In recognition of National Preservation Month, the Roanoke Valley Preservation Foundation (RVPF) announced the 2023 Endangered Sites List at the dedication of the Persinger Cemetery Interpretive Sign at the corner of Memorial Avenue and Edgewood Street SW in Roanoke. The Persinger Cemetery interpretive sign was made possible through a matching grant from the Roanoke Committee of the National Society of Colonial Dames.
The sign, which tells the story of the Persinger family and their contributions to the early settlement of the area, is the second sign project on which RVPF and the Colonial Dames have collaborated. The Evans Mill and Crystal Spring interpretive sign on Jefferson Street and McClanahan Road SE was dedicated in 2018.
Since 1996, the RVPF has announced a list each year of significant historic, natural, and cultural sites in the Roanoke Valley that are in eminent danger of being lost due to deferred maintenance, demolition, or incompatible development. The Foundation’s goal is to raise awareness of the significance of these sites and to help identify options to promote their stewardship. The RVPF hopes to serve as a resource to property owners by making them aware of tools available to support the preservation of these sites.
This year, the RVPF identified five endangered sites and revisited three sites previously listed that represent some of the earliest surviving buildings in Roanoke City. The 2023 sites include two historic churches that represent the challenges facing houses of worship nationwide as well as a rare bank barn near Troutville, a house built by the Rader family, skilled mid-19th century brick masons in Botetourt County, and a house on a prominent corner in Fincastle. Below is a summary of the endangered sites on the list this year:
RADER-MUSE BANK BARN
The ca. 1900 Rader-Muse Barn. Located at 6325Lee Highway near Troutville, is a rare surviving example of the German-style bank barn once found throughout the Shenandoah Valley. Designed with German ingenuity to take advantage of the topography, the two-level barn is nestled against a hillside to allow exterior access to the upper hayloft as well as the lower animal pens. These barns exhibit highly skilled craftsmanship, as they typically feature stone retaining walls, a canted queen-truss system, louvered wall openings, and latticework below the roofline to provide natural light and ventilation as well as structural stability.
According to Mike Pulice with the Department of Historic Resources, bank barns are found in Augusta and Rockbridge counties with Botetourt representing the furthest extent to the south and southwest that these barns are found in Virginia. Although several bank barns have been listed on the National Register (either individually or as part of a larger farm complex), these barns are becoming increasingly threatened as they fall into disuse and are allowed to deteriorate with the decline of agriculture in the region.
Following the 2003 demolition of the bank barn on the nearby Thomas D.
Kinsey Farm (which was listed on the National Register in 2002), the RaderMuse bank barn may be the last surviving example of this iconic building type in Botetourt County. The barn has not been used for many years and is currently in a ruinous state.
ASPEN HILL/ PECK-FIGGATT HOUSE
The Peck-Figgatt House (also known as Aspen Hill), located at 322 E. Main Street, stands at a prominent corner in the Fincastle Historic District. Originally built ca. 1822 by John Peck, a large addition was constructed in 1839 by Captain Figgatt, a prominent local banker. The history of the Figgatt family and nineteenth-century Botetourt County is well documented through Nanny Godwin Figgatt’s collection of diaries, letters from her husband, and several family recipe books. Letters between Captain Figgatt and his wife during the Civil War have been chronicled in the play Dear Nanny.
The house is designed in an adaptation of the Italian Villa style, also referred to as the Tuscan style. The DHR survey record in 2006 noted the house as being in excellent condition. The survey described the house as follows:
“The main block of this brick house is a side gable, 2-story structure that holds a one-story porch with turned posts, decorative brackets, sawn balustrade, and triglyphs in the frieze. A one-story porch is also found at the east side, with identical ornamentation. A gable eel lies on the east side, and a one-story addition is at the southwest corner.
Polygonal bay windows are found at the south and west sides.”
A separate kitchen building was later connected to the main house with a hyphen that has been infilled with brick.
The house currently stands vacant and in disrepair. Several courses of bricks appear to be separating from the foundation. The once-landscaped yard is also overgrown. This neglected condition of such a historically and architecturally significant house situated on a prominent corner in Fincastle threatens not only the house itself, but the historic character of the town.
RADER HOUSE (Maple Grove)
The Rader House at 102 Darby Road in Troutville , also known as Maple Grove, was constructed ca. 1830 by the Rader family, well-known brick masons and builders in Botetourt County. The two-story, single-pile, brick house features hand-made bricks laid in Flemish bond, accented by a beveled water table, molded cornice, and jack-arched window and door openings. The one-story entry porch, which replaced the original full-width porch, has a gable roof supported by chamfered and bracketed posts with a scroll-sawn balustrade. Two additions have been constructed to the rear of the original block.
Samuel, George W. and David Rader were brick masons and builders that were responsible for numerous nineteenth-century brick buildings in the county. Similar examples exhibiting their designs and workmanship include the Jonas Graybill House, the Christian Graybill House, the Joseph Graybill House, the George W. Rader House), the Roland Rader House, Hogshead Corl House, and the Hays House among others. However, their legacy and contribution to the architectural character of Botetourt County has not been well documented by historians. The Rader House on Darby Road is a typical example of their work, and one of the oldest houses in the Troutville area. It is potentially eligible for listing on the state and national registers.
Unfortunately, the original, ca. 1830 portion of the Rader House is vacant and has been neglected. It is in poor condition, with broken windows and noticeable deterioration in the mortar joints of the brick foundation. This early Troutville building associated with the Rader family will continue to deteriorate without better maintenance and stewardship.
Often one of the first structures to be built in a city or town, religious buildings represent the communal values and aspirations of its early founders. These buildings are typically located in the heart of the community and serve as part of its institutional framework. As congregations grow, larger and more architecturally refined facilities are constructed that reflect their growing prosperity and programs. In recent years, both nationally and in the Roanoke Valley, church membership is falling.
While in the 1940s over 70 percent of Americans were members of churches, synagogues, or mosques, today that figure is less than 50 percent. As membership declines, many congregations suffer from a lack of financial resources that limits their ability to meet the continuing need to maintain the large and historic facilities that house them. The struggle to properly maintain them often leads to deferred maintenance that results in the need for larger, more expensive, and more difficult repairs.
In response to these challenges facing houses of worship, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Lilly Endowment Inc. joined to form Partners for Sacred Places in 2016 to provide matching grants for capital improvements through the National Fund for Sacred Places.
While congregations typically do not want to move from their original location, sometimes it becomes necessary to sell their buildings, ideally to another congregation so the building can continue in its original function. The worst outcome is for the historic buildings to be sold, demolished, and replaced with new development.
An alternative is for these religious buildings to be adapted for another use. That new use will vary based upon the size of the sanctuary and associated buildings; the ability to preserve the historic elements of the building will depend on the new use and how skillfully the building is adapted for it.
Nationally, examples of compatible new uses have included single-family residences, apartments/condominiums, museums, libraries, healthcare center, performance venue, offices, community center, art studios, co-working space, coffee shop/restaurant, computer server center, nightclub, and even a fraternity house.
Since RVPF first began listing endangered sites in 1986, twelve churches have been identified as threatened. These include: First Baptist Church, Salem (1998, demolished), Jefferson Street Baptist Church (2002, demolished), Mount Moriah Baptist Church (2003, endangered), St. John AME Church (2012, endangered), Christian Science Church (2017, music venue), and Calvary Baptist Church (2021, apartments planned), as well as six rural churches in Craig and Botetourt counties (2019). Two additional churches identified this year that face challenges include Fincastle Presbyterian Church and the First Evangelical Presbyterian Church in South Roanoke.
Fincastle Presbyterian Church, which dates back to the 1770s (with renovations and additions in 1813, 1840, and the 1940s) is working diligently to be good stewards of this historic landmark in the face of declining membership. The congregation recognizes the historical and architectural significance of the Greek-Revival style church and is committed to preserving it. They currently undertake much of the maintenance themselves and have recently applied to the National Fund for Sacred Places for a matching grant to assist with the preservation of this highly significant church. The RVPF applauds the Fincastle Presbyterian members for being good stewards of their church and proactively planning for its continued maintenance.
First Evangelical Presbyterian Church in South Roanoke is also faced with regular maintenance costs that eat into their annual operating budget. Their historic building at the corner of Jefferson and McClanahan streets, designed by architect Louis P. Smithey in 1929, is an impressive Gothic-Revival style building with a striking bell tower that has stood as a landmark at the gateway to South Roanoke since the early days of this residential neighborhood. Today, the strategic value to the community of this large church property – which occupies an entire block in one of the most highly-desirable neighborhoods of Roanoke, with Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital and its many associated facilities immediately to the north, commercial development to the west, and a large condominium development to the east –is well worth preserving in the midst of it all.”
In addition to the endangered sites announced this year, the RVPF calls particular attention to the ca. 119 Huntingdon, the ca. 1830 Blackwell Cottage in Fishburn Park, and the ca. 1840 Evans House in Washington Park. These historic properties have been listed (and re-listed) previously as endangered in 1999, 2010, 2017, and 2019 only to remain vacant and neglected today. These three buildings are possibly the earliest surviving houses in Roanoke City. They are architecturally and historically significant as tangible evidence of the lives of Roanoke’s earliest settlers and should not be lost.
Two of these – the Blackwell Cottage in Fishburn Park and the Evans House in Washington Park – are owned by the City of Roanoke. Unfortunately, the City has never had a use for these buildings and continued lack of maintenance threatens them with demolition by neglect. We believe that these two historic properties, as well as any other properties entrusted to the City, should remain under public ownership as originally intended with the City held accountable to the public for their condition and use. However, it would be better to allow a private entity to renovate these buildings for adaptive reuse, such as the recent proposal for the Blackwell Cottage, rather than remaining vacant, unused, and deteriorated. If it becomes necessary for the city to transfer ownership, it is imperative that they be good stewards by providing for the long-term protection of these significant properties through the placement of a preservation easement.
In the case of the Evans House in Washington Park, which the City is proposing to demolish for a new swimming pool, we encourage the City to explore every option possible to retain this building while also making the necessary improvements to the park. We believe that the Evans House should be carefully assessed for structural integrity and, if found to be sound, considered for adaptive reuse as a concession stand or space for pool offices, storage or equipment. While this may require the relocation of the existing parking lot and add cost to the project, that should be weighed against the cost of losing an important part of our history forever. Additionally, the entire history of Washington Park – from its earliest days as a large farm to the years during segregation when it served as a gathering place for Blacks throughout the region and later when it was used as a landfill – should be carefully considered and integrated into the development of the park.
In contrast, Huntingdon (320 Huntington Boulevard NE) is an example of a vacant and neglected private property where the RVPF and the public have no means beyond code enforcement to advocate for its better care and maintenance. Built ca. 1819 by Elijah Betts, this federal-style house with later Greek-Revival style porches and early twentieth-century modifications, was originally part of a 500acreworking plantation. When Betts died in 1825, his wife Sarah inherited the house and forty-three enslaved workers. Research by the Center for the Study of Structures of Race at Roanoke College notes that Sarah Betts’ will is unique as it includes one of the only references to manumission in the Roanoke County records. The house was listed on the National Register in 1991 for its architectural and historical significance. The eight-acre tract that survives today includes the Betts family cemetery as well as an early twentieth-century outbuilding that may have been quarters for servants. The RVPF listed Huntingdon as endangered in 2019 and, in spite of efforts to make the owner aware of its significance and deteriorating condition, the house remains vacant today with apparent vagrant activity. The historic property is further threatened by the recent subdivision of two parcels and the subsequent construction of new single-family houses.
The 2023 Endangered Sites list as well as the continued threats to previously listed sites emphasize the importance of educating the public and property owners about the significance of historic resources in the Roanoke Valley. For more information about the mission and activities of the Roanoke Valley Preservation Foundation visit www.roanokepreservation.org