After a series of Indian attacks in the 1670s planters and settlers led by 29-year old Nathaniel Bacon rose up against Virginia Colonial Governor William Berkeley for his refusal to retaliate. Bacon’s Rebellion was eventually squashed. Property of the participants was seized by the Crown and 20 conspirators hanged. Among them was Captain William Carver who owned a plantation along the brackish waters of the Elizabeth River. Carver’s confiscated land was granted in 1716 to Colonel William Crawford who in 1750 “laid out a parcel of land into one hundred and twenty-two lots, commodious streets, places for a courthouse, market and public landings. He named the place Portsmouth and presented it to Norfolk County.
Portsmouth has a long history as a port town. Scotsman Andrew Sprowle founded the Gosport Shipyard adjacent to Portsmouth in 1767. The British government, recognizing the value of the enterprise, soon took over the yard as a repair station and appointed Sprowle as navy agent. The yard, renamed the Norfolk Naval Shipyard after the Civil War, would grow into one of the world’s largest and dominate the economy of the city. During World War II, more than 40,000 workers were employed in the shipyard.
Today Portsmouth boasts the largest concentration of antique houses between Alexandria and Charleston, South Carolina but before we delve into the square mile that has come to be known as the Olde Towne Historic District we will start at that famous shipyard...
Water and London streets
The U.S. Lightship Service was started in 1820 with ships’ masts outfitted with lights to serve as portable navigation aids. This lightship was put into service in 1915 and guided ships through the dangerous shoals off the coasts of Virginia, Delaware and Massachusetts for 48 years. In 1964, she was retired to Portsmouth and renamed according to the custom of naming lightships after the site where they are stationed. Now a National Historic Landmark ad museum, the ship’s quarters are fitted out realistically and filled with fascinating artifacts, uniforms, photographs, models, and more.
WALK SOUTH ALONG THE WATERFRONT (THE WATER IS ON YOUR LEFT).
Naval Shipyard Museum
2 High Street
Founded in 1767 as the Gosport Shipyard, this became one of America’s oldest and largest naval shipyards. During the Revolutionary War, the shipyard was described by the British as “the most considerable one in America” and as a testament to its importance it was burned three times. The Virginia militia took control of the naval yard on April 20, 1861. The fleeing federal force destroyed war material worth five million dollars in their retreat. The Confederates salvaged what they could, including a steam frigate that had burned to the waterline, the USS Merrimack. Raised into a drydock - the country;s first and still and in use - the Merrimack was repaired and emerged a year later as the world’s first ironclad warship, the CSS Virginia. Other historic ships built here include the the nation’s first battleship, the Texas and the nation’s first aircraft carrier, the Langley. At its peak during World War II, the yard employed nearly 43,000 workers.
WALK OUT OF RIVERFRONT PARK ONTO HIGH STREET AND BEGIN WALKING AWAY FROM THE WATER.
Virginia Sports Hall of Fame
206 High Street
The Virginia Sports Hall of Fame was founded in 1966 by J. Herbert Simpson after returning from a trip to Texas where he had seen the Lone Star State’s hall of fame. The first members were enshrined in 1972 and five years later the Hall moved into a new home at Court and High Street in space donated by the city of Portsmouth. In 2005, the Hall opened this 35,000 square-foot facility.
TURN LEFT AT COURT STREET AND STAY ON THE EAST SIDE OF THE STREET.
Bangel Law Building
505 Court Street
A.A. Bangel began his law practice in 1915; this office building with a French Second Empire clock tower poking out of a masonry frame was constructed in 1949.
First Presbyterian Church
515 Court Street
This is the third church for the congregation that was organized. Its predecessors were each destroyed by fire. The Presbyterians moved here in 1871 and needed to rebuild this church in 1877 after a January fire. A complete make-over that included a new slate roof and exterior stucco took place in 1994.
Portsmouth Public Library
601 Court Street
This Colonial Revival brick building was constructed by the federal government in 1909 as a post office. In 1963 it was outfitted to house the public library. The city’s first library was organized in 1914 in a small room behind the Courthouse with books donated by the Seaboard Air Line Railroad and the YMCA. Blacks were not allowed to check out books in Portsmouth until 1945 when a separate library was established for their use. The two collections merged when this building opened.
CROSS THE STREET AND TURN RIGHT, HEADING BACK TOWARDS HIGH STREET.
Trinity Episcopal Church
500 Court Street at High Street
This church was built on one of the four corner lots that Colonel William Crawford gave for public buildings in 1750. The brick building with tan stucco was completed in 1762 and has had remodelings over the years. The bell, which cracked while pealing the celebratory news of the British surrender in the Revolution, was also recast. The churchyard was the first public burying ground in the town and is the final resting place of several city fathers dating to 1763.
Town Square; High and Court streets
The plain shaft of North Carolina granite stands 56 feet high and is surrounded by four sentinels representing the Confederate Navy,Army,Cavalry and Artillery. The shaft was finished in 1881, the statues were later additions. A single star on the face of the capstone faces south.
TURN LEFT ON HIGH STREET.
Courthouse Galleries Museum
420 High Street at Court Street
The first courthouse for Norfolk County, erected 1691-93, stood on land later part of Norfolk City, was burned by the British in 1776, and was rebuilt between 1784 and 1788. In 1801-03 a courthouse was built in Portsmouth on this, the third site. This brick building, with broad stone steps leading to a shallow, four-columned portico, was erected between 1844 and 1846. Architects Willoughby G. Butler & William B. Singleton contributed the Greek Revival design. It now houses the Courthouse Galleries featuring contemporary and traditional art from around the world.
421 High Street
Portsmouth native William Stanley “Bunkie” Wilder caught the movie bug at an early age while working the lobby of the Granby Theater in Norfolk and the Orpheum in his hometown. He opened his first theater in 1928 when he built the Norfolk and went on to develop a chain of movie houses. The Commodore, built in the streamlined Art Deco style by Baltimore architect John J. Zink and named for Commodore James Barron, commander of the Chesapeake during the War of 1812, who is buried in the church-yard next door, became his flagship theater when it opened on November 14, 1945. On the bill the first night was She Wouldn’t Say Yes, a romantic comedy starring Rosalind Russell as a self-assured doctor whose world gets turned upside down when she meets an impulsive comic strip author. The Commodore showed motion pictures and hosted community stage presentations until 1975, when it closed for twelve years. In 1987, Fred Schoenfeld acquired the theatre and spent two and a half years restoring the nautically-themed movie house. He re-opened the Commodore on December 21, 1989 as a first-run movie theatre with full-service dining ― the first such cinema-eatery in the United States.
Governor Dinwiddie Hotel
506 Dinwiddie Street at High Street
This seven-story guest house opened in 1945 as the Hotel Portsmouth. President Truman is believed to have stayed here duringa visit to the shipyard. In the 1950s the name was changed to the Hotel Governor Dinwiddie to honor the Colonial Governor of Virginia; four Dinwiddie descendants were present at the renaming ceremony. After the 1960s it became a low-income apartment facility and suffered through a decade of vacancy until it was renovated in 2005.
St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church
518 High Street
St. Paul’s was the first Catholic congregation in Portsmouth, comprised of French and Irish immigrants. Their first church was raised between 1811 and 1815. After fires and expansions to accommodate a growing membership this is St. Paul’s fifth house of worship, completed in 1905 on designs by John Kevan Peebles.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO DINWIDDIE STREET AND TURN LEFT.
Monumental United Methodist Church
450 Dinwiddie Street
This is the third house of worship for the congregation that was founded in 1772, one of the oldest Methodist churches in Virginia. The first building was constructed in 1775 at the corner of South and Effington streets; this core of this brick and stucco church dates to 1831. Richmond architect Albert Lawrence West used the foundation of the building that had burned in 1864 to create this Victorian Gothic church. The two-part central tower soars 186 feet.
448 Dinwiddie Street
Looking to cash in on the 1849 California Gold Rush from their homes in Portsmouth, a group of businessmen led by Henry Victor Niemeyer set out to pre-fabricate houses for the exploding West Coast population. The pieces for their four-story kit houses were cut, numbered, crated and shipped around South America’s Cape Horn en route to San Francisco. The ready-to-assemble houses sold well until an earthquake caused many to separate at the seams. Three of the houses, including this one owned by Niemeyer’s sister and her family, had not yet been shipped to California when the earthquake hit and were sold and erected in Portsmouth.
TURN RIGHT ON QUEEN STREET.
450 Court Street at Queen Street
This building was constructed as two attached identical houses by George W. Grice, first elected mayor of the independent City of Portsmouth in 1856 for his two daughters. When the Civil War came to Portsmouth, the basement and the first floor of the house was used as a surgical theater - treating wounded Union soldiers. In the 20th century it spent time as the home of the city’s Catholic Club.
Court Street Baptist Church
447 Court Street at Queen Street
Established in 1789, the Portsmouth and Norfolk Baptist Church served as the first Baptist congregation in South Hampton Roads. The name was changed in 1791 to Portsmouth Baptist Church and again in 1855 to its current name, Court Street Baptist Church. This Romanesque Revival-style church is the third building to occupy the site and contains the cornerstone of the previous building.
TURN LEFT ON COURT STREET.
southeast corner of North Street and Court Street
This brick house was constructed in 1894 for Bank of Portsmouth president Beverly Arthur Armistead. It is an interpretation of the Romanesque style of legendary architect Henry Hobson Richardson, displaying such trademarks as stout, powerful arches, multiple materials and a rounded corner turret. The home was later used by the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Lodge 82 and since 1975 has served as the imaginary manor home of local television horror movie host, Doctor Madblood.
TURN RIGHT ON NORTH STREET.
221 North Street
Sea captain John Thompson built this four-story English basement home in the early 1800s. His nephew John Thompson Hill and his wife, son and five daughters became the primary residents. The Hill family lived here until 1962 altering the house only minimally. Today a house museum, it is furnished entirely with original family belongings.
218 North Street
This exuberant Victorian-era house is notable for its gracefully curving porch, plaster wreaths and garlands and stained glass on the upper floor windows.
202 North Street
With the wrought-iron balcony and graceful stairs, this 1820s house brings a splash of New Orleans to Portsmouth. In the mid-1960s it was the first house to be historically restored in Olde Towne.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO MIDDLE STREET AND TURN LEFT.
350 Middle Street at North Street
William H. Wilson opened the Macon Hotel along North Street in 1855 as a resort hotel. Access to the guest rooms came through his 1830s brick house on the corner. During the Civil War the spacious hotel was used as a barracks and a hospital; regimental numbers carved into the woodwork are still visible in some of the rooms today as the Macon Hotel lives on as three apartment buildings.
355 Middle Street
This is an excellent example of an English basement-style house, built around 1795 and scarcely altered in its 200+ year life. The house still retains its fire badge in the center of the basement posts indicating a contributor to the local volunteer fire department and the owner’s eligibility to have his house saved in case of a fire.
370 Middle Street
This splendid Gothic Revival frame house was built by Jack Nash in 1880. In 1894 the property was sold to Franklin Gill for $6,700.
Ball Nivson House
417 Middle Street
This 1780s house displays a sloping dormer roof that typified what was called a “tax dodger” house in the Virginia Colony to get around paying steep English taxes on two-story houses. Built by John Nivison, it originally stood on the corner of Crawford and Glasgow streets before being moved to this site in 1869 when it was acquired by the Ball family.
Odd Fellows Lodge
414 Middle Street
This imposing building began life in 1838 as a two-story Greek Revival school and lodge for the Odd Fellows. in 1910 when it was sold to be converted into residential apartments a third floor was added, not to the top but squeezed in the middle so as to retain the original temple-like appearance. The columns are brick swathed in stucco and the window lintels are granite.
TURN LEFT ON LONDON STREET.
108 London Street
This three-bay town home of Dutch origins with a steeply gabled roof was constructed in the 1820s by Captain John W. McRae. It features stone lintels over the windows and a graceful fanlight over the entrance door. McRae is thought to have been lost at sea shortly after the house was completed.
CONTINUE A FEW STEPS MORE ON LONDON STREET TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT ON THE PORTSMOUTH WATERFRONT.