To say that the Town of Montross and the county it resides in is steeped in history is about as big of an understatement as that of Lud Kissel calling his infamous fireworks display a “doozy” in his titular story. No other county can boast about being the birthplace of our first president, and few others can boast that they hold the ancestral home of a family that shaped the destiny of the country, as is the case with the Lees and Stratford Hall.
During the Montross Town Council’s monthly meeting in June, Elizabeth Clifford, along with several other representatives from the Eastern Division of the Department of Historic Resources (DHR) paid a visit to speak to the council about the establishment of a Historic District that would run through Montross, starting from the Chandler’s Mill Pond to just beyond the town’s corporate limits.
The DHR’s mission, according to Ms. Clifford, is to “foster, encourage, and support the stewardship of Virginia’s significant architectural, archaeological, and cultural resources.” The department has a variety of methods towards that end, which were touched upon during a power point presentation from Ms. Clifford.
The first talks about all of this took place back in 2013, when the town received a community development block grant fund, which kicked off a federal review process with the DHR. While the discussion about a historical district was had, at the time, it was not followed up on. Things picked up again in 2020 when funds from the National Park Service became available once more.
“Each of the regional offices were looking at places in their regions where there was no historic designation yet,” Ms. Clifford explained, “And so we started wondering ‘what are some places that might actually benefit from these funds?’ So we started working with the Westmoreland County Museum, the town, and the county about doing this.”
The DHR currently maintains two historical registers: the Virginia Landmarks Register, which was formed in 1966, and the National Register of Historic Places, which came about a year later, in 1967. In order to be put onto one of the registers, a spot has to meet three criteria: it has to be at least 50-years-old to be considered historic, meet at least one out of four National Register criteria, and must maintain a level of historic integrity.
The first criteria is beyond easy for Montross, as there are many structures whipped up well before 1971, from the RV store that used to be a movie theater to the old Courthouse and the Coke plant. The second criteria requires a spot to be associated with a historical event (such as a battlefield); associated with important persons; significant for architecture, engineering, and craftsmanship (such as Stratford Hall); or have information potential (such as an archaeology site). Many sites actually meet several of those requirements.
According to Ms. Clifford’s presentation, a common question is whether there are any restrictions after a designation has been placed, such as paint work. The answer is a simple “No.”
“This state and national designation is an honorary designation,” Ms. Clifford explained, “When you hear about things like a review of paint colors or construction, that’s local zoning at work. There are counties that have several historic zoning areas where you have to go to Richmond to get something reviewed, but we don’t do that. So this is a no-restriction designation; you don’t have to maintain the building, you could even tear it down and put up new buildings on the plot or make additions to older buildings.”
So what are the benefits of all of this? Well, as Ms. Clifford would explain it, there are a lot of community benefits, and awareness to be gained from such a designation. It can also help draw people in for special events, or for what is known as “heritage tourism,” where people go on road trips through the Northern Neck, tracking down the roots of their family tree. This designation can also be a powerful planning tool, as the Register was made by the National Preservation Act with that purpose in mind. There are economic benefits to be had, too, as historic easements can lower tax burdens on property owners, as well as personal recognition.
The suggested starting point in the case of a historic district here in Montross, as Ms. Clifford put it, is on the state and local level, particularly the old courthouse, as it was a part of Virginia state government.
As for how this is all going to be paid for, it comes out of the Emergency Historical Preservation Fund, a grant that was created in the wake of Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael back in 2018.
“This was appropriated by Congress for historic properties that were affected by those storms,” she continued, “There are 52 localities in Virginia that qualify for these funds, and almost all the counties in the Northern Neck are among them.”
After the repairs to various structures had been complete, however, there remained a decent wad of cash floating in limbo, which was then used to fund the creation of these historic districts. There is no cost to the town or county.
Also at the meeting was Debra McClane, a private consultant who has had a lot of work dealing with municipalities from one end of Virginia to the other, including Charlottesville and Virginia Beach.
“This is a great county, and there are so many historic resources here that most folks don’t know about,” McClane stated, “This project will result in a document that can be the first step to a lot more. This won’t be the final word on history here, but it will be good to have documentation of these buildings.”
As of the time of the meeting, the plan is to take care of all of the fieldwork required over the course of summer and fall. It is hoped that the nomination materials will be ready by next spring, and ultimately listed by next summer. A public hearing will also have to be held, as well as field surveys to get information on everything within the boundaries of the proposed area. At this point, communication between the Town Council, property owners, and the surveyors will be key.