Thomas Harrison staked his claim in the Shenandoah Valley in 1737 near where two traditional paths - the Indian Road and the Spotswood Trail - crossed. For the next forty years Harrison worked to expand his holdings in the valley and improve his estate. It wasn’t until the Commonwealth of Virginia officially organized Rockingham County in 1778 that Harrison acted to develop his land as a town. He gave the new government two and a half-acres in 1779 for a courthouse and 50 more the next year as Harrisonburg was designated the county seat of Rockingham.
Harrison’s sons continued to provide land and fuel the growth of the new town that became the economic and cultural hub of the valley. By 1850 Rockingham County was the largest producer of wheat and hay in the Commonwealth and most of that crop was processed and transported through Harrisonburg. Population was north of 1,000 making the town a metropolis in the county at that time.
If Harrisonburg was on Facebook during the Civil War it would have listed its relationship withe the Confederacy as “complicated.” The town’s representatives in Richmond had opposed secession and some of its leading citizens supported the Union. Early in the war General Thomas “Stonewall Jackson” passed through hauling Union railroad equipment that included an entire steam locomotive, that his troops had appropriated in a raid at Harpers Ferry. Later Philip Sheridan marched his Union troops down the Valley Road through town. It wasn’t like Winchester to the north that changed hands 72 times during the fighting but the prospect that the departing side might someday return may have helped limit damage in town.
Harrisonburg has always been an enthusiastic participant in urban renewal - even before there was such a term. After a devastating Christmas day fire in 1870 the town rebuilt with many impressive Victorian structures. Shelf life on these buildings was scarcely 25 years - many, including a handsome new courthouse were replaced before the new century. The urban renewal movement of the 1960s and 1970s was more insidious - weary buildings were just as often replaced by parking lots as newer models. Visitors who stayed in fine Harrisonburg hotels at the turn of the 20th century would find none if they returned at the turn of the 21st century.
But some intriguing survivors remain and our walking tour of downtown Harrisonburg to find them will begin on that original patch of land given by Thomas Harrison more than 230 years ago to start a town...
Rockingham County Courthouse
This is the fifth hall of justice to stand on this site, completed in 1897. The first was a rough-hewn log structure erected in 1780, shortly after Rockingham County, named for Charles Watson Wentworth, Marquis of Rockingham, was formed. T.J. Collins of Staunton was the architect, a versatile designer comfortable working in a variety of styles. Here he delivered a Gothic-flavored building rendered in gray Indiana limestone rising through a clock tower to a green dome surmounted by the statue Justice.
WITH YOUR BACK TO THE FRONT STEPS OF THE COURTHOUSE, WALK OVER TO THE NORTHEAST CORNER OF THE SQAURE, TO YOUR RIGHT.
66 Court Square
This brick building was assumed to have been constructed after a fire on Christmas Day 1870. It was the home of George Gilmer Grattan, a Civil War veteran who went on to a career in the law that culminated in a judgeship and a seat in the Virginia legislature. He was also a president of Rockingham National Bank. George Jr. followed his father into the law and into the building.
TURN AND WALK TO THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF COURT SQUARE, PASSING THE COURTHOUSE ON YOUR RIGHT.
First Presbyterian Church
17 Court Square
The courthouse is complimented by this church which arrived on the square in 1907. Charles Bolton, a Philadelphia architect followed the Gothic motif by incorporating pointed arches and a belltower into his design and also used Indiana limestone in its construction. The congregation is one of the oldest in the Shenandoah Valley, tracing its roots back to the 1780s.
TURN AND WALK BACK A FEW STEPS TO MARKET STREET. TURN RIGHT.
Rockingham Motor Company
50-60 West Market Street
Art Deco of the Roaring 20s in America meets 16th century English Tudor style in this brick building from the 1920s built as a showroom for the Rockingham Motor Company. Virgil Hawse, Herbert Stiegel, and Andrew Wolfe started the dealership to sell Fords. Decorative hints to the building’s origins can be spotted around the facade from the “Rockingham Motor Co.” spelled out in the stained glass to the stylish RMCo. anagrams in metal and carved in stone (guarded by a lion’s head) to an ornate Gothic “F” carved in a stone shield. Look further up to see a carved vintage tire in a stone shield. In a perfect world shiny automobiles would still be looking out f the showroom windows but the building has been adapted for use as retail space and even a theater stage.
TURN RIGHT ON LIBERTY STREET. TURN RIGHT ON WOLFE STREET. TURN RIGHT ON MAIN STREET.
Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church
154 North Main Street
Blessed Sacrament began in 1844 when Fr. Daniel Downey, rector of St. Francis in Staunton, became the first priest to serve the early Catholic settlers of Irish, German and French ancestry in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. But it was not until 1876 that the congregation was able to dedicate a former Methodist church building as their permanent home. That building perished in a fire in April 1905 and it was replaced by this Gothic-flavored church dominated by a square corner tower. This is another design from the prolific T.J. Collins.
116 North Main Street
The first federal building in Harrisonburg came in 1886, on this site. It was replaced by this temple-fronted United States Post Office and Court House in 1939. The building, designed by Rudolph Stanley-Brown, contains five floors, including a full basement and penthouse, and rises to a height of nearly 60 feet above grade. The Classical/Colonial Revival detailing sports Flemish-bond brickwork accented with white marble belt courses, engaged pilaster capitals, frieze bands and cornices. The portico of six Doric columns is executed entirely in grey-veined white marble. Look for greenstone highlights, including window sills, that come from a now-closed quarry in Lynchburg. In 1941, noted Washington, D.C. artist William Calfee was commissioned through the Federal Works Agency, Public Buildings Administration, Section of Fine Arts to paint the murals that adorn the main Post Office Lobby. His tempera montage depicts Harrisonburg’s town square in the 1940s.
2 North Main Street
This Romanesque Revival corner building was crafted of Indiana limestone in 1897. The “Newman” was Anderson Moffett Newman, president of Rockingham National Bank, who originally owned the building and who moved his bank here in 1900. The “Ruddle” is Don Ruddle who purchased the building in 1946. A couple of Harrisonburg “firsts” took place here - the first use of structural steel in construction and it was the home of WSVA-AM, the first radio station in the area in the 1930s.
People’s Bank Building
2 South Main Street
Alfred Charles Bossom designed this low-rise building for the People’s Bank in 1916 following the practice of creating skyscrapers in the image of a classical column with a defined base (the limestone ground floors), unadorned shaft (the middle floors of light brown brick) and capital (decorative cornice). The People’s Bank was organized in 1907 and was followed by the National Bank and Valley National Bank into the space.
First National Bank
57 South Main Street
This has been prime downtown real estate since the Washington Hotel stood here in the town’s early days. After the 1870s it was the site of the Sibert Building when Jacob Sibert operated his tobacco shop here. That three-tory building was purchased by the First National Bank of Harrisonburg and torn down to make way for its five-story Romanesque Revival headquarters capped by a mansard roof that rolls around the corner through a turret. First National Bank, that was chartered in 1865, merged with scores of other local Virginia banks into what would become Sovran Bank and now Bank of America in 1970.
103-107 South Main Street
A splash of Art Moderne styling came to the Harrisonburg streetscape in 1940 with a streamlined facade of honey yellow and salmon brick and glass block windows. Built originally for a drugstore today it hosts an artists’ cooperative gallery.
119-121 South Main Street
Look up above the permastone covering the street level facade to see one of the earliest buildings in Harrisonburg constructed with handmade brick and not wood. The space began life in the 1870s as a place for farmers to buy agricultural implements; today it is a restaurant.
120-124 South Main Street
This has been one of Harrisonburg’s premier business addresses since 1907. Included in its roster of tenants over the past century are: the News Register that morphed into the Daily News-Record from 1907 until 1941, Garber’s Shoe Store for 40 years, music schools, the public library for two decades, the Harrisonburg Business College and the Rosetta Stone, a language learning software company that began operations here in 1992.
TURN RIGHT ON BRUCE STREET.
Thomas Harrison House
30 West Bruce Street
This is the oldest house in Harrisonburg, built either in 1750 or 1780. The doubters of the earlier date point to the fact that the house fits snugly into the town’s street grid that was not laid out until 1780. The one and one-half story limestone rubble structure was built over a spring and hosted travelers in its early days. One such traveler was Francis Asbury, the founder of the Methodist Church in America, who held the first conference of the Methodist Church west of the Blue Ridge here on June 2, 1794. The house remained in the Harrison family until the 1870s.
TURN AND WALK BACK TO MAIN STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
Asbury United Methodist Church
205 South Main Street
A small group of Methodists assembled in a log meeting house in Harrisonburg in 1788. A string of church buildings followed until this Gothic Revival sanctuary was completed in 1913. Charles M. Robinson, who practiced in Richmond, designed the building which is constructed of Pennsylvania brownstone laid in a purposeful random pattern. The church is festooned with narrow lancet stained glass windows and a corner tower.
212 South Main Street
Peter Higgins began construction of a house on this property in 1830 but was never able to finish it. Isaac Hardesty, an apothecary, moved into the Greek Revival brick house that stakes its claim as the second oldest house in downtown Harrisonburg. Hardesty became the first mayor of Harrisonburg in 1849. A Union sympathizer, he left town for Maryland after the Civil War erupted. Today the house has been outfitted as the city visitor center.
301 South Main Street
Edward T.H. Warren was an attorney and town councilman who helped form Company G in the 10th Virginia Infantry. He led the regiment for two years in all the major engagements in which the Army of Northern Virginia fought and never returned to the house he built in 1856 - Colonel Warren was killed on the field at the Wilderness on May 5, 1864. Today it is home to the Virginia Quilt Museum that opened in 1995.
311 South Main Street
This Victorian frame house from the 1860s was originally sited on Liberty Street before being moved to this location. It was not unusual for houses to be moved around towns in the 19th century; it was a much simpler matter without wiring and plumbing - as long as you had enough strong oxen.
Harrisonburg Municipal Building
345 South Main Street
On this site once stood the Harrisonburg Female Academy that became Harrisonburg’s busiest and most important hospital during the Civil War. Control of the town volleyed back and forth during the war and the doctors staffing the hospital changed sides accordingly, sometimes caring for the wounded of the other side. This Neoclassical building, constructed of local bluestone, was designed by Richmond architect Charles M. Robinson in 1908 as Harrisonburg High School. It remained a school building until 1960 and has housed city offices for the past half-century.
St. Stephen’s United Church of Christ
358 South Main Street
The Reformed Church traces its roots to the 16th century Reformation in present-day Germany and Switzerland. In the 1890s the Virginia Classis of the Reformed Church in the United States dispatched J. Silor Garrison to investigate the possibility of establishing a mission congregation in either Harrisonburg or Staunton. Garrison picked Harrisonburg. The new congregation organized in a storefront on Main Street on December 3, 1894.Three years later they were settled in their own sanctuary on North High Street and came here in 1931. Dr. Garrison, who would remain involved with the church until 1943, oversaw construction of the gray limestone building in the tradition of a 14th century English parish church. Like many churches, the doors are painted bright red symbolizing the blood of Christ and the gateway to salvation.
Joshua Wilton House
412 South Main Street
English-born Joshua Wilton came down from Canada after the Civil War and established a foundry and hardware store in town. After twenty years in business that included purchasing large swaths of land and running the First Virginia Bank, Wilton’s prosperity culminated in the construction of this Victorian mansion anchoring the south end of Main Street in 1888. The house betrays Gothic influences (lacy scrolled trim at the eaves and finials atop the gables), a touch of Italianate (one-over-one windows with decorative hoods) and Queen Anne styling (asymmetrical massing, wraparound porch and corner tower). The house endured a rough path in the 1960s and 1970s when it was converted into apartment units and used as a TKE fraternity house but has since been restored to its former glamour as an inn and restaurant.
TURN AND WALK BACK DOWN MAIN STREET TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT IN COURT SQUARE.