German and Scotch-Irish settlers pushed down into the Roanoke Valley from Pennsylvania in the early 1740s and by 1746 this area carried the name “Big Lick.” It came by its name honestly as the marshy conditions of the salt lick and the lack of a dependable supply of fresh water inhibited attempts to establish towns. Only the town of Salem would establish a lasting foothold.

In 1838 enough homesteaders had arrived to warrant the creation of Roanoke County. A few years earlier William Rowland had purchased land in what would one day be downtown Roanoke and laid out building lots. The town was chartered as Gainesborough, taking its name from Rowland’s partner, Kemp Gaines. The development did not, however cause a growth explosion - tax rolls listed four buildings in Gainesborough and six next door in Big Lick.

The railroad arrived in 1852 and the town began to stir, although progress was temporarily impeded by the Civil War. Big Lick was chartered as a town in 1874 as the population reached 600. In 1881, however, the Shenandoah Valley Railroad that ran north-south from Hagerstown, Maryland merged with the Atlantic, Mississippi & Ohio Railroad whose lines ran east-west. After an inducement of $10,000 and other concessions, Big Lick was chosen as the intersection and headquarters for the newly named Norfolk & Western Railway Company. Big Licksters immediately offered to rename their town after railroad president Frederick J. Kimball but he demurred in favor of “Roanoke,” an Indian term roughly translating to “shell money.”

The town was launched on a decades-long boom that established it as the dominant city in southwest Virginia. The railroad and its great maintenance shops would drive Roanoke for much of the next 75 years. Steam engines continued to roll off its tracks until 1953. Other industries, including enormous cellulose factories followed, pushing the population of the city proper to 100,000 with three times as many people in the surrounding area.

As befits its legacy as a railroad town, we’ll start our walking tour hard by the historic tracks in the plaza at the intersection of Norfolk Avenue and Market Street and begin by looking across to a relic that dates back to the very earliest days of train travel in Roanoke...

Hotel Roanoke
(across the Norfolk Southern’s railroad tracks visible from Market Street)

The Norfolk and Western Railway constructed the original Hotel Roanoke at its depot in 1882. The luxury hotel has seen many expansions and renovations over the years - the distinctive half-timbered Tudor Revival appearance dates to 1938. A parade of the rich and famous have bunked here, including a half-dozen U.S. Presidents. In the 190s the historic property was deeded to Virginia Tech and re-opened as a hotel and conference complex. The hotel is well known for its signature dish, peanut soup, invented by Chef Fred Brown in 1940 and still served today. For a close-up look you can use the pedestrian bridge over the tracks. 


City Market Building
Campbell Avenue and Market Street

From the earliest days of the city this has been a designated market area - in 1882 licenses were issued to 25 vendors known as “Hucksters.” In 1884 the City Charter authorized a municipally owned market. The original market building went up in flames and in1922 the vendor stalls were gathered in this Georgian Revival brick building.


Wachovia Tower
10 South Jefferson Street at southeast corner of Salem Avenue

The new king of the Roanoke skyline, with its 50-foot copper-colored pyramid, arrived in 1992 under the auspices of the Dominion Bank. The 320-foot high-rise contains 1,260 windows and is illuminated at night with 135 separate floodlights. 


Liberty Trust Building
101 South Jefferson Street at northwest corner of Salem Avenue

The First National Bank, chartered with the founding of the town in 1882, moved from the Terry Building into its own high-rise in 1901. Norfolk architect John Kevan Peebles designed the heavily rusticated, classically-inspired bank on a granite base. With its ornate entrance, cornices and rooftop balustrade the final price tag came in at $175,000. It stood as the tallest building in Roanoke until the 1920s; in 1926 it was acquired by the Liberty Trust Company.


Colonial Arms Building
204 Jefferson Street at southwest corner of Campbell Avenue

Peyton Leftwich Terry, a Confederate Army veteran, developed the most extensive business interests, including a milling enterprise, in the county. In 1892 he erected Roanoke’s first skyscraper, the Terry Building, on this site. A nationwide financial panic struck Terry hard and his Roanoke Trust, Loan and Safe Deposit Company failed in 1896, two years before his death at the age of 63. The Terry Building was replaced in the 1920s by a twelve-story Neoclassical high-rise headquarters for the Colonial National Bank. Resting on a three-story base of granite ashlar, the Colonial reigned as the city’s tallest building for some fifty years.

First National Exchange Bank of Roanoke
201 Jefferson Street at northwest corner of Campbell Street

Architects Wyatt & Nolting of Baltimore used Georgia marble to craft the city’s first Neoclassical bank in 1913. To project the necessary strength and stability the building is outfitted with a platoon of engaged fluted Ionic columns and guarded by a parade of lion heads around the cornice.


Asberry Building
17 Campbell Avenue West  

This Victorian Gothic-flavored building of red brick and terra cotta was the first home of the National Business College after it was founded in 1886 by J.A. Trimmer to provide business education in the southeastern United States. The building carries the name of A.S. Asberry, who served as town postmaster. In the 1890s the City of Roanoke had to sue Asberry to collect the $101.75 assessment levied on landowners to pave Campbell Street.  

Hancock Building
35 West Campbell Avenue at northeast corner of First Street

In 1905 Charles G. Bush and W.R. Hancock joined forces to bring the very best class of trade to Roanoke in clothes and gentleman’s furnishings. Hancock Dry Goods had been operating in multiple buildings at this location since 1898. The buildings were unified in an Art Deco style by N.W. Pugh Department Store in 1929 with detailed geometric patterns in terra cotta. In 1965 new owners Grand Piano and Furniture Company entombed the original mosaics in yellow brick and the distinctive facade was lost to the Roanoke streetscape for more than 40 years. In 2007 the original Art Deco appearance emerged in a redevelopment to convert the space into residential apartments. 

Ferguson/State & City Building
104 Campbell Avenue West at southwest corner of First Street

This three-story bank building from 1905 was given a Neoclassical make-over with an addition of five stories and a new rusticated ashlar base. Look up to see the gargoyles that have lorded over the city for nearly a century. 

Giles Bros. Furniture Company
108 Campbell Avenue West

This was the home of Giles Bros. & Britts Home Furnishings when the building was re-fitted in 1904 with a heavy metal cornice supported by large brackets. Although Giles is long gone from this location its legacy has been restored to this four-story building as it is converted into multi-use functions.

Montgomery Ward Store
110 Campbell Avenue West

Look up above the altered street level to see the patterned brick and cast stone geometric patterns of this 1930 Art Deco of this three-story, eight-bay brick building. It once housed a retail arm of the original mail-order firm of Montgomery Ward. 

Ponce De Leon Hotel/Crystal Tower Building
145 West Campbell Avenue at northeast corner of 2nd Street

This corner has historically been the site of a hotel, initially the Trout House back in the 1800s. A fire destroyed the Trout House and in its stead rose the grand Ponce de Leon Hotel, a five-story French Empire confection rendered in gleaming white brick. The Ponce De Leon reigned as Roanoke’s leading hotel until it too was felled by fire on December 29, 1930. It was rebuilt in the popular Art Deco style of the day, festooned with elaborate stone carvings and highlighted by a stylish parapet at the roofline. Its name was changed by a local developer to the Crystal Tower in the 1960s and the hotel kept an active register until the 1990s. It has since been converted to office space. Incidentally, the building comes by its spring-related names honestly - it was constructed over an active stream that is still fed by an underground spring.

Roanoke Times
201 West Campbell Avenue at northwest corner of 2nd Street

 The Roanoke Times traces its history back to 1886 and is still one of the country’s most-read local papers in its coverage area. The modern building incorporates parts of an original 1910 newspaper plant and expansions in 1948 and 1986. 


City Hall/Municipal Building
west side of Second Street, SW between Church Avenue and Campbell Avenue

Richmond-born architect Aubrey Chesterman teamed with Edward G. Frye in 1900 at the age of 25 to create many of Virginia’s finest and most important buildings. Here they contributed a regal Neoclassical home for the Roanoke government in 1915. The splendidly proportioned entranceway is marked by a quartet of fluted Ionic columns. The City Hall once sat stately in the middle of the block, surrounded by a treeless lawn. It gave way to a new municipal building next door in 1971, named for mayor Noel C. Taylor.

Commonwealth of Virginia Building
220 Church Avenue at southwest corner of Second Street

This three-story, 15-bay brick building was a Depression-era project to provide Roanoke with a post office and federal courthouse. It sports a strong stone base with a parade of arched windows and upper stories set off by projecting Ionic pilasters. On the northeast corner of the property the Roanoke Valley War Memorial was created in the 1980s.

Greene Memorial United Methodist Church
402 Second Street, SW and Church Avenue
 This gray stone Gothic Revival church was erected by the St. Mark’s Lutheran congregation in 1892. Its stand-out belltower rests on pilings sunk as deep as the tower is high because the church was constructed atop hollow limestone caverns. But within ten years the Lutherans could no longer afford their showcase building and traded it to the Greene United Methodist Church for their modest brick sanctuary. The Greene congregation, founded in 1859, has been here ever since. 


Texas Tavern
114 West Church Street

In the early days of the Great Depression Isaac N. (Nick) Bullington worked as an advance man for the Ringling Brothers circus, scouting locations and booking shows. In his off hours he collected road food recipes with the idea of starting a short order eatery. He whittled down possible locations for his dream restaurant to ten cities and settled on Roanoke as an up-and-cming railroad town. Four generations of Bullingtons and nearly ten million hot dogs later the Texas Tavern remains a 24-hour Roanoke institution.


Patrick Henry Hotel
617 South Jefferson Street  

In the 1920s small city Chamber of Commerces across America came to the conclusion that a first-class high-rise hotel was essential to the future of their cities. New York architect William Stoddard was a beneficiary of this wave of civic boosterism, winning many such commissions, including the Patrick Henry. Stoddard delivered an ornate Georgian Revival ten-story dark brick building wrapped in a stone base that was opened in 1925.The venerable hotel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991 but was on a downhill slide. A recent multi-million dollar refurbishment has converted its 125 guest rooms into 133 apartments and commercial space. Across the street is Elmwood Park, the former estate of Peyton Terry, Roanoke’s most ambitious early builder and first millionaire.

Boxley Building
416 South Jefferson Street  

When this eight-story building rose in 1922 it was the city’s tallest. William Wise Boxley went to work building railroads at an early age. He established his company’s headquarters in Roanoke in 1906, straightening and double-tracking the main lines of the Norfolk & Wester, the Chesapeake & Ohio and the Virginian Railway. Two years later the Boxley Company opened its first quarry 58 miles west of town to furnish ballast and concrete for railroads and eventually paved roads. The quarries and crushing mills would ultimately become the main business of the company. William Boxley was elected mayor of Roanoke in 1918 despite being aligned with no political party. He was an advocate for transforming Roanoke into a modern city and commissioned Edward G. Frye and Edward Stone to design a new headquarters for his company to do just that. The Boxley Building was constructed in the popular fashion to resemble a classical column with a prominent base of granite, the unadorned shaft of light brick on the middle floors and an ornate capital in the form of a decorative copper cornice. The building opened in 1921.

Painted Wall Signs
Church Avenue parking lot, northwest corner of Jefferson Street

Advertisements painted on Roanoke brick walls was a common early 20th century site, created by itinerant painters called “wall dogs.” Faded signs are referred to as “ghost signs” and many have been restored across the city streets.


Fire Station Number 1
13 Church Avenue

Roanoke began paying its firefighters in 1906 and broke ground on this fire station. The Lynchburg architectural firm of Huggins and Bates drew inspiration for its design from Philadelphia’s Independence Hall with an open belltower above a red brick and terra cotta facade. Five years later the city’s first engine-powered fire truck arrived at Station Number 1. The building served the fire department for 100 years, one of the longest tenures in Virginia history, and landed Station Number 1 on the National Register of Historic Places.

Friendship Fountain
Church Avenue at Market Street  

Erected in 1987, the fountain pays tribute to Roanoke’s seven Sister Cities around the world, whose flags fly around its perimeter. Those cities:  Florianópolis, Brazil; Kisumu, Kenya; Lijiang, Yunnan, China; Pskov, Russia; Saint-Lô, France; Wonju, South Korea; Opole, Poland.

Norfolk Southern Building
110 Franklin Road SE (fronting on Church Avenue)  

The Norfolk and Western Railway, now Norfolk Southern, grew through over 200 railroad mergers from a nine-mile line in Petersburg, Virginia in 1838 into a system serving 14 states on more than 7,000 miles of road. It became the Norfolk and Western in 1881 and the following year consolidated with the Shenandoah Valley Railroad. A small Virginia village called Big Lick was chosen as the junction for the two lines, cementing the future of the newly named Roanoke as a railroad town. The Roanoke Shops, where legendary locomotives would be designed, built and maintained, made Norfolk and Western known industrywide for its excellence in steam power. In 1883 the railway carried the second shipment of coal from the Pocahontas coalfields to the mayor of Norfolk, launching what would become its signature product. The ten-story Norfolk Southern Building was erected in 1992.   


Hartsook Building
101 Market Square

Thomas Everhart Benton Hartsook migrated from Maryland in 1891 and set up shop. He replaced his store in 1896 with this two-story brick building from which he orchestrated a wide-ranging real estate empire.

The McGuire Building/Center in the Square
One Market Square

In 1914 W.E. McGuire constructed a five-story building here to sell buggies, wagons, farm implements and canvas bags of seed and fertilizer. In the 1980s, after a $7.5 million makeover, the building became the home of five arts and science organizations.

Fox Bargain Store
Campbell Avenue and Market Street  

This low-rise red-brick Neoclassical building came courtesy of the Commercial Development Company in 1908. Some of the classical elements you can spot include large tripartite windows accentuated with stone keystones, brick pilasters, and a decorative cornice propped up by beefy brackets and sporting modillion blocks. The most famous tenant here was Isadore Fox who helmed a bargain store for 55 years.