If Walls Could Talk ...
Architecture Helps Keep Harrisonburg History Alive
Posted: February 9, 2013
The Rockingham County Courthouse, situated on Court Square in the heart of downtown Harrisonburg, was built in 1897. It was constructed by the Staunton architectural firm T.J. Collins & Son. (Photo by Aimee George / DN-R Features)
“All the buildings around Court Square, along with the county courthouse itself, together form the architectural gem that is downtown Harrisonburg,” says architect Eugene Stoltzfus. “No one building alone can make that wonderful place that tells you that you have arrived at the center of Harrisonburg and the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.”
Many other downtowns boast buildings born within a tight timeframe — established and erected within a few decades, a few hundred years ago.
“But that’s not our downtown,” says Eddie Bumbaugh, director of Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance. With an eclectic mix spanning from the 1700s to 2010, the history of Harrisonburg can be seen in a timeline of architectural design.
Charming and unique, these buildings are more than a pretty facade: they add to the area’s value.
Ten years ago, before HDR was established, the value of downtown properties was approximately $250 million, according to Bumbaugh. In the last tax year, it was nearly a half-billion dollars. “I am convinced that these values could not have happened without the property owners renovating and preserving historic buildings,” he adds.
How does hanging onto the past equate increased revenue? It’s a collaboration of visitors and locals — those living links to history, joining with those wanting to learn more.
Stoltzfus recalls stepping onto the sidewalk in front of his commercial studio at 61 S. Main St., when he opened in 2006, and looking both ways. He could count the pedestrians on one hand.
“Now, walk out onto the street and you might see 30 people, sometimes way more,” he says. “It’s really been a big change ... it’s encouraging to see.”
Stoltzfus is renting the space, previously unoccupied for 30 years, and which formerly housed 1879’s Houck Tannery. He was drawn to it for reasons similar to those of other small business owners who make a professional home downtown: proximity and uniqueness.
“I like the idea of good urban space,” says Stoltzfus, “and I want to see Harrisonburg become better.”
As an architect, Stoltzfus says he doesn’t consider himself a nostalgic person, but rather an admirer of quality. “I like to see people preserving the old buildings,” he says, glancing out the window behind him at the void where the Virginia Theater stood until it was razed in 1990.
But, “just because it’s old doesn’t make it good,” he says.
Building On History
“Downtownies” are often committed to returning historic buildings to former glory, Bumbaugh says: “Almost without exception, when I am working with a potential business owner, one of the qualities that matter most to them is finding a building with unique features that are historic.”
A knock on the door of his office brought downtown’s potential future into real-time: an inquiry about the 2013 Facade Grant for comprehensive renovation.
Looking ahead, Bumbaugh says downtown is slated for at least four renovations, including apartments and retail space in the old Cassco Ice building on Liberty Street.
Stoltzfus sees potential for downtown, in the long-term, as becoming a highly efficient, yet beautiful urban center — including health centers, parks and lighting that spills onto pedestrian streets and residents seamlessly cohabitating with commerce.
“We, as 21st-century dwellers and architects, have something to bring to the table,” he says. “We should go ahead and bring the new buildings, help to bring Harrisonburg into the 21st century ... if they’re good, the new buildings and old buildings live very well together.”
Contact Samantha Cole at 574-6274 or email@example.com