A Survivor Threatened

From John Hennessy:

The Free Lance-Star carries the news of a request to demolish a wartime building on Fredericksburg’s waterfront.

401 Sophia Street in 1863

The building appears in a number of wartime images of Fredericksburg taken from across the river.  Built in 1843, it was in 1862 owned by John L. Marye Sr., owner of the adjacent Excelsior Mill.  We do not know who lived in the house during the war–tenants are often unrecorded. The very modesty of this house in many ways heightens its value, for it is an uncommon survivor of the sort of then-common, lower- and middle-class housing that most Fredericksburg residents occupied.

401 is clearly visible at left in this blowup of one of the 1863 panoramas of Fredericksburg. Excelsior Mill is at right. The two-story house between the mill and 401 no longer stands.

Of course, anyone can ask for anything–and so in itself the request by the owners to tear the house down may mean little. But, two things sustain the fabric of historic communities, and foremost among them is the commitment of those who live in the community to preserve and nurture it. When someone decides to act in favor of demolition rather than preservation, it’s not a hopeful beacon for a building’s future.

The house at 401 Sophia was much enalrged after the war. The original wartime section is at right.

Fredericksburg has been fortunate in having a high percentage of residents who care deeply about the historic fabric of the community, especially when they own a part of it.  But, in the face of this request to demolish 401 Sophia Street, it’s hard not to be a little alarmed. Last week an 1840s warehouse came down as part of the removal of the Hardware store complex on William Street.  Last month, 1407 Caroline Street vanished from the landscape. Over the last few years, several other historic buildings have come down, all of them victims of neglect.

The greatest threat to historic places–be they battlefields or downtowns–is not the big stuff like malls and theme parks (they invariably attract great attention), but the steady chipping away in increments, death by a thousand cuts: a building gone in Fredericksburg, “just” another store near Salem Church, a new lane through Chancellorsville. Each cut may seem minor in itself–and thus spur meager public outcry–but over time, the accumulation of such things can transform a place. It is the seemingly small things that are so difficult to manage–and then suddenly it’s often too late.

13 thoughts on “A Survivor Threatened

  1. We need to keep History a live- almost everything in our Town is toren down and we always have to fight Big to keep something- it is sickening! Keep it it is our History- you don’t see this so much in Europe!

  2. This is a wonderful house and historically important. I hope against hope that we can find someone who appreciates it for its true value and saves it. We have lost so much in just the past few years. Let this one be a success story!

  3. Great post John, I walk past that house everyday on the way to the train and although it’s a bit run down, it is an important site just for the fact that it survived. Too many changes in the ‘Burg lately and none for the better. If they want to tear something down, get rid of that ugly office building they should have never allowed in the first place.

  4. You are sadly correct about the thought that just because you own a historic property you can tear it down. That house is an important part of the fabric of Historic Fredericksburg and the owners have a duty to steward it in a direction that will preserve its’ history. The last time I checked, no one is making and selling authentic l9th century houses that are a perfect fit to there location.

  5. You are sadly correct about the thought that just because you own a historic property you can tear it down. That house is an important part of the fabric of Historic Fredericksburg and the owners have a duty to steward it in a direction that will preserve its’ history. The last time I checked, no one is making and selling authentic l9th century houses that are a perfect fit to their location.

  6. As a Fredericksburg native, I have the utmost affection for the town and appreciation for its history. However, the situation concerning this house does create within me a number of distinct, yet contradictory, emotions that I find difficult to reconcile.

    Unlike 1407 Caroline, or possibly even the little portion of historic structure that remained part of the hardware store, no compelling safety issue exists with 401 Sophia to warrant demolition. As a Civil War survivor, and probably more importantly, one of the last remaining examples of the kind of abode in which most Fredericksburg citizens resided, it would be an unfortunate and significant loss of the city’s historic fabric.

    That being said, however, another emotion within me wonders at a mandate to force a private citizen to retain, preserve, and maintain in perpetuity a building for which they may have no use. 401 Sophia obviously does not come close to meeting even the most meager requirements which people desire in a home in this day. Even use as a rental property would seem unlikely as the small rent that could be commanded for such a residence would likely not suffice in its ongoing upkeep.

    The best outcome in this situation would be for an entity, such as HFFI or similar group, to step forward and obtain ownership, or faciliate transfer of the property to such a group. Likewise, if the city wishes to enforce a historic district, perhaps the city should purchase the property or somehow make it reasonable for a private owner to suitably maintain it. Unfortunately, there is little likelihood of either possibility coming to fruition.

    Lastly, it occurs to me that there has to be the ability for change within the makeup of the community. If there is a determination to preserve Fredericksburg, or at least downtown, as it currently exists, then the evolutionary process that has been at work in the city for over 200 years will be stymied. With no ability to evolve, how can stagnation be avoided? After all, nearly every building in town now is a successor to a building that preceded it. I don’t recall any existing building that dates from the town’s founding. I recall the story of a visitor to antebellum Fredericksburg, and upon seeing it, calling it a finished place. It was not meant as a compliment. Hopefully his words will not prove prophetic.

    It would be shame to lose 401 Sophia. I hope we won’t. It just seems that there are a number of pertinent, yet contrasting, viewpoints worthy of a meaningful community discussion that might prevent these unfortunate situations in the future.

    • You have very neatly defined the many competing aspects of historic preservation in an existing and growing community. This house that survived the CW is not within a park or otherwise protected by a resource agency. It is private property and the owner, as does any other owner, has a right to derive some level of economic benefit from it – either as a house or as income producing property. The established Historic District is not a mandate to freeze time, but rather a zoning overlay that provides for a level of community input as to its disposition. I am the City staff who administers the Historic District in Fredericksburg and I commend John for this post, which initiated this discussion. I make hundreds of preservation decisions a year and it is always gratifying when the community truly gets involved. What sometimes comes out in these discussions, though, are misconceptions about what kind of authority we have in these instances. We are not in a position to deny economic use of a property. The underlying zoning already defines the allowed uses. What we do when we engage in architectural review is discuss what is important about a property, what defines its character, and how we can apply preservation standards when an owner seeks to upgrade a property (we all like our indoor plumbing and A/C) or seeks to adapt a structure to a new use (the nearby train station is now a restaurant). There is no neat way to avoid these conflicts, either through a mandate of some sort or by simply doing away with the review process. The legal process is prescribed in the state code and the local ordinance. The discussion is different for each property and it differs from year to year as values change, but it certainly makes clear what the community values. If anyone shows up at the ARB meeting, please stop by and say hi.

  7. The historic fabric of Sophia St. is virtually gone. Only a handful of historic buildings remain. Although City staff have recommended that the Architechtural Review Board not approve a demolition permit for the original 1843 portion of the house, the ARB also needs to hear from citizens who want to protect what’s left of our antebellum landscape. Enough destruction has already been allowed. This time it’s development shells raining down on the city with little or no resistence. If you care, I urge readers of this post to attend the ARB meeting on Aug. 8 at 7:30 in City Hall where the demolition request will be considered.

  8. I fully agree that, in light of recent losses, every effort must be made to save
    this modest survivor of bombardment and development. As mentioned
    in an earlier post, it is one of the few riverfront homes and businesses which once lined Sophia Street and which housed many of Fredericksburg’s
    working-class citizens. Its survival is almost miraculous and should be
    a challenge to all of us who care about the slowing eroding fabric of
    “Historic Fredericksburg.” I was alarmed to read that the City could allow the owner to tear down the post-Civil War additions and to permit “incorporation”
    of the 1843 house into a modern structure. That would be a very unfortunate
    ruling, as it would all but assure the disappearance of this frail little
    remnant of our once-bustling riverfront. I’ll be at the ARB meeting and I’m
    hoping that many others will be too. Let’s not lose this one!

    • The historic view from across the river actually shows the rear of the house. The modern photo is from the opposite direction and shows the front of the house. Because of foliage, duplicating the perspective of the historic image is not possible. Thanks for reading….

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