James Madison University’s recent demolition of yet another historic Harrisonburg home has sparked outcry among residents and Valley natives.
Some members of the community are calling for changes that would require the institution to go through a public process before it pulls such properties down.
On March 14, JMU began demolishing the Haas House, which was built in 1880, removing another historic home on South Main Street in the gateway to the downtown area.
“It was very hurtful that they didn’t give Harrisonburg residents a chance to know what was going to happen before it happened,” said Nancy Sowers, a city resident over 80 years old.
The 4,000-square-foot, two-story home had been vacant since it was last in regular use by the Episcopal college mission and was a meeting place for religious outreach efforts as recently as 2020.
From when it was built until 1993, the structure was home to a dynasty of city legal leaders and their families that included two 20th-century judges, including Talfourd Noon Haas and his son, Hamilton Haas.
The university cited its poor structural condition as a reason for its demolition.
Other city residents the Daily News-Record spoke with said they also didn’t like how JMU went about the demolition of the home, but declined to go on the record as they felt the large institution could somehow retaliate against them or their families’ finances.
JMU does not only tear buildings down downtown. In the same week, it had pulled down another home — a single-family farther down South Main Street.
According to city real estate records, JMU bought the 1,180-square-foot single-family home for $325,000 on Nov. 8.
Last year, the home and the 1.23 acres it was on were assessed at a combined $169,700, according to city real estate documents. It is now a field.
“We value the university’s relationships within the community and always look to continue fostering those partnerships,” said an emailed statement provided by JMU spokesperson Mary-Hope Vass. “The university has heard the concerns from our fellow community members about this specific process and will take that into consideration as we move forward.”
Vass said the university works with the city staff and elected officials through a liaison committee and other “valuable partnerships.”
She also provided a link to planning documents that are open to the public to view.
Some local residents see the continued demolition of historic Harrisonburg buildings as an untenable trend that goes beyond the school, such as Andrea Dono, director of the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance.
Dono has written a letter to facilities management and the university president, Jonathan Alger, to ask them to “please put the priorities of historic resources ahead of some of their decisions that have been made on finances.”
Dono said the destruction of historic buildings has left a mark on the community.
“I think part of our built environment is what makes Harrisonburg, Harrisonburg,” she said. “And once you start removing those assets and changing our character, you’re changing Harrisonburg. So if you’re doing that without community involvement, you’re not putting appropriate interest on community values.”
HDR is working on a proposal for a new city ordinance that would be through the 1966 Historic Preservation Act, according to Dono. It would require City Council to enact a historic preservation district, which would require a design review board to look at plans for historic buildings of large enough scale, such as a demolition. In come cases of preservation ordinances, owners have to put the building up for sale at market rate for up to one year to see if there is a buyer who would purchase it and restore the property, if the current owner did not have the means or interest.
Dono said such an ordinance here locally is “long overdue.”
“If you look at maps of what downtown had, and now the parking lots we have in their place, we have lost so much,” Dono said. “Really, if we wait any longer, 50 years from now, who knows what downtown could look like and how many more buildings could be lost.”
Penny Imeson, director of Rocktown History, said the organization hasn’t had conversations about such an ordinance before. She said she would want to see the proposed ordinance before backing such a measure.
“I’m waiting to see and interested to see how this conversation develops,” Imeson said.
She said sometimes historical preservation can be difficult to achieve.
In one instance, the historic Morrison House on the corner of Liberty and West Market streets was offered to the historical society to pick up the building and move it. But after 12 years, not enough funding had materialized, and the building ended up being razed.
One neighbor to a property JMU tore down this year found out about the demolition the morning it began when some members of the crew that had gathered at the site were wearing clothes that read JMU.
“That’s how I was notified,” said Robert Smith, a Harrisonburg renter. “Definitely came as a surprise.”
“I don’t necessarily mind [JMU] being expansive,” he said. “However, when it comes to residential areas like this, I wish they would slow things down a little bit — make a more centralized effort and then push outward from there, rather than picking little pieces from the town till there’s nothing left.”