Leesburg has always been a crossroads town; today it is US Highway 15 running north-south and Virginia Highway 7 running east-west. In Colonial times those routes were known as the Carolina Road and the Potomac Ridge Road. In 1757 the Virginia Assembly designated the small settlement at the crossroads for the seat of its new Loudoun County. The land at that time was owned by Nicholas Minor and he knew how to take advantage of his political windfall. He had his 60 acres platted into 70 lots which he began selling for ｣3 with the provision that a brick, stone or wood house be constructed within three years or the property would revert back to Minor. Thus was a town built.
Minor called his utopia George Town but the King’s name was jettisoned the following year in favor of the Lee family, whose members Philip Ludwell Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee were town trustees responsible for regulating building in the town. By the time of the Revolution had grown to nearly 500 residents. In addition to court business, Leesburg developed into a market town for farmers looking to move goods out of the Shenandoah Valley. The opening of the Leesburg Turnpike in 1820 accelerated that trade.
Leesburg was visited early by the Civil War when on October 21, 1861, a Union force of 1,000 crossed the Potomac River at Ball’s Bluff and met one of the North’s first disasters of the conflict. Oregon senator Edward Baker, a close personal friend of Abraham Lincoln, led his command foolishly under the bluffs controlled by Confederate troops. Rifle fire from above killed Baker and half his force, many of whom were trapped between rifle fire and unscalable cliffs. Others drowned and their bodies floated down the river to Washington. Union prisoners were held on the courthouse lawn, and wounded from both sides were placed in homes and public buildings. The Battle of Ball’s Bluff was the largest battle of the war fought in Loudoun County but settled nothing. By war’s end, Leesburg changed hands about 150 times over the course of the war.
After the war Leesburg’s proximity to Washington and northern markets enabled it to find its antebellum prosperity with alacrity. Farmers were soon moving corn and milk and beef on the railroad that resumed operation in 1867. Soon that railroad was running commuter trains to Washington and in 1920 the electric express Washington-Leesburg Limited clicked along between the towns at a remarkable 26 mph.
With Leesburg’s suburban expansion gobbling up land in the mid-20th century the Town Council established the Old and Historic District in 1963, only the fifth such district to be created in Virginia (after Alexandria, Richmond, Charlottesville, and Williamsburg). Our explorations will follow the brick sidewalks of the historic district and we’ll begin on the outskirts of town where one of Leesburg’s most famous native sons in honored...
Thomas Balch Library
208 West Market Street
The first books lent in Leesburg came from a small private subscription library out of the home of a member in 1907. For many years the annual subscription fee was $1.00. The library society was able to move into this brick Georgian Revival home in 1922 after an energetic fundraising campaign. Chief among the contributors were Edwin Swift Balch and Thomas Willing Balch who donated $10,000 in the memory of their father, Thomas. Born in Leesburg a century earlier in 1821, Thomas Balch was a noted historian whose most famous work was The French in America during the War of Independence of the United States, 1777-1783. But he is best remembered not for the French in the American Revolution but the British in the American Civil War. He drafted a plan for a resolution to the squabble between the United States and Great Britain over the English assistance to the Confederacy that resulted in a $15 million settlement and earned Balch the title of “Father of International Arbitration.” The building was designed by busy Washington architect Waddy Wood who did much to transform the nation’s capital with his classical designs on the Federal Triangle. It features a hipped roof over a square central block with a cupola and porthole windows. The library remained a subscription-only lending institution until 1960 but was not desegregated until 1965 when books were finally available for all.
WITH YOUR BACK TO THE BALCH LIBRARY, TURN LEFT AND WALK DOWN MARKET STREET TOWARDS THE CENTER OF TOWN.
Leesburg Presbyterian Church
207 West Market Street
Circuit-riding Presbyterian preachers began stopping around Loudoun County in the 1760s. This church building was dedicated on May 4, 1804 although the original parishioners would be hard pressed to recognize it today. There were extensive alterations in the 1870s and around 1900 the bell and belfry were installed. One thing that has never changed are the downstair pews - they are the original ones used since 1804.
Leesburg United Methodist Church
107 West Market Street
This Greek Revival-influenced brick church with Ionic pilasters was built in 1852. It was used as a hospital in the wake of the Battle of Balls Bluff during the Civil War. The congregation is descended from the very beginnings of the town and the now-demolished Old Stone Church, whose site is...
TURN AND WALK BACK TO THE CORNER WITH LIBERTY STREET. TURN RIGHT AND WALK ONE BLOCK TO CORNWALL STREET. TURN RIGHT ON CORNWALL STREET.
Old Stone Church Site
Cornwall Street at Liberty Street
On May 11, 1766, Nicholas Minor deeded Lot 50, a half acre of property, to Robert Hamilton, a Methodist convert, for ‘’four pounds current money of Virginia, for no other use but for a church or meeting house and grave yard.’’ The site is the earliest known Methodist-owned church site in America. Two years later the town’s first church was erected here of fieldstone. It was replaced by a larger meetinghouse on the same site in 1785 and the single gable, five-bay by three-bay structure became known as the Old Stone Church for over a century. In 1901 the church was sold by court order for $416.05. The building was torn down and the materials incorporated into various buildings in Leesburg.
St. James Episcopal Church
14 Cornwall Street NW
Shelburne Parish was cleaved from the western regions of the Parish of Cameron in 1769; the first St. James church would, a small brick meetinghouse, would come along in 1812. It would be torn down and replaced in 1838 and the cornerstone for he present church would be laid in 1895. Washington architect Leon Dessez adapted the Richardsonian Romanesque style pioneered by Henry Hobson Richardson, the most influential American architect of the post Civil War era, for this building. It features such hallmarks of the style as powerful arched entries, groupings of window openings in threes, a corner tower and multiple materials, here most evidenced by the brownstone trim.
TURN LEFT ON KING STREET.
Chapel of the Immaculate Conception
231 North King Street
The original wooden building for Saint John The Apostle Roman Catholic Church was constructed here on the edge of town in 1878 when the parish boasted but 80 families. It was cobbled together by local carpenters. In 1936, a wealthy parishioner directed the transformation of the simple meetinghouse into a version of a medieval French country church. The trefoil, three-lobed windows are French imports and the half-timbered porches are based on the elongated proportions seen in the portals of Chartres Cathedral. With a parish roster of some 3,000 families today, St. John’s has moved on to ever larger spaces but the chapel is still used for masses and weddings.
TURN AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON KING STREET, WALKING SOUTH TOWARDS THE CENTER OF TOWN.
11 North King Street
In 1888, Elijah White assisted in establishing the Peoples National Bank of Leesburg on King Street, which remained in operation until December 31, 1983 when it merged with First American Bank of Virginia. From 1997 to 1999, the Romanesque vault of stone and brick was fully restored and is now the upscale Lightfoot Restaurant.
Loudoun County Courthouse
East Market Street and North King Street
This has been the site for the courthouse since Loudoun County was formed in 1757. Although it looks like it could have been here for all those 250 years it is actually the third building to grace the site. It was constructed in 1894 on plans drawn by William C. West of Richmond. West was only 24 years old at the time, having taken over the successful practice of his father, Albert, who had died two years earlier. The Confederate memorial of roughhewn granite was erected in 1908.
TURN RIGHT AT MARKET STREET.
Tally Ho Theatre
19 W. Market Street
The Tally Ho Theatre screened its first movie on September 21, 1931, with the Sporting Blood starring Clark Gable and some unsavory shenanigans at the racetrack as the feature. Originally a single theater, it remained in operation until 2000 when Regal Cinemas lost its lease. It remained dark only a few years, however, until local ownership resurrected the movie house for another run.
25 West Market Street
The town government has led a peripatetic existence through the years. For many years it holed up in the former Leesburg Opera House at the corner of King and Loudoun streets before it was demolished in the 1950s. This property has developed through the years until a dedicated town government center was completed in 1989.
TURN AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS ALONG MARKET STREET BACK TO THE INTERSECTION WITH KING STREET AND CROSS.
Loudoun National Bank Building
1 East Market Street at South King Street
In its day, Loudoun National Bank was the county’s oldest, established in 1870. This building, still used as a banking house, has anchored the town’s most prominent corners since 1901. Its original Beaux Arts-flavored stone facade was given a more streamlined Art Deco-influenced makeover in the 1920s.
9 East Market Street
The first printed newspaper that appeared in Leesburg was called the True American and was printed in 1798. Patrick McIntyre purchased the fledgling operation in 1800 and struggled mightily to keep it afloat before he could do no more. But McIntrye was back in the game in 1808 with a mouthpiece for the party of Mr. Jefferson called The Washingtonian. It would continue publishing throughout the 19th century. In 1855 J.B. Taylor and B.F. Sheetz hit the streets with the Loudoun Mirror. The new paper would survive the departure of Sheetz and the onset of the Civil War and emerge by 1865 simply as the The Mirror. In 1903 The Mirror and The Washingtonian merged and in 1924 the paper absorbed the Loudoun Times that had been started in 1916 by Harry T. Harrison. Today the Loudoun Times-Mirror remains the county’s largest newspaper and has operated out of this building, constructed as a Dodge Motor Company showroom, since 1955.
United States Post Office
15 East Market Street
There was a time when the only contact the American people had with the federal government was with the post office. To that end, in the early 20th century the government set out to provide small towns with a significant piece of architecture via its post office buildings. Here the handsome 1923 post office was designed in the fashionable Colonial Revival style with a classical entry, raised brick corner quoins, and a balustraded roof.
16 East Market Street
Leesburg Academy was chartered by an act of the Virginia Assembly in 1799 to provide education in classical Latin studies for boys. A $10,000 lottery was proposed in 1836 to fund a new building for the school which appeared in 1845, next to the courthouse. The private school, unlike many of its brethren, survived the Civl War but abandoned its handsome Greek Revival quarters for new digs on North Street. But the coming wave of public education soon swept the Leesburg Academy out of business in 1879. The original Academy building with its imposing Ionic portico was purchased by the county and incorporated into its judicial complex.
WALK DOWN THE SLOPE AND STAY ON EAST MARKET STREET AS IT BENDS RIGHT AT THE SPLIT. MAKE YOUR WAY THROUGH THE PARKING LOT FOR THE SHOPS OF DODONA AND ONTO TH EGROUNDS OF DODONA MANOR VIA A BRICK WALKWAY.
310-312 East Market Street
Sixty-one year old Brigadier General George C. Marshall was two years into his job as Army Chief of Staff in 1941 and, with an eye towards retirement, purchased this 3.88 acre property and its early 19th-century manor house. Marshall hoped to devote most of his hours to his love of gardening but winning World War II and rebuilding Europe in its aftermath, for which he would win a Nobel Peace Prize, would instead occupy most of his time. Marshall would not be able to formally retire to Dodona Manor, which he named after the ancient Greek oracle that spoke through oak leaves like the ones that graced the grove of trees surrounding his house, until 1953. The manor house that Marshall would call home after 41 years of military housing was an elegant two-story Federal-style residence built between 1805 and 1826 by John Drish. George Marshall died in 1959 and the house remained in his family until 1995. Today the house and gardens are open to the public.
WALK BACK OUT TO EAST MARKET STREET AND HEAD BACK TOWARDS THE CENTER OF TOWN. TURN LEFT ON HARRISON STREET IN FRONT OF THE NEW COUNTY GOVERNMENT BUILDING AND TURN RIGHT ON LOUDOUN STREET.
4 Loudoun Street, SE
Mentally remove the entrance porch, a later Colonial Revival addition, and you have a fine example of a typical late 1700s Leesburg building. It is a relatively unadorned symmetrical Georgian-style structure with a heavy modillion cornice, composed of uncoursed local fieldstone. John Patterson was a land agent who arrived in Loudoun County in 1759 to collect rents for Charles Bennett, the Earl of Tankerville. He also was doing a bit of speculating himself and died mired in debt in the early 1770s. This was his property and his brother was forced to sell it off to help settle the dead man’s affairs. Patterson may have developed the property but this large five-bay stone structure is generally thought to have been built as a tavern by Henry McCabe after the Revolutionary War in the 1780s.
Loudoun Museum Log Cabin
14 Loudoun Street SW
This log house was the first project undertaken by the Loudoun Restoration and Preservation Society. It was originally constructed around 1760 by Stephen Donaldson, a silversmith. Donaldson obtained the property after the lot’s original owner failed to erect a structure meeting the specifications in the deed issued by Nicholas Minor who subdivided his land to form the Town of Leesburg. Leesburg was actually not that rustic a place when this diamond-notch log house was constructed. Donaldson clad his house in wooden siding. When the building was saved from demolition in the 1970s it was decided to strip away the veneer to highlight its construction.
Do Drop Inn
16 Loudoun Street SW
This simple two-story structure began life in the mid-19th century as the home of a furniture/undertaking business. In the early 1900s it was outfitted as the Do Drop Inn, one of the earliest African American businesses in Leesburg. Now home to the Loudoun Museum, there are many Civil War artifacts here, especially those pertaining to Loudoun’s war hero, Confederate “Gray Ghost” John Singleton Mosby.
The Birkby House
109 Loudoun Street SW
This example of a high-style Federal five-bay residence is an 1820s brick composite accomplished by Thomas Birkby. Birkby acquired the property in 1827, a piece of land that was designated as lot 59 on the original survey of the town. The first owner was James Hamilton, a trustee of the town and future member of the House of Burgesses, who purchased it in 1758 for ｣10, a premium since it already included a structure on the property. Across the street is another Federal-style house, the Norris House, that has been gussied up over the years. The two houses are linked not only by period of construction but by marriage, a Birkby girl married a Norris boy.
TURN RIGHT ON LIBERTY STREET AND LEFT ON MARKET STREET TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.