Migrants, mostly Germans and Scotch-Irish from Pennsylvania began following a time-etched Indian path known as the Great Wagon Road into the Shenandoah Valley in the 1730s. In 1778 the Virginia Legislature was ready to carve out a new county here which they named Rockbridge for a 90-foot natural bridge of stone that spanned a 215-foot gorge cut by Cedar Creek. The owner at the time was Thomas Jefferson, who acquired 157 acres on the creek for 20 shillings. At the same time a county seat was designated on land donated by Isaac Campbell where his family operated a ford where the Great Wagon Road crossed the North River. It was named Lexington after the Massachusetts town that had helped spark the American Revolution three years before.
Much of the early business of the town was courthouse-related, conducted from mostly log buildings that were erected around the grid pattern that was created to form four interior blocks. Most of those logs burned in a fire that destroyed the town in 1796. Lexington quickly rebuilt from the proceeds of a lottery. Also rebuilding a small struggling 50-year old school started by Presbyterians in 1749. The funds for the school’s salvation came from President George Washington himself and Lexington’s future course as a college town was set. For more than 200 years the main industry of Lexington has been education; first with Washington and Lee University and then Virginia Miltiary Institute.
Lexington largely escaped the ravages of the Civil War, although Union troops burned buildings during a brief occupation in retaliation for VMI’s role in the Battle of New Market. The first steam engine belching smoke arrived from Richmond in 1881 and led to a concentrated area of small manufacturing and commerce in town. Today Lexington holds sway as the cultural hub of Rockbridge County.
Our explorations will touch on three historic districts stuffed into a compact geographic area: downtown, Washington and Lee and Virginia Military Institute. And we will begin in a small greenspace that pre-dates them all...
Nelson and Jefferson streets
This small greenspace was part of the Lot #34 of the original platting of the town of Lexington in 1778. In 1788 James Hopkins purchased the property and it remained in the Hopkins family for almost 200 years until it was gifted to the Historic Lexington Foundation and preserved as a park.
WITH YOUR BACK TO THE HOPKINS GREEN, TURN LEFT ON NELSON STREET. TURN RIGHT ON LEE STREET. AT THE END OF THE STREET, ACROSS THE ROAD IS...
R. E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church
123 West Washington Street
This was Grace Church when it was Robert E. Lee was a vestryman here. The church was founded in 1840 by a friend of the Lee’s, General Francis Henney Smith. Smith was also the first superintendent of Virginia Military Institute and serving for fifty years. The church, constructed in the 1870, was renamed after the Confederate commander’s death.
TURN LEFT ON WASHINGTON STREET AND TURN RIGHT PAST THE CHURCH ONTO THE WASHINGTON AND LEE UNIVERSITY CAMPUS, WHICH NOTED BRITISH WRITER JOHN COWPER POWYS ONCE CALLED “THE MOST BEAUTIFUL IN AMERICA.” THE FIRST BUILDING, UP THE HILL TO YOUR LEFT, IS...
Washington and Lee Campus
Education began here in 1780 when the Liberty Hall Academy, started in 1749 as the Augusta Academy, relocated to Lexington. The school was tottering financially, however, in 1796 when George Washington endowed the academy with a gift of $20,000 of James River Canal Stock. Even though it was one of the largest educational endowments ever given up to that time it was not until 1813 that the name of the school was changed to Washington College. In 1865 Robert E. Lee embarked on his post-military career as president of the College. Three days after his death in 1870 the name was changed to Washington and Lee University. Robert E. Lee began his tenure at Washington College living in further down the walk. In 1868, at the bequest of school trustees, Lee directed the building of a more spacious home. C. W. Oltmanns, an architectural modeler at the Virginia Military Institute, adapted a popular Italianate design from a pattern book to create the brick house with a broad, bracketed cornice. A cistern on the roof fed running water into the house and in the colder months the Lees enjoyed central heating. The general added the generous porch so that his arthritic wife Mary Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha Custis Washington, could enjoy the campus and the passing students from her wheelchair.
NEXT, ON YOUR LEFT IS...
Washington and Lee Campus
This was a decidedly smaller house when erected by school president Henry Ruffner in 1842. Ruffner was followed into the residence by his successor, George Junkin. When his daughter Elinor married a 29-year old instructor at neighboring Virginia Military Institute named Thomas J. (to be immortalized as “Stonewall”) Jackson in 1853 an addition was built onto the house for the couple. When Robert E. Lee became president of Washington College he lived in the same home, now known as the Lee-Jackson House.
ON YOUR RIGHT IS...
Washington and Lee Campus
The brick non-denominational chapel with a spired clock tower was constructed in 1868 at the request of new school president, Robert E. Lee. The lower level served as office space and a student gathering area and the upper level was an “audience room,” still the university’s largest. The chapel would become known as “The Shrine of the South” when a mausoleum addition was dedicated in June 1883 as the final resting place for Lee and his wife. The chapel is also home of a life-size marble statue, Recumbent Lee, that had been commissioned by the Lee Memorial Association in 1870. Robert E. Lee owned many horses but his favorite was an American Saddlebred he purchased in 1861 and rode throughout the Civil War, Traveller. The iron grey stallion died of tetanus a year after Lee and was buried along Woods Creek adjoining the campus. His bones would be exhumed in 1875 and went on display in the university museum. His remains were finally reburied outside the Chapel’s side door in 1971.
WALK OVER TO THE STATUE ON THE LAWN.
Washington and Lee Campus
Cyrus Hall McCormick hailed from a farm in Rockbridge County, north of Lexington. While still in his teens Cyrus, who was born three days after Abraham Lincoln in 1809, joined the family crusade to develop a mechanical reaper. His father had spent nearly 30 years working on a horse-drawn harvesting machine and obtained several patents but could never develop a reliable and marketable reaper. Cyrus received a patent for his version of a mechanical reaper in 1834 but would not sell one for another six years. Orders dribbled in for the next few years with all machines constructed by hand in the family farm shop. Finally McCormick received a second patent in 1845 for improvements and two years later moved to Chicago to lay the seeds for what would become the International Harvester Company in 1902. Although he himself received no formal education, McCormick was a generous benefactor to the school and this statue was unveiled in his honor in 1931.
UP THE HILL TO THE RIGHT IS...
Washington and Lee Campus
Prior to 1840 Washington College proceeded without a master plan for the grounds. The face of the campus going forward would evolve rapidly thereafter. Three disparate existing buildings would be linked by single-story hyphens and given full-height classical porticos. The Center Building, erected in 1824, was the oldest and already sported a Tuscan portico, albeit one that was too tall for its diminutive pediment. It was taken apart and rebuilt and given a cupola modeled on the go-to classical influence of the day - the Temple of the Winds in Athens. The cupola would be surmounted by a statue of George Washington, known affectionately as “Old George.” It was carved from a log found floating in the Maury River decades earlier by Matthew Kahle.
The newly conjoined buildings, an academic building called the Lyceum from 1830 and a dormitory named for “Jockey John” Robinson, who willed his entire estate to the college in 1821, were outfitted withmatching square porticoes. Four complimentary buildings were also constructed flanking the Colonnade along the crest of the then-barren hill. Robert E. Lee would plant the first trees and lay out paths of crushed gravel a quarter-century later.
CONTINUE WALKING ON THE PATH TO THE ROAD THAT IS LETCHER AVENUE. FOLLOW LETCHER AVENUE THROUGH THE GATES OF VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE TO THE PARADE GROUND.
Virginia Military Institute
Virginia Military Institute (VMI) was founded in 1839, the first state military college in the land. The campus was built on the site of the crumbling former Lexington Arsenal that had been constructed in 1816. Its appearance today is the handiwork of Alexander Jackson Davis who the leading cheerleader for the “secular Gothic” style of architecture in America in the mid-1800s. At VMI Jackson created the first campus in America executed entirely in the Gothic Revival style. The expansive five-story building across the 12-acre Parade Ground from the entrance road is the Barracks, begun in 1848, where all cadets are quartered. The grounds of the college are speckled with statues and monuments to American military legends.
ACROSS THE PARADE GROUND OPPOSITE THE BARRACKS IS...
George C. Marshall Research Library
George Catlett Marshall, the son of a prosperous coke and coal merchant, graduate from VMI in 1901 and rose to become General of the Army, the second highest rank obtainable in the United States Army. Only George Washington and John J. Pershing ever outranked him as General of the Armies of the United States. Marshall, who was twice named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” and served as Secretary of State, won the 1953 Nobel Peace Prize as architect of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe following World War II. The research library dedicated to his career opened in 1964.
WHEN YOU ARE FINISHED EXPLORING VMI RETRACE YOUR STEPS OFF CAMPUS ALONG LETCHER AVENUE. AT THE BOTTOM TURN RIGHT ON JEFFERSON STREET AND LEFT ON HENRY STREET. AT MAIN STREET, TURN RIGHT.
Sheridan Livery Inn
35 North Main Street
This brick building was constructed in 1887 by John Sheridan to serve as a livery. Sheridan came from Ireland and found himself fighting in the Civil War. He emerged on the other side to become a leading Lexington businessman. Among his interests was the stagecoach line and mail delivery contract in the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan managed to remain in business through the coming of the automobile until 1919 when he sold the building to he Rockbridge Steam Laundry Corporation. The laundry turned the old carriage doors into custom windows during a stay of over 50 years. In recent years the building has done duty as an indoor shopping mall and, most recently, a restaurant and inn.
30 North Main Street
Shopkeeper William Willson served the community as postmaster and treasurer of Washington College from 1803 until his death in 1840. He retained local builders John Jordan and Samuel Darst for this impressive house in 1820. The two-story Doric portico supporting a triangular pediment is an early rendering of the Greek Revival style that Jordan and Darst introduced on th eWashington College campus. After the Willsons died the property, including several outbuildings, was purchased at auction for $3,000 by James C. Paxton, the town’s first mayor. Walker was Harry Lee Walker who bought the house in 1911 and operated a butcher shop here.
Jacob Ruff House
21 North Main Street
This Federal-style, center-hall brick house was constructed in the 1820s by John Ruff who had a hat factory next door. This 2-1/2 story building was used as a Ruff residence and showroom. Jacob Ruff was his son and a mayor of Lexington who took possession of the property in 1850. The unusual placement of the street-side door (with delicate fanlight) several feet off the ground is evidence of the lowering of the town streets in 1851 that necessitated the entrance be moved to the side.
11 North Main Street
John McCampbell began building on this property in 1809; a small addition came along on the southern end in 1816 and a larger section was added to the north in 1857. Over the years townsfolk came here to buy jewelry, visit the doctor, pick up mail and send telegraphs. In 1907 porches were added and opened for business as the Central Hotel. By 1971 the guest house had become run-down and was purchased by the Historic Lexington Foundation who salvaged the building.
1 North Main Street at Washington Street
The handiwork of local master builders John Jordan and Samuel Darst can be seen on this building from 1820, including sophisticated Flemish bond to lay the brick and a molded brick cornice at the roofline. Samuel M. Dold bought the building, much enlarged, in 1830 and it would stay in the family for the next 114 years, operating as a general store and pharmacy for much of that time. Movie-goers may recognize this corner for its star turn in the post-Civil War drama Sommersby with Jodie Foster and Richard Gere in the leads.
ACROSS THE STREET IS...
3 West Washington Street at Main Street
Prosperous merchant William Alexander built this expansive townhouse and store in 1789, using glazed headers to fashion the distinctive patterns in the brickwork. It was one of the few 18th-century Lexington buildings to escape a lethal 1796 fire. The heavy-bracketed Italianate cornice at the roofline came along in the 1870s. The lower floor was exposed with the grading of the streets in the mid-1800s. This was the first building saved by the Historic Lexington Foundation after it was founded in 1966.
ON THE OPPOSITE CORNER IS...
Rockbridge County Courthouse
2 South Main Street
This corner of Main and Washington streets was designated to be the site of Rockbridge County’s public buildings from the time of Lexington’s founding in 1778. By 1803 a brick courthouse stood here. This building dates to 1897 and was designed by Lexington native William McDowell, who used red Washington pressed brick trimmed with Kentucky bluestone to create the classically inspired courthouse. The symmetrical building with a recessed central block in the front and projecting central blocks on the sides rests on a foundation of gray Rockbridge limestone. The building served over 100 years into the 21st century before the county built a replacement two blocks away. Private ownership resuscitated the crumbling landmark in 2009.
TURN LEFT ON WASHINGTON STREET.
Stonewall Jackson House
8 East Washington Street
This brick townhouse was constructed in 1802 and went from unremarkable to historic in 1859 when it was purchased for $3,000 by a professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at the Virginia Military Institute named Thomas Jonathan Jackson. Jackson had served in the Mexican-American War before leaving the military at the age of 27 to accept the newly created teaching position at VMI in 1851. He settled into Lexington becoming a leader on campus and in the community, especially as a church leader. This was the only house he ever owned. When the Civil War erupted Jackson widely admired as a tactical commander, signed on with the Confederacy and never saw the house again. He received his famous nickname of “Stonewall” during the first major engagement of the war at the First Battle of Bull Run and was fatally wounded by his own troops during the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. In 1907 the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Hospital opened in the house, and it became a museum in 1954.
101 East Washington Street at Randolph Street
This house was constructed in the 1840s by hotel owner Alexander T. Sloan who added several elegant Federal-style details to his distinguished manor house, including two false windows on the Randolph street side to maintain a symmetrical appearance without actually experiencing the dust and noise from the street below. Four Waddell sisters acquired the house in 1866 and began taking in boarders from the local schools. Eventually the house was inherited by Leslie Lyle Campbell who deeded it in 1939 to the Rockbridge Historical Society, which he had helped organize, in 1964. It now does duty as the Society’s headquarters and is open as a museum.
WALK DOWN WASHINGTN STREET TO THE BUILDING BEHIND CAMPBELL HOUSE.
107 East Washington Street
Along Washington Street Alexander T. Sloan constructed rental properties below his mansion house. This one appeared in the 1840s, constructed on a steep slope so there are three stories in the back and two on the street. The property was also donated to the Rockbridge Historical Society. It is currently the home of the Rockbridge Weekly that has been covering the valley since 1916.
RETURN TO RANDOLPH STREET AND TURN LEFT.
6 Randolph Street
This rambling limestone building lays claim as Lexington’s oldest with its earliest parts constructed shortly after the the town was chartered in 1778. Its original use was as offices for lawyers and none of the rooms were connected - each had a separate entrance. It is another rental property of the Rockbridge Historical Society.
TURN RIGHT ON NELSON STREET AND WALK TO THE CORNER OF MAIN STREET.
Lexington Presbyterian Church
120 South Main Street
Area Presbyterians worshiped at Hall’s Meeting House, five miles west of town, from the beginning of settlement in the 1740s. The church formally organized in 1789, staging outdoor services during the warmer months and meeting in the county courthouse until 1799 when a brick church was raised near today’s Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery. This Greek Revival meeting house came along in 1845, designed by Thomas U. Walter who would become best known for his work on the dome of the United State Capitol. Jackson was a member of the church and a popular Sunday School teacher. The building has undergone several expansions but the superb proportions of Walter’s design is still in evidence.
TURN RIGHT ON MAIN STREET.
Robert E. Lee Building
30 South Main Street
In the 1920s civic boosters of small cities across America began craving large, impressive hotels like those commonly found in their big-city sisters. In Lexington it was the Hotel Robert E. Lee that became the town’s tallest building. It came with a price tag in 1926 of $250,000.
First National Bank
22 South Main Street
This Georgian Revival brick building was designed in 1902 by Colonel R.A. Marr of the Virginia Military Institute. Although its primary purpose was for the First National Bank, chartered in 1890 (it was outfitted with elaborate plaster molding and Italian marble), the building also housed a post office, a barbershop and a radio station. The space has been re-adapted for retail use that incorporates the original 25-ton main vault.
TURN AND WALK BACK UP TO NELSON STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
12 West Nelson Street
This historic Georgian Revival-style brick theater is still screening first-run movies. A high point for the State came in 1938 when it hosted the world premiere of Brother Rat, a film about students at the Virginia Military Institute and featuring scenes shot on campus. Two of the leading players were Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman who met on the set and later married.
20 West Nelson Street
The News-Gazette can traces its beginning back more than 200 years to when the Lexington Gazette was founded in 1801. The “News” comes down from the Rockbridge County News that is a mere pup, having started in 1884. The two merged in 1962 to carry on as The News-Gazette. Its ancestry makes the paper the third oldest in Virginia and the oldest in the commonwealth west of the Blue Ridge mountains.
CONTINUE A FEW MORE STEPS TO THE NEXT BLOCK AND THE START OF THE WALKING TOUR.