. He spent 38 years there before leaving it to his family upon his death in 1917. The Tonsler family owned the land until 1983, when it was sold to Curtis Morton Jr.

Morton “put a lot of time and energy into the house,” according to a C-VILLE Weekly story from June 2019. But when it ended up in the hands of current owners Ryan Rooney and Kevin Badke, in 2016, Rooney said “the inside was extremely distressed, and we felt at risk of actually collapsing.”

The renovation progressed slowly, and the house appeared neglected for several years. Following the publication of the C-VILLE story, however, it received more attention. The front porch has now been refurbished and overgrown landscaping trimmed back.

City Preservation Manager Jeff Werner says “people seem to be pleased” about the state of the house now that it’s been cleaned up.

Staff photo.

Coca-Cola Bottling Works

(722 Preston Ave.)

One of the most recognizable landmarks in Charlottesville, the Coca-Cola bottling plant was built in 1939. The two-story red brick building was situated next to several houses, one of which was purchased in 1944 and used for 33 years as a home for employees.

Coca-Cola opened its original Charlottesville production plant in 1926, on 10th Street, in a building that was recently redeveloped into the Tenth Street Warehouses. As the economy picked up after the Great Depression, the soda maker needed a larger plant to accommodate demand and moved to Preston Avenue.

In 1941, its first year at the new plant, Coca-Cola produced 258,683 cases of its signature beverage. The facility’s distribution territory at the time included parts of Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa, Orange, and Madison counties, with a projected customer base of almost 100,000 people.

Coca-Cola used the property for production until 1973, when it was converted into a distribution center for a new Staunton bottling plant that is still used today. The building’s windows were bricked in during the early 1980s, but the facility was fully operational until 2010. That’s when the company, which only employed 42 people in Charlottesville by that point, decided to relocate to an area outside Richmond.

The building still has the iconic Coca-Cola logo emblazoned across the side, but it now houses Kardinal Hall, along with the UVA Licensing & Ventures Group, Blue Ridge Cyclery, and an energy development firm. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.

Skyclad Aerial

Monticello Dairy Building

(946 Grady Ave.)

The Dairy Central project that lawmakers have touted since it was first announced in 2017 is in full swing, eyeing a completion date in 2020 that will give the property that once housed a milk processing plant new life and an increased role in the city’s development.

The history behind the prominent building at the intersection of 10th Street and Grady Avenue began in 1912, when the Monticello Ice Cream Company sold its first scoop. The business didn’t have a set location, instead serving as the region’s first unofficial ice cream “truck,” delivering the frozen dessert around the area via horse and buggy.

When the Monticello Ice Cream Company expanded its business in the 1930s, it rebranded itself as Monticello Dairy and commissioned local architect Elmer Burruss to construct a production plant. The project was finished in 1937 and cemented the dairy company as one of the largest employers in town.

Burruss’ lasting legacy, however, was the large ice cream parlor and event room on the property, which developed into a popular gathering place for local residents. Several additions were made to the building in the 1940s and ’50s, creating space that was eventually leased out to other businesses.

The building and surrounding 4.3-acre property were sold in 2017 for almost $12 million, paving the way for the $80 million Dairy Central project that’s currently underway. While the building itself is being maintained and the original brick and tile refurbished, the rest of the property is undergoing a complete facelift, which owners hope will re-establish it as a community hub.

The development will include a food hall, Dairy Market, that’s expected to house 18 vendors including Angelic’s Kitchen and Eleva Coffee, along with a new home for Starr Hill Brewery. It will also have 180 apartments (15 of which will be affordable units) and office space.

Staff photo.

Barringer Mansion

(1404 Jefferson Park Ave.)

Perhaps the most exquisite property on the entire list of IPPs is Barringer Mansion, former home of Dr. Paul Barringer. A UVA professor experienced as a scientist, physician, and publisher, Barringer purchased the land in 1895 for five-and-a-half shares of stock valued at $1,375. The mansion was built a year later, proving to be one of the most impressive sights in Charlottesville.

Constructed in Queen Anne style, the house stood out with its pointed tower, white columns, and numerous chimneys. Barringer, who eventually rose to be the chairman of faculty—the equivalent to university president—at UVA, often instructed students there outside of class, and welcomed several high-profile guests including Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan.

No one played a bigger role in establishing the hospital at UVA than Barringer, who had a wing named after him. But recently, questions have been raised over Barringer’s promotion of white supremacy, and last year UVA Health System said it would seek Board of Visitors approval to remove his name from the wing.

In an essay titled, “The American Negro: His Past and Future,” which he read at a 1900 medical convention in South Carolina, Barringer called the recently emancipated African American community “savage,” and insisted black people were helped by being enslaved.

The mansion was converted into an apartment complex after Barringer’s death in 1941, but the impressive exterior remained intact. UVA purchased the building in 1985, and it’s now home to the French House, which is the university’s center for French cultural life.

Staff photo

Patterson Wing of Martha Jefferson Hospital

(459 Locust Ave.)

Until 1904, most medical visits and procedures in and around Charlottesville were held in patients’ homes. That’s when seven local doctors, one of whom was a great-great-great grandson of Thomas Jefferson, founded the nonprofit Martha Jefferson Hospital on East High Street. The facility had 25 beds and cost a little more than $8,000.

The hospital remained there until local benefactor James Addison Patterson and his wife Georgianna donated $100,000 for it to expand and relocate to Locust Avenue. Although it opened with just 50 beds, the hospital went on to serve the Charlottesville community in that location for 82 years. It expanded to a 116-bed capacity in 1954 with a new maternity ward and X-ray department, and experienced steady growth into the 1990s.

In 2001, the nonprofit hospital, seeking to expand, purchased 84 acres at Peter Jefferson Place in Pantops—although it didn’t officially move out for another 10 years. The main hospital building and surrounding campus were sold to the Charlottesville-based development company Octagon Partners for $6.5 million in 2010 ahead of the relocation.

The property was rebuilt and leased out as office space, but the Patterson Wing, named after the hospital’s early patrons, still exists. It’s now home to the CFA Institute, an investment company. Corporate officials told The Daily Progress in 2014 that the building’s original hardwood and terrazzo floors were preserved, as were its signature arched hallways and nine-foot ceilings.

Staff photo

Monticello Wine Company House

(212 Wine St.)

The event that kickstarted Charlottesville’s journey to becoming a renowned wine location occurred in 1873, when the Monticello Wine Company was established to provide local vineyards with a buyer for their grapes and produce what the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society calls “pure and healthful, low-alcohol table wines of medium grade.”

Led by German wine cellar supervisor Adolph Russow, those expectations were quickly surpassed. The four-story facility’s most popular product was called “Extra Virginia Claret,” a red wine globally recognized after receiving awards at the 1876 Vienna Exposition and the 1878 Paris World’s Fair.

Despite being a farming cooperative rather than a privately owned business, the Monticello Wine Company grew into the largest winery in the South by 1890; the winery had a 200,000 gallon production capacity thanks in part to the 3,000 acres of vineyards in the surrounding area.

It wasn’t long before the Charlottesville region began calling itself the “capital of the wine belt in Virginia.” According to the historical marker placed at the site, its wine was even used to christen the Navy battleship USS Virginia in 1904.

But signs of trouble began in 1887, when local grape production was slowed by the spread of black rot across Charlottesville-area vineyards. The Monticello Wine Company was forced to import its grapes from other states, and increased competition from California wineries only slowed business further.

Virginia’s statewide prohibition law in 1916 forced the company to cease production altogether. The building remained a storage facility even after the alcohol ban was lifted in 1933, eventually burning down in a fire in 1937. Russow’s home, which sits next to the site, still stands today.

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