Should Essex County Move Forward with Historical Documentation?
Essex County is undoubtedly one of the Nation’s most historically significant locales, yet like most of Virginia’s Northern and Middle Neck counties, only a small percentage of the county’s historic buildings and landscapes are actually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Indeed, only 13 individual properties and the Tappahannock downtown district in Essex County are listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. By most accounts, this list is hardly complete.
After all, Essex abounds with a diverse array of buildings, landscapes and archaeological resources representing over three centuries of European settlement, layered atop a dramatic landscape of Native American habitation for over 10,000 years. These historical layers include steamboat wharves and oyster houses; sunken rolling roads; African-American churches and schools; tobacco barns; slave escape venues; ancient Indian villages; country stores; and other tangible buildings and artifacts representing Essex County’s uniquely quintessential American story.
Should Essex County, Virginia, consider listing more of its resources on the National Register? What are the benefits? Are there downsides to listing a property on the National Register? These questions are best answered by reviewing a close study of ongoing historic documentation efforts in three Virginia counties; Clarke, Albemarle, and Fauquier.
Like Essex County, these counties are predominantly rural-agricultural and feature many surviving historical buildings. These three counties are extolled by citizenry as great places to live, work, and visit, and Clarke, Albemarle, and Fauquier are enthusiastically documenting as many of their historic resources as possible for listing on the National Register.
These worthy efforts are pursued via the application of cooperative initiatives emanating from local governments and community organizations. Clarke and Fauquier have both mapped well over a third (or more) of their respective land areas as either National Register, or National Register-eligible. Since 2001, Fauquier County officials have successfully co-joined with indigenous communities to list 16 historic villages and towns on the register, while citizen groups have simultaneously listed five large chunks of historic rural farmland on the register–one of which is a Civil War battlefield. Fauquier officials have emphasized to the skeptical that National Register listing is only an honorific status, and there are no regulatory impacts for property owners.
National Register and National Register-eligible districts in all three counties have resulted in greater recognition of underdocumented elements of American history. The nominations have resulted, for example, in better, more detailed and poignant documentation on systemic slavery, and the lives and contributions of Virginia’s African-American citizens through the listings of both pre- and post-Civil War African- American communities. These nominations have also recognized numerous small crossroad communities, Civil War battlefields, horse farms, dairy farms, and a host of other resources that help weave and interpret the human fabric underpinning America’s story. National Register districts in these three counties have enjoyed widespread community and local government support–although in a minority of cases, uninformed citizens have opposed the National Register concept.
Support for historic preservation and National Register listing has been increasing in this down economy as growing numbers of people recognize preservation’s many previously under-realized economic benefits. National Trust surveys indicate that almost 80% of all American tourists are identified as “heritage tourists,” who seek places to visit where the contributions of previous generations are authentically preserved. Further, these visitors spend on the average 30% more than other tourists. (National Register listing is limited to authentic well-documented historic resources.)
Fauquier County is currently in the process of developing online tours to entice visitors to its many diverse National Register districts as an economic development measure to support and encourage small local businesses like country stores and restaurants in these areas. As an example of increased preservation support, one only need look south of Fauquier in Culpeper County. Twenty years ago, county officials vehemently opposed any protection or recognition of the Brandy Station Civil War Battlefield, and now today the battlefield is showcased on the Culpeper county tourism website.
Further, also according to National Trust and other studies, the repair and maintenance of historic buildings both creates and sustains good paying local jobs, while at the same time it promotes community revitalization. For this reason, Federal and State governments have enacted historic rehabilitation tax credits. In Virginia, it is possible to combine federal historic tax credits (20%) and state historic tax credits (25% to save up to 45% on rehabilitation costs. Rehabilitation is not required under National Register listing. The tax credits available through National Register listing were established as an optional incentive. Owners can actually tear a National Register-listed building down if they feel it is necessary since listing does not affect underlying zoning rights.
Property owners in any area that might be being considered for listing on the National Register have a vote in the final decision. A property will not be listed if, for individual properties, the owner objects, or for districts, a majority of property owners object. In addition to tax credits, other benefits of listing include potential protections from insensitive state or federally funded or licensed infrastructure projects, such as new highways, transmission lines, or road widenings.
However, the greatest benefit from National Register listing may well be how listing builds and strengthens community pride and identity, and thereby encourages landscape and architectural preservation. The professional standard for documenting most resources for ultimate listing–a process termed a “cultural landscape” approach– helps to foster community pride because this process evaluates all of a community’s historic resources as a set or collection, and as a set the whole is of course greater than the sum of its parts.
When utilizing a cultural landscape evaluation for both town districts and rural historic districts, all the elements of a community’s story are documented that are found in a particular landscape or area. This means all the layers of history present, ranging from Native American Indian archaeological sites to early- and mid- 20th-century river wharves and hunting lodges, are documented and recognized as significant parts of a historic area. The cultural landscape approach allows structures that would not be individually eligible to be listed on the register to be recognized as “contributing” structures, and as such they are eligible for historic tax credits.
Indeed, in Fauquier County, the town and rural historic districts documented via a cultural landscape approach have resulted in the listing of well over 1,500 historic structures as contributing structures on the National Register, most of which would not be individually eligible for listing. Cultural landscape documentation also happens to be the most cost effective and efficient method to document a community’s history and there are often public funds available to match with local private and public funding for these nominations. Clarke, Albemarle, Fauquier and other counties have all utilized a mix of public and private funding for their National Register listings.
Another measure worth exploring is the use of multiple property or thematic National Register nominations. Thematic nominations would allow more listings of scattered properties that bear some significant historic or cultural relationship with each other (country stores, schools, mills, churches, boatyards, etc. )
In light of how three other counties similar in nature to Essex County have seized upon National Register listings as both an economic development and community revitalization tool, Essex County citizens and elected officials would be wise to chart a similar path forward. To “chart” is the right term to use to rightfully showcase more of Essex County’s unique and interesting Rappahannock River history on the National Register of Historic Places!