Few American cities have been as repeatedly shaped by war as Norfolk.
During the American Revolution the town, that had been incorporated in 1705 and granted a Royal charter as a borough in 1736, was a Loyalist stronghold mostly concerned with keeping its trade routes to England filled. This didn’t prevent the British from shelling the city in 1776. When eight hours of bombing ended almost two-thirds of the city was in flames. Local patriots destroyed the remaining buildings for strategic reasons.
British warships returned in the War of 1812 and again attacked the bustling port that had rebuilt in the previous 30 years. This time batteries at Fort Norfolk and Fort Nelson repulsed the invaders. Half a century later the War between the States brought a new series of disasters. After Virginia departed the Union, departing Federal troops burned the navy yard in Portsmouth. The ironclad CSS Virginia gained the Confederacy’s greatest naval victory when it sank the USS Cumberland and Congress on March 8, 1862, in Hampton Roads. When the Virginia set sail the next morning it was with the full expectation of finishing the destruction of the wooden Union fleet. Instead, it met the USS Monitor, another ironclad. People gathered on shore to watch the battle that would forever change naval warfare. After three hours, the Virginia retired, the battle a draw. Two months later, in May 1862, Mayor William Lamb surrendered Norfolk to General John E. Wood and Union forces. The city would remain under martial law for the duration of the war.
In 1907 the city staged the 300th birthday of the founding of Jamestown and during the exposition high-ranking naval officers agreed that the site was ideal for a permanent naval base. During World War I there were 34,000 enlisted men on the base. Eventually Naval Station Norfolk became the largest naval base in the world. The military remains the largest employer in Virginia’s second-largest city (behind neighboring Virginia Beach).
As a nod to the entwinement of the city’s fortunes with its military past our walking tour willbegin at a monument to Norfolk’s brief stay in the Confederate States of America...
opposite Commercial Park at East Main Street and Commercial Place
This towering pedestal of white Vermont granite is surmounted by the bronze figure of a Confederate soldier, sculpted by William Couper. The pedestal was erected in 1889 on this center lot of the original town of Norfolk, but the monument was not completed until 1907 when more funds became available.
WALK NORTH THROUGH COMMERCIAL PARK TO PLUME STREET AND TURN LEFT.
U.S. Post Office and Courts Building
235 East Plume Street at Bank Street
This rare Neo-Palladian Revival Style building from 1898 would be more at home on the streets of Europe than in a southern U.S. city. While similar to the Neoclassical style popular for early 20th century municipal buildings rusticatedstonework, engagedentrancepavilion, andinterior arcadessuggesttheinfluences ofthe Palladianschool. The architects were James Wyatt and William Nolting of Baltimore. After the federal government moved up Granby Street in 1934 the building was transferred to the city which used it as City Hall from 1937 until 1965. After decades as a private office building the Main Branch of the Norfolk Public Library, organized in 1870, moved here.
TURN RIGHT AND WALK NORHT ON BANK STREET ONE BLOCK TO EAST CITY HALL AVENUE. TURN LEFT.
200 block of East City Hall Avenue
The Greek concept of a protected, enclosed trading area began in America in Providence, Rhode Island in 1828 and became popular in downtowns across America. Percy S. Stephenson, who dabbled as an attorney, real estate agent and auctioneer built Norfolk’s version in 1907. The three-story Beaux Arts building of the Ionic order is faced with polychromed terra-cotta. The Monticello Arcade thrived into the 1940s and after a 1980s restoration is one of only two shopping arcades standing in Virginia.
TURN RIGHT ON MONTICELLO AVENUE AND AFTER ONE BLOCK TURN LEFT ON TAZEWELL STREET.
110 East Tazewell Street
Jake Wells was the player-manger of the Richmond Colts baseball team in the 1890s. During the off-season in 1898 Wells was shopping downtown for equipment in a store in the former Opera House. Intrigued by its history, before he left Wells was out of the baseball business and in the vaudeville business. He renovated the theater and by January 1899 was welcoming the day’s top performers to Richmond. Two years later Wells was in Norfolk with the Granby Theatre. With his brother Otto, Wells would eventually operate 42 theaters in nine states - the largest theater circuit outside New York City. The Beaux Arts namesake Wells theatre came online as the flagship playhouse in 1913. The ornate Wells Theatre sported 1,650 seats with 12 boxes and three balconies. The Wells brothers sold their theater interests in 1926. Jake Wells left town for Hendersonville, North Carolina where he committed suicide the following year and after winning two minor league baseball pennants with the Norfolk Tars Otto Wells died of a heart attack at the age of 66 in 1940. The Wells Theatre, since restored to its 1913 splendor, is home to the nationally recognized Virginia Stage Company.
TURN LEFT ONTO GRANBY STREET, HISTORICALLY THE MAIN COMMERCIAL STREET IN NORFOLK.
Virginia Bank and Trust Building
101 Granby Street
This four-story Beaux Arts building was erected in 1908-09 on plans by Baltimore architects Wyatt and Notting. The site had previously been occupied by the Atlantic Hotel that had been destroyed by fire. Notable for its parade of massive fluted Ionic columns, the structure was hailed as “one of the finest bank buildings in the state by the Ledger-Dispatch. The Virginia Bank and Trust Company was founded in 1902 at the center of Norfolk’s emerging financial district. The building was subsequently the home of various banks until it was acquired by Donald S. Lewis in 1977 who set up the Auslew Gallery that evolved into the Tidewater’s leading art gallery. While the interior was re-adapted the exterior remained intact as one of the area’s few classically designed structures.
Main Street at Granby Street
The Customs Collection District of Norfolk and Portsmouth was one of the first 59 collection districts established on July 31, 1789. The customs inspectors occupied at least six earlier buildings before the first dedicated customhouse was built in 1819. It would eventually be converted into a Federal prison during the Civil War, after which it was burned. It was replaced by this stone temple that was completed in 1859, designed by Ammi B. Young, the first supervising architect for the United States Treasury Department. Young oversaw the development of more than 70 government buildings across the country, including the customhouses in Richmond and Petersburg. The Corinthian capitals of the portico and the columns of the interior are of cast iron. Until 1900 all the Federal agencies in the city were located under this roof. The United States Customs Service lost many of its historic customhouses andwhen this building dodged demolition in the late 20th century it became the oldest extant building constructed for and continuously occupied by the Customs Service until it was replaced in 2000.
TURN RIGHT AND WALK ONE BLOCK, CROSSING OVER WATERSIDE DRIVE INTO THE PARK.
Town Point Park
120 West Main Street
Town Point Park is what emerged after the Norfolk waterfront cycled through urban renewal in the 1970s. The park recently received an $11 million facelift. It plays host to over 100 days of free special events each year. You can relax on one of the park’s 87 benches.
One Waterside Drive
This maritime-themed science museum on the downtown Norfolk waterfront features hands-on-exhibits and the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. Berthed at Nauticus, the Battleship Wisconsin is one of the largest and last battleships ever built by the U.S. Navy. Commissioned in the Philadelphia Naval Yard in 1943, the Wisconsin earned five battle stars for her World War II service and one for the Korean War. The ship also received the Navy Unit Commendation for service during the first Gulf War.
WALK NORTH ON BOUSCH STREET (THE WATER WILL BE ON YOUR LEFT. TURN LEFT ON TAZEWELL STREET. TURN RIGHT ON DUKE STREET.
327 Duke Street
This two-story Georgian-style house wrapped in corner quoins was constructed in the 1790s for Matthew Hervey, a shipping merchant. The front of the brick house was stuccoed and scored to resemble more elegant ashlar stone. Harrison Allmand bought the property in 1802 and offered the house to the United States military as a headquarters during the War of 1812. The house acquired its Greek Revival doorway and heavy window lintels during the mid-19th century as it passed into the Archer family through marriage.
TURN LEFT ON FREEMASON STREET.
James W. Hunter House
240 West Freemason Street
The blocks around Freemason Street were the first to be developed outside the boundaries of the original fifty acres of the Colonial town. In 1850 the City’s first gas lamps were installed along Freemason Street as the neighborhood evolved into one of Norfolk’s finest residential enclaves. Now designated a Historic district, West Freemason Street retains its cobblestone paving, granite curbs, cast iron fences and brick sidewalks. James Wilson Hunter, a prominent Norfolk merchant and banker, retained Boston architect W.P. Wentworth to design a new town house for his family on Freemason Street. Wentworth created a compact Richardsonian Romanesque style building with such hallmarks of the style as rough-cut stone, prominent entrance arch, arched windows in groups of three and side tower. The three Hunter children never married and all lived out their lives in this house; when the last daughter died in the 1960s the family home became a house museum.
TURN AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON FREEMASON STREET, WALKING EAST, AWAY FROM THE WATER.
227 West Freemason Street at Duke Street
Norfolk once boasted many brick Federal-style houses constructed in the bustling days after the American Revolution. Most are gone today but this one that survives is one of the finest standing in the country. The site was confiscated from Tory sympathizers after the battle for Independence. The origins of the early 1790s house are murky but Norfolk merchant and mayor, John Cowper, was living here by 1802 when he sold it to Richard Taylor, an English importer. His descendants lived here until the early 1970s when the house was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Epworth United Methodist Church
124 W. Freemason Street at Bousch Street
The Epworth congregation broke away from Cumberland Street Church in 1850 and established themselves as the Granby Street Methodist Church on the second floor of a building on the corner of Granby and Freemason streets. In 1894 the church laid the cornerstone for its new church here to be constructed on plans by Norfolk architects John Edwin Ruthven Carpenter and John Kevan Peebles who drew heavily on the work of Henry Hobson Richardson, the most influential architect of the late 19th century. Highlighted by brawny, rough-cut stone and multi-chromaticmaterials the church is the only Richardsonian Romanesque building in the Tidewater region. Upon its dedication on January 19, 1896 the congregation adopted the name Epworth from the boyhood home of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.
TURN LEFT ON GRANBY STREET.
421 Granby Street
The grand opening for this exuberant vaudeville and motion picture house took place on February 21, 1916. The Granby thrived until television and the development of suburban malls drained American downtowns in the 1960s. The closing of the theater doors in 1987 marked both the end of an era and the final days of the old building’s life as a movie house. For nearly two decades, the Granby sat, empty and forgotten, until recently when this lovely building was painstakingly restored to its original splendor.
WALK ACROSS 9TH STREET ONTO FRANKLIN STREET.
US Post Office and Courthouse
600 Granby Street
Here is Norfolk’s only prominent public building executed in the Art Deco style, designed by local architect Benjamin F. Mitchell. The four-story gray limestone building, rising in tiers, is highlighted by carved geometric bands. The stripped-down classicism of the Art Deco style was a favorite for government buildings during the Depression. The impetus for the new post office, completed in 1934, was an “8-fold” increase in local mail volume.
TURN RIGHT ON BUTE STREET.
Norfolk Scope Arena
201 East Brambleton Avenue at Monticello Avenue
Opened in 1971, Norfolk Scope is the host to a wide variety of events, including Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus, conventions, concerts and family shows. Scope is also the home of the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League.
TURN RIGHT ON MONTICELLO AVENUE AND TURN LEFT ON CHARLOTTE STREET. TURN RIGHT ON BANK STREET.
420 Bank Street at east Charlotte Street
Norfolk Academy was created on November 12, 1728. After several incarnations, in 1840 the Trustees determined to build a new schoolhouse and famed architect Thomas U. Walter was retained to provide a design. Walter modeled his building after the Temple of Theseus in Athens, Greece, with six beautiful Doric columns at the entrance to the east and west porticos. During the 1855 yellow fever epidemic it was used temporarily as Norfolk’s Post Office. The building also housed Norfolk’s first public library. The Academy moved on in the 20th century and sold the building to the City; the school continues today and the building has served as a court, a Naval headquarters and Chamber of Commerce office since.
Freemason Street Baptist Church
400 East Freemason Street at Bank Street
Founded in May of 1848 with 77 charter members, the congregation has spent over 150 years in this magnificent Gothic Revival church designed by Thomas U. Walter, best known for his work on the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. Normally at home with the columns and domes of classical designs, here Walter outfitted this landmark church with buttresses and pinnacles for Norfolk’s most prominent Baptist congregation. It was the tallest building in Norfolk until its original steeple was toppled in a storm in 1879; the replacement was much more modest in height.
Moses Myers House
Freemason and Bank streets
Moses Myers came to Norfolk from New York City at the age of 34 in 1787 and became of the town’s richest merchant princes. He built this distinguished Federal town house in 1792, one of the first brick buildings to appear on Norfolk streets after the destruction of the the town during the Revolution. The house was added on to through the years as Myers became superintendent of the Norfolk branch of the Bank of Richmond and accepted diplomatic positions in Europe. The addition containing the octagonal end dining room, considered one of the finest rooms of its period in the country. The Marquis de Lafayette, James Monroe, Stephen Decatur, Henry Clay and President Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft all dined here. The house remained in the Myers family until 1931.
TURN LEFT ON FREEMASON STREET.
601 East Freemason Street
Captain William Willoughby built this brick house in 1794 on ancestral family land. He was a descendant of Captain Thomas Willougby who received a Royal grant of 200 acres here in 1636. Fifty of those acres became the town of Norfolk in 1682. The brick house slid into disrepair after it was sold out of the Willoughby-Baylor family in 1890 and faced the wrecking ball for years until it was rescued by the Historic Norfolk Foundation in 1964. It was restored to its 1790s appearance and stands as an early middle class Norfolk home in contrast to the upper crust Moses Myers House across the way.
TURN RIGHT ON ST. PAUL’S BOULEVARD.
St. Paul’s Church
201 St. Paul’s Boulevard and City Hall Avenue
In Colonial Virginia, Norfolk was the largest and most prosperous town in America’s dominant colony. As the Revolution brewed elsewhere the ruling merchant class in Norfolk was more concerned with business than politics. After being driven from the capital in Williamsburg in 1775 John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, relocated his Royal government in Norfolk. In December 1775, after skirmishing at Great Bridge, it became apparent that Dunmore would not be able to hold the town in the face of growing Patriot pressure. The Loyalists boarded ships from the Royal Navy and anchored offshore. Ongoing negotiations with rebel leaders to allow foraging in Norfolk proved fruitless and Dunmore announced he was going to shell the city. Before dawn on January 1, 1776, the bombardment began. As waterfront warehouses burned, the intractable rebel militia set fire to prominent Tory homes in spiteful retribution. The conflagration soon became so widespread that Patriot militia decided to destroy the entire town to prevent its use by the British. When Dunmore moved back to Norfolk he built provisional barracks but soon departed. The city would not revive until after the Revolution. Built in 1739 on the site of an earlier 1641 church known as the “Chapel of Ease,” St. Paul’s is Norfolk’s oldest building and only structure to survive the British destruction of the city on New Year’s Day, 1776 - albeit with only its walls standing. The old building was repaired and reconsecrated as St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in 1832. A cannonball fired by Lord Dunmore of the British fleet remains lodged in the southeastern wall.
TURN RIGHT ON EAST CITY HALL AVENUE.
422 City Hall Avenue
After Norfolk became an independent city in 1845 work got under way to build a home for the new government. Portsmouth architect William Singleton, then practicing in St. Louis, designed the Classical Revival building, getting an assist on the dome from Philadelphian Thomas Ustick Walter who designed the dome for the United States Capitol. Mayor and Confederate major William Wilson Lamb stood on these steps on May 10, 1862 and surrendered the city to Union forces in the Civil War after which there was an elaborate flag raising of “Old Glory.” The Federal force of 6,000 landed under Major General John E. Wood, with President Abraham Lincoln and key cabinet members watching the movement from a ship in the harbor. The city offices were relocated in 1918 and the building carried on as a courthouse until 1960. After General Douglas MacArthur chose Norfolk - the city of his mother’s birth and childhood - as his final resting place the city offered to reconfigure the former city hall as a memorial to the United States’ youngest major general and Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Pacific during World War II. Restored and remodeled, the building contains nine museum galleries whose contents reflect the general’s fifty years of military service. Douglas MacArthur died in 1964 and was interred in a sunken marble crypt in the building’s rotunda.
TURN LEFT AND MAKE YOUR WAY BACK THROUGH MARKET SQUARE AND COMMERCIAL PARK BACK TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.