Old Southwest Christmas Parlor Tour Highlights Fine Roanoke Architecture

In another welcome sign that we are putting Covid and the draconian lockdowns in the rearview window, the Old Southwest Christmas Parlor Tour took place for the first time since 2019.

Hosted on the easy to remember “always the first weekend in December,” guests could visit six homes in Roanoke City’s historic Old Southwest neighborhood on the evening of Saturday, Dec. 2 or the afternoon of Sunday, Dec. 3.

The homes were tastefully decorated for Christmas.

Tickets were $20 per person in advance or $25 walk up. The event, the 42nd they have hosted, is Old Southwest Incorporated’s only annual fundraiser. According to their event brochure, “funds raised…help support the maintenance and upkeep of the Alexander-Gish House, safety and beautification efforts in our community, and social events throughout the year.

“The founding members of what was called ‘The Old Southwest Neighborhood Alliance’ needed a way to raise funds to restore the Alexander-Gish house located in Highland Park. The house had been shuttered by the City of Roanoke and was slated for demolition. The pioneers of the neighborhood came up with the idea of a home tour, after the Roanoke Valley Council of Garden clubs featured some homes in the neighborhood.”

The Alexander-Gish house is one of the oldest buildings in Roanoke, having been built before 1838.

This year, the owners of six residences were gracious enough to open their homes to ticket holders. Those homes were 424 Walnut Ave., 430 Washington Ave., 440 Highland Ave., 910 5th St., 437 Day Ave., and 383 Mountain Ave.

Even though the event had had a three-year hiatus, it was clear from the smooth functioning that the organizers knew what they were doing. Large signage along Elm Avenue advertised the event weeks in advance. Guests could either buy tickets from the community website or get them during the event at a tent at the entrance of Highland Park.

All six homes were close to each other and to Highland Park, thus making the tour easily walkable. Ticketholders could park in Highland Park and pick up an event brochure at the tent. The brochure included a well-marked map showing the locations of the six homes plus a brief text explaining what year each house was built, who the current owners are, why they love the house, some of its unusual architectural features, etc.

For example, the owners of 440 Highland Ave. are only the fifth family to own the 117-year-old home that was built in 1906. The residence at 910 5th St., also built circa 1906, has an attached garage with a door leading directly into the house; that is rare for any home from that era, since cars were still in their infancy.

This homeowner, originally from England, enjoyed welcoming guests to his home while the crackling fire added warmth.

At each home, luminaries identified the house as being open for touring and lit the way for walkers to get to the front door. Guests were greeted by both the homeowners plus neighborhood tour volunteers. All the hosts seemed genuinely pleased to welcome guests and answer any questions they had.

Refreshments, coffee, hot chocolate, apple cider and bathrooms were available at the Alexander-Gish house and two businesses along the route.

Most of the homes were built between 1905-1910 in what was then and up until WW II one of Roanoke’s premier neighborhoods. Sadly, there were several decades after WW II when much of the neighborhood fell into disrepair and many fine old homes were divided up into multiple apartments.

Thankfully, over the past 30-40 years, a growing number of visionary and intrepid folks have bought the old treasures, reverted them back to single-family dwellings, installed modern conveniences, and restored them to their original charm and splendor.

The era when these homes were built, 1905-1910, seems like a world completely unlike our own today. For one, cars were an expensive novelty that many dismissed as a passing fad. Most folks got around Roanoke by street car or walking; this explains the compact, walkable neighborhood and near absence of garages or driveways in Old Southwest today. As hard as it may be to believe, the first coast-to-coast car trip across America did not happen until 1903, and that took 63 days and about $8,000 (over $260,000 in today’s money).

Second, Roanokers in their 50s or over would have had first-hand memories of the Civil War and/or slavery. For example, Franklin County resident and civil rights leader Booker T. Washington was born in April 1856, so he had just turned nine when Lee surrendered at Appomattox and Lincoln ordered emancipation for all enslaved people in April 1865.

Third, the world politically was vastly different. World War I began in 1914, so when Old Southwest was being developed, global powers included the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the 300-year Romanov Dynasty ruling Russia. By 1918, however, all had been swept away. Most of the world outside Europe was ruled as colonies of Britain, France, or Portugal.

The Old Southwest Parlor Tour lets guests savor some of Roanoke’s architectural treasures and get a glimpse of a world gone by.

More info: Old Southwest Roanoke Neighborhood website.

–Scott Dreyer

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